Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Accidental UK

I often wonder how Britain would have turned out today if certain world events had not gone quite the way they did. Because, as any historian will tell you, history is most definitely not a long sequence of predictable outcomes. Rather, it is a series of throws of the dice, random results and accidents, every one of which could have gone a very different way, with vastly differing consequences for all subsequent events.

The historical record is in fact littered with moments where something utterly different, or the exact opposite – or nothing at all – could just as easily have happened.

So for a bit of fun, I thought I might try my own hand at counter-factual history. It’s what no serious historian will admit to doing but for many it's an obsession. The idea behind it is this: if history is all one long inexorable progression of inevitable facts and dates, how come no one actually knows what’s going to happen next? Just as random things happen today, events in the past could equally well have had many outcomes.

The relevance for all you budding English and Scottish nationalists out there - or indeed for any political activist - is this: if you can’t see all the possible outcomes at certain key historical turning points, how on earth can you recognize the possibilities that lie right in front of you at this very moment?

For me, this is what makes history interesting.

Take, for example, the Spanish Armada: if it had avoided the storm, dealt with the English fire-ships and allowed Parma to mount a successful Spanish invasion of England in 1588, England might well have reverted to Catholicism after its brief flirtation with Protestantism. The plantation of Ulster would never have happened, the Americas could have become entirely Spanish and Catholic(1), regal union with Scotland would not have occurred in 1603, and England would have been divided religiously from Protestant Scotland instead of Catholic Ireland.

Or had the wind that held the French fleet off the Irish coast turned, allowing them to land at Bantry Bay in December 1796, it might easily have led to a successful French invasion(2), sparking an Irish rebellion two years earlier than 1798 and possibly the end to British rule in Ireland, which would have had a republic 125 years earlier, a base for any subsequent French war with Britain, and the Peace of Amiens might have held.(3) Napoleon might have died in his sleep in Paris as an old man.

Or if General Lee’s strategic intentions had not been discovered via his lost Special Order No. 191, the South’s invasion of the North might then have been an enormous success, the traumatised Northern population would have sued for peace and the South would have won the Confederate War of Independence. Lincoln's war to save the Union would have failed, and the Confederacy would have become the independent CSA with a slave-based cotton economy.(4) With the defeat of the American democratic experiment, US General Sheridan would not have toured Germany in 1870 to advise the Germans on how to wage total war on the French(5) , the French would not have thirsted for revenge for 44 years, the catastrophe of WW1 might have been averted, and Martin Luther King would not have been demanding civil rights in 1963, but an end to slavery.

As for Britain, if the South had won, the franchise would probably not have been extended there in the wake of the US Civil War. Patriotic British historians like to dispute this, arguing that Lincoln’s victory had minimal influence on Britain’s own idea to extend the franchise with the Reform Act of 1867.(6) However, the evidence strongly suggests that with their powerful pro-Confederate bias, Britain’s ruling landowning classes would have liked nothing better than to see American popular democracy crushed.(7) A year after Appomattox in April 1866, Gladstone recognised the true significance of the victory:
“The one single and important point of the effect that has been produced in America by a largely-extended population franchise [is] …the wonderful…almost incredible effect that has been produced by that system of giving expression to the national will…we ought to… appropriate the lessons.”(8)

And without the vote of the working class, Keir Hardie would have had no reason to form the Labour Party.(9)

And if in 1914 General Oskar Potiorek had remembered to tell Archduke Ferdinand’s driver of the change of route, they would have avoided Gavrilo Princip, who had given up waiting for them and was having a sandwich.(10) There would have been no assassination, no ultimatum, and the First World War might easily have been avoided. With Britain not distracted by war, there would have been no Easter Rising in Dublin. Neither would there have been a Russian Revolution, a lost generation, German hyperinflation, a Nazi Party, and the British Empire could have lasted another hundred years.

The British parliament might also have passed the first Scottish Home Rule Bill of 1913, already approved on its first reading.(11) Instead, in the rush to war it was forgotten, and rather than getting a devolved Scottish parliament within the Imperial British state on the edge of a peaceful Europe, Scotland saw 110,000 of her sons sent to their deaths in the trenches, nearly 20% of Britain’s war dead.(12)

A sobering thought, and something to think about for those who think Scottish nationalism is a recent reaction to the discovery of oil.

There is also something here to ponder for those who think there is something special, noble, pre-ordained, planned or sacred in the structure of the United Kingdom today. As we have seen, history shows it to be little more than a series of ad hoc reactions to historical accidents - which will continue to happen - and that the current political structure has no more legitimacy than any other.


(1) Geoffrey Parker, “The Repulse of the English Fireships: the Spanish Armada Triumphs, August 8, 1588”, in What If?, Pan, London, 1999, pages 139-154

(2) It was a significant French invasion force of 15,000 troops.


(4) Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191 novels deal with this perfectly plausible scenario, and extend the timeline as far as WW1.

(5) When the French defeat at Sedan in 1870 did not lead to expected cessation in hostilities from the French people, US General Sheridan gave the following advice to Bismarck: “The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy’s army, and then in causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.” As the record shows, Bismarck subsequently followed Sheridan's advice.
Henry R. Winkler, Review of ‘Heard Round the World: The Impact Abroad of the Civil War,’ in The Journal of American History, 56, 2. Sep.1969, pages 388-389

(6) A typical denial is found in David M. Potter, Political Science Quarterly, 86, 2, June 1971, p288.

(7) Dean B. Mahin, One war at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War, Brasseys, Dulles VA, 2000, pages 25-26

(8) From H.R. Allen,‘Civil War, Reconstruction and Great Britain,’ in Heard Round the World: The Impact Abroad of the Civil War, Harold Hyman (ed.), Knopf, New York, 1969, p48

(9) In 1888 Keir Hardie helped form the Scottish Labour Party (no connection with the Unionist lapdogs of today), whose party president was the socialist Robert Cunninghame-Graham, who went on to found the National Party of Scotland, forerunner to the SNP. In 1893 Hardie then helped form the Independent Labour Party in England.


(11) Murray G.H. Pittock, Scottish Nationality, Palgrave, New York, 2001, pages 100-102

(12) Pittock, p103


scunnert said...

A very interesting post. Like you, I have occasionally pondered the what ifs of history. For example: what if the present economic crisis had been delayed two more years? Brown would have been out after the last conference, a general election called, and a Conservative government elected to Westminster.

How would Scotland have voted? I think a very large contingent of SNP MP's would have been elected. Possibly even a majority.

OutLander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
OutLander said...

Anything can happen between now and the election. Brown will be praying for the distraction that makes him look decisive, or for Cameron to slip.

What makes it so very dangerous at the moment is that the Labour Party is fighting for its life with the apparatus of the entire British state at its disposal.

Events can be made to happen.