There’s a genre of fiction which is known as ‘alternative history’. Coupled with its close brother ‘counterfactual’ it imagines what would have happened in a real period of our history if it didn’t turn out the way that it did?
Alternative history will usually be based on the idea of a butterfly effect, that notion that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in one part of the world can have so many unforeseen knock on effects, each gradually more consequential, that it will eventually cause a hurricane on the other side of the globe.
There have been a great many notable examples of alternative history fiction, many centred around the Second World War; if you’re looking for recommendations why not try Robert Harris’ wonderful Fatherland, set in a Britain in which Nazi Germany won the war; or watch Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle with a similar premise but this time based in the United States.
I’ve been thinking an awful lot about alternative history this week with the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of VE Day and wondering what the Second World War would have been like, and in particular our response to a Prime Minister such as Winston Churchill, if we had the same media, websites and attitudes as we do of today.
Would the Dunkirk evacuation have been seen as an heroic rear guard action protecting the lives of servicemen, assisted by a hotch potch of small fishing boats? Or would it be condemned as a failure to plan by Mrs Jones using ALL CAPITALS on Facebook, because she had overnight become a wartime logistics expert?
Would the blitz be blamed on the marauding hordes of the Luftwaffe? Or would the Piers Morgan of his day be conducting diatribes on television because the Prime Minister wasn’t appearing on his show but was doing so on a rival network?
In a world of 24 hour news and lack of deference do we honestly think a wartime Prime Minister would have been given five years to deliver a victory, or would the calls for replacement, appeasement or surrender be coming far, far earlier?
Would we have accepted that in a terrible war not brought about by choice inevitably people would die, even innocent ones, and that didn’t necessarily mean that a wartime cabinet was doing a bad job?
All of those are questions which may well have had a material effect on the outcome of the Second World War. All of those questions are pertinent to how the battle against Coronavirus is being managed today.
On Sunday night the Prime Minister spoke to the nation to set out a roadmap for moving the country out of Coronavirus lockdown.
It was always going to be a far harder proposition to do so than the much simpler previous message of ‘Stay Home Save Lives’.
After two long months in lockdown people are missing their loved ones, worried about their employment and in many, many cases simply bored.
Just like the folly of trying to turn the debate about leaving the European Union into a binary Remain or Leave choice, there can never be a switch which can be turned on or off between lockdown and normality.
The notion of Stay Alert is as clear or as complex as you want to make it, increasingly decided upon whether you support the government or not.
To many ‘Stay Alert’ will mean a simple ‘stay at home as much as you can, but if you don’t then take sensible social distancing precautions’. To others it will be a catalogue of ‘what ifs’ which in and of themselves would create a whole alternative history subgenre.
There will come a time after the Coronavirus outbreak has been controlled, if not completely defeated, that an inquiry will take place. It is inevitable.
That inquiry will look at how we as a nation have compared with others. Are there clear reasons why death tolls, if not rates, were much higher than other countries? Was it because we live in cities with higher population density? Is it because we are more often overweight? Is it because as a culture we value our freedom and independence more than arguably historically authoritarian nations such as Germany or Japan?
All of these things may, or equally may not, be factors.
One thing, however, is inevitable. The government will have made mistakes. Even in attempting to follow scientific advice it will be clear that different scientists will have interpreted data in different ways.
It will be likely, if not certain, that testing wasn’t ramped up as quickly as anyone would have liked; that just in time PPE distribution did not work as well as it should have; and that there was insufficient attention on care home residents.
Almost certainly history will look on Sunday night’s roadmap and question whether the messaging could not have been clearer, almost certainly we will quickly come to the conclusion that ‘yes, it could’.
There will be mistakes made because at times when the normal order is overturned, just like these unprecedented days, there always are.
It should escape no one’s attention that immediately after the end of the Second World War a General Election was held which resulted in a heroic wartime leader being ousted in a landslide.
Whilst, with the benefit of hindsight, Churchill had made mistakes he had also led his nation to famous victory and freedom.
It may well be the case Boris Johnson will be treated in exactly the same way as his illustrious predecessor and arguable role model. Even if the inevitable inquiry were to completely exonerate him then he may find himself turfed out on his ear at the first opportunity. Who knows?
In the world of politics there is always a tendency before taking action to think how you might be impacting on your future electoral prospects. To do so misses the single most important point about why you entered political life in the first place. Politicians become politicians because they want to serve.
There is no one in Britain right now that has a more important or difficult job than the Prime Minister. I’m sure that lesser people would, even now, be factoring in a path of least damage to their future electoral prospects.
It’s a mark of a great leader and a great human being to not even consider such a prospect.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s speech to the nation I was going through social media and one tweet stuck out to me more than any other, a tweet from the BBC journalist Jon Sopel, who typed “Lots of unanswered questions in what @BorisJohnson said tonight, yes, but it seems to have driven by science and precautionary principle. Not electoral politics. (one can argue over qs of competence and msging). And that’s v diff from @realDonaldTrump and @WhiteHouse where I report from”
And ultimately isn’t that what we want from our leaders? Someone not bothered, for all of their failings, by electoral politics?
The Prime Minister is undoubtedly flawed, we knew that when we elected him, but wouldn’t we take leadership over opportunism any day of the week? A cause over party political shenanigans?
That’s who I would rather have on my side in any version of history – real of alternative.
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This piece was first published in the Catholic Universe newspaper