Monday, 22 February 2016

Boris Johnson's alternative histories

Counterfactual history is controversial. To recap, it's the idea that you can play with some of the variables in the past and try to see where events would have washed you with a critical bit of the story taken out, reversed or altered. So what if Charles I of England had never gone for that Prayer Book gamble in Scotland? What if James II had held his nerve in 1688? What if the Armada had made it to the shores of the Spanish Netherlands, and then of England? What if Halifax, rather than Churchill, had become Prime Minister in that critical meeting with the King in 1940? And so on. The genre is usually associated these days with Niall Ferguson's collection entitled Virtual History, published in the late 1990s, and it's a book that's spawned endless imitations. But this thread of thinking goes further back - into economic history, for instance, and the question of what the United States would have looked like in the late nineteenth century without a railway system.

Now you can have a go at picking apart lots of these ideas, if you want to. One main criticism, of course, is that it's hard - perhaps almost impossible - to single out one element you can change without lots of the others being different as well. There are lot of gears here. A lot of moving parts in play. So your judgement as to what would change based on what you know - and historians are often storehouses for a lot of sheer, raw detail about their periods - might not really be taking into account the networked web of cause, effect and counter-cause that we're really looking at. The writer's perspective on the knock-on effects of a single alteration (highly subjective outside the formulae and models of economics, themselves theoretical constructs) aren't therefore the limit of critics' scepticism. One might reply that the determinism and questionable logic of 'things had to happen that way, they were determined, look at all the factors or causes lining up' is just as problematical: the debate is an interesting one.

But what if you could abandon these debates for a moment, and use the technique looking forward? Because British politics' tumult, especially over the last few days, does now seem to be leading to a defining moment of decision. In or out of the European Union. Continuing with the United Kingdom in its present form, or breaking up. European trade - or the world. And, of course, after yesterday's intervention by the Mayor of London, the relatively minor matter of whether David Cameron should be able to serve out his term and define his own legacy, or whether he should be bundled out of power this year by a certain chaotically-haired opportunist and fantasist whose name just happens to start with 'B' and end with 'Oris' (above) - not that that's the way they'd complete the word in Downing Street, but still. What if you could look at a politics counterfactual going forwards? Look at the disjuncture in our politics that will either see the rapids bubble and roar in summer and autumn, or return to their relatively placid course of the spring and summer?

Let's have a proper look, because two roads clearly diverge in front of us. The EU referendum campaign now looks likely to be quite tight. It might not be, but it probably will be. So voters hold in their own hands - in their wisdom-of-the-crowds collective decisions - one of the following scenarios. Pictures of the future that illustrate that agency, as well as structure, is critical in the making of narrative junctures and disjunctures.

The first: a relatively small Remain victory. David Cameron emerges from No. 10. He rather smugly declares victory. Labour people who've surprised themselves cheering him on for weeks suddenly feel a bit queasy, but relieved in any case that the social legislation and worker protection laws of the EU has been protected, by whatever means necessary. Mr Cameron then holds a reshuffle in which he demotes a few Leavers, but in the main stays his hand in the interests of party unity. Think Harold Wilson in 1975, all father-of-the-nation relaxation and wisdom. Britain's place in the EU - albeit in a rather semi-detached form - is assured for the next generation. Mr Cameron is probably replaced in 2018-19 by a Eurosceptical leader, but it's still not clear who that might be. If Priti Patel's perceived to be a bit right-wing for the electorate, perhaps another Outer like Dominic Raab might fit the bill. Or a sceptic-who-went-to-Remain, perhaps a grey John Major-style figure such as Philip Hammond. It's hard to see past Boris right now, and he might still seize the crown, but his defeat in the referendum would inevitably dull his lustre. Things can change. So the future of the Conservative Party - and the premiership - would be up in the air.

The second alternative: there's a razor-thin win for Leave, won in part by the half-true jokes and aphorisms that pour out of Mr Johnson. Mr Cameron resigns. Labour people suddenly realise that things can actually get worse for them when Mr Johnson immediately turns up at No. 10 patting his suit trousers with clammy hands, looking at the ground and throatily shouting about 'whiff waff' and 'piff paff'. The voters (inexplicably) love it. He negotiates British entry into the European Economic Area and basically accepts all the European Union's rules without Britain any longer having any say in them. Conservative Eurosceptics realise they've been had, but it's too late. Like an absurd microwavable version of General de Gaulle called back to power to protect France, or Benjamin Disraeli overturning Sir Robert Peel as his leader over free trade, he would have done it in order to be in charge himself, reasoning that Europe will be okay as long as he's running the show. What did de Gaulle and Disraeli then do? Exactly the same as the people they replaced. And that's what London's soon-to-be ex-Mayor will do. Like the good Europhile Boris privately is, he'll then start touring European capitals clinking glasses and speaking loads of languages - all the while laughing at his backbench underlings and their gullible ways.

Then he'll appeal for a personal mandate to confirm his 'new deal' with the EU, dare Labour to face him down, win the vote and cruise to a vast Parliamentary majority that will entrench him in power for a decade. Before appointing Michael Gove as Chancellor, planning to cut public spending much more ferociously than George Osborne ever did. Scotland will hold a second independence referendum and vote to leave him to it, join the EU (as well as the Euro) and entrench a hard currency and travel border splitting the island in two. Boris will zipwire across it and land (face first) in the mud. Everyone will giggle and say 'good old Boris'. They'll laugh along with a man who somehow manages to combine a terrifying basilisk stare of ambition with the weasel face of a furtive conspirator. A man who you wouldn't trust to put out Larry the Downing Street cat's food bowl without fearing he'd walk off with it. Someone who you know in your heart is an utter, utter, utter fraud and mendacious trickster, a calculating master of the mask and the pose, a bender and a twister with an icy political heart the size of a frozen pea, will have triumphed over all and any opposition. The resistible rise of your tinpot braided tomfool of a dictator will be complete.

This is what's inside Boris' head, the echo chamber of a poor man's Silvio Berlusconi endlessly replaying his own triumphs and legends back to himself. That's what you can see behind those faux-puppydog eyes of his, darting from side to side as he seeks friends and advantage among what he imagines are the admiring crowds. That's the fools he wants to make of you. Many of his opponents (not least Labour) are now too weak to stop him. But you're not. You have a vote, dear reader. You can use it, in June, to help kick Boris and his ambitions back where they belong - into the dustbin of history.