Amongst the acres of coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s life and death over the last week, there were some interesting What Ifs, trying to imagine a Britain without her as Prime Minister. Dominic Sandbrook’s account, in the Mail, has Tony Benn becoming Prime Minister. Philip Henscher’s for the Guardian is perhaps more plausible, although not exactly upbeat (‘You are employed by the government, whatever you do, and your pay is set by a central body, matching driving instructors’ pay to shop assistants’ to filing clerks’ to journalists’). They both, in different ways, imagine that the 1980s would have been very different without Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister. It’s easy to be sniffy about counter-factual history like this, but all good historical analysis is essentially counter-factual. Almost all of the analysis of Mrs Thatcher’s impact on Britain attempts to work out what would have happened but for her.
This is a What If written around a decade ago, with Matthew Bailey, for Duncan Brack and Iain Dale’s book of political counter-factuals, Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. It takes a different line to both Sandbrook and Henscher, and argues that things might not have been all that different, Thatcher or no Thatcher. The hinge moment is Edward Heath’s decision to try to cling on to the Conservative leadership after the second of his two election defeats in 1974 – and with an electoral record which at that point read: played four, won one. We don’t demur from the idea that had Heath stepped down in 1974, Mrs Thatcher would probably not have become party leader (at least at that point), but the chapter tries to argue that much of what followed in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Whitelaw, would have been remarkably similar. There would have been a lot of the policies which we now call Thatcherism, just delivered in a more apologetic manner.
Re-reading it now, a decade after it was written, and after a week of wall-to-wall Thatcher coverage, we would we think still stand by most of it and especially its central argument. The only bit that we are now less sure about is the certainty with which the fictitious Prime Minister Whitelaw MC dispatches a task force to the South Atlantic. Documents released recently from the Thatcher Foundation have made it clear just how deep the unease was on the Conservative benches at the time (even if that unease was soon forgotten once victory was assured).
The scenario presented here would also have meant the world was deprived of Mrs Thatcher’s famous comment that ‘every Prime Minister needs a willie’. But we think we have come up with a suitable alternative.