Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures
Jeremy Black
Indiana University Press  252pp  £20.99

On May 7th, 2015, as the polls closed, it seemed certain that the Tories or, more likely, Labour, would have to form a coalition or govern Britain without an overall majority. Moments later the exit poll was broadcast and all was consternation, as expectations were overturned. As the minutes and hours become years and decades, the varnish of seeming inevitability will darken the portrait of events. It will be a diligent and perceptive historian who recreates the power of that previous uncertainty and can explain the actions of the major political players, all of whom expected a different result. A future Jeremy Black, no less.

Professor Black shows, in this intriguing book, exactly why the examination of different potential outcomes can aid historical understanding. He pinpoints how the expectation of events, even when unrealised, can determine human actions and affect perceptions of both past and future. Black demonstrates that, in skillful hands, counterfactual history is more than just fun; as one ingredient among many, it can be an extremely fertile source of explanation.  

Black repels the gibe that counterfactualism is necessarily a plaything of the right, recalling how such ‘stalwarts of the left’, including E.H. Carr and Eric Hobsbawm, temporarily abandoned their determinism to explain how the Soviet Union would have been different if only Lenin had been longer lived. Black accepts that political and military history is fertile territory for the counterfactual and gives us a host of examples. As for diplomatic history, he emphasises how diplomacy’s very basis is the consideration of the ‘what if’. But he also ranges more widely over economic, social and demographic history across the centuries to highlight where counterfactual analysis has been adroitly used and where (and why) it has been rejected. He examines the impact of cultural belief in creating the lens through which events are viewed and describes the refocusing caused by seismic changes, such as the Reformation.   

In the core of the book, Black’s major example considers how Britain and not other nations,  became the world’s greatest power during the 18th and 19th centuries, interweaving the historian’s ‘Why?’ with the surprisingly non-antithetical ‘Why not?’ The author has an advantage here: his areas of historical interest may be great, but this taps into his particular specialisation as a world-leading expert on the long 18th century onwards. He does not dwell on singular accidents, such as what would have happened if James II had died before his elder brother, but on a whole network of unexpected related factors that produced both the Glorious and Industrial Revolutions. Whig determinists go the way of Marxist ones. This is not romantic ‘if only’ history or a recitation of the past’s unfortunate hard luck stories, but is far more sophisticated than that.   It gives proper weight to the importance of the unexpected events of history by valuing the role of the seemingly inevitable that, surprisingly, failed to happen.

George Goodwin’s next book, Benjamin Franklin in London, is to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2016.  

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week