Sunday, 7 March 2010

A Foot Misses by a Mile

In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Andrew Roberts penned a (possibly slightly) tongue-in-cheek article speculating about what would have happened if Michael Foot had become Prime Minister in 1983

To be honest, it’s a massive insult to the serious study of counterfactual history and instead panders to the prejudices of the Daily Mail readership which is daily bombarded by the odious propaganda line that anything to do with Labour is bad and most things to do with the Conservatives are good.

In truth, the Daily Mail is a deeply unpleasant newspaper which, while claiming to speak for some fictitious moral majority somewhere in “Middle England”, instead panders to the basest of prejudices, opinions and preconceptions. Celebrities are regularly trashed, individuals vilified and the clarion tone is of a rather pompous, superior and one might even say smug and priggish tome which believes in nothing other than its own moral superiority.

The assault on Michael Foot, who is of course now dead and cannot defend himself (the fact is the Daily Mail seems to pick on those individuals and organisations which cannot defend themselves) is dressed up as some form of wacky alternate history which makes a serious of grotesque assumptions about how Michael Foot might have behaved and how, by inference, Labour would have destroyed Britain and thank God we had the Blessed Margaret who saved us all from the nasty “lefties”.

The serious study of alternate history makes no such assumptions or moral judgements. We do not know what a Foot administration would have looked like or how it would have behaved. One could take the example of Bob Hawke’s Australia is one of a country which elected a left-wing Government which presided over the economic transformation of the country. The Daily Mail assumes that the Left is always wrong about everything and that the Left, in power, would make a mess but that’s not a valid assumption when considering historical events.

One could argue that a Labour Government in the 1980s would have been different to the Thatcher Governments but there might have been similarities too. We simply don’t know.

In the same way, it is often argued that had the Nazis invaded and occupied Britain in July 1940 and gone on to win the second world war, the future would have been unspeakably horrific. Again, while it’s possible to argue that in many ways that could be true, the ultimate failure of Soviet Communism leads credence to the argument that over time the ideological excesses of Naziism might have eased and something more akin to democracy might have evolved out of the wreckage but that’s not a view which would have wide support.

The counterfactual historian has to eschew prejudice or moral judgement and consider the unpalatable. Had Labour governed Britain in the 1980s, it would be a different country now – recognisable, still British, but different. It MIGHT even be better than the country we live in now in some ways. To assume that in every way it would be worse is as foolish as saying that in every way it would be better.

RIP Michael Foot – you deserve much better than this.

No comments: