Second paragraph of third chapter ("What if Lyndon Johnson had been shot down in 1942", by Robet Waller):
The B-26 Marauder bomber in which he was flying, named the Heckling Hare, was attacked on the outward journey by Japanese Zero fighters. Its right engine generator was put out of action, and bullets tore through the fuselage. Jettisoning its bomb load, it turned and crawled back to Australia. Johnson was later to magnify his single experience of combat and use it in future campaigns. He was awarded the Silver Star medal for gallantry in action. There are those who deny that Johnson’s aircraft ever came under fire from the enemy, but his indefatigable biographer Robert Caro’s interviews with the Heckling Hare’s bombardier and tail gunner support the politician’s account.1
1 For the details of the raid, see Robert A. Caro, Means of Ascent (London, 1990), pp. 39–44.
I'm often a bit of a sucker for alternative history, and bought this collection of 23 essays, most but not all about paths not taken in recent British policits, on the basis of Mark Pack pimping his own contribution, "What if Chris Huhne had beaten Nick Clegg to the Lib Dem leadership in 2007?" (answer: the coalition happens anyway, but Huhne finesses tuition fees, electoral reform and House of Lords reform better than Clegg in real life, and is reduced to 31 MPs to face a renewed leadership challenge from Clegg after 2015).
But actually by far the best contribution is by Chris Huhne himself, on "What if Britain had joined the euro?" By taking the hypothetical case, he challenges British conventional wisdom on the euro as I have never seen it done before.
For anyone who spends any time on the Continent, one of the oddities of the British political debate is the implicit assumption that the euro is a disaster and that British membership would have been a cataclysm for the economy because Britain is so exceptional and different.
Neither is true, as this chapter will show…
What would have happened if Britain had joined? Much would have depended on the foresight of British policy-makers in dealing with specific issues. By making mortgage borrowing cheaper during the boom years – and probably lengthening British mortgages – the euro would have precipitated sooner the arguments about the problems in the British housing market, to which we will turn. There are fixes for Britain’s housing problems now, and it is as true today as it was in 1997 that interest rates and the exchange rate are an implausible fix for a broken property market.
But what about the big adjustments to economic shocks – which, it can be argued, require the flexibility in interest rates and the exchange rate that are denied to euro members? As it happens, Britain outside the euro suffered one of the worst shocks in Europe precisely because of our dependence on financial services, and the 2007–08 global crisis that began with Lehman Brothers in New York. The fall in British GDP – in the economy’s output – was unusually severe by historical standards.
Yet I will argue that the response of the economy to that shock shows that we did not need either a separate exchange rate or a separate interest rate, and that the British economy was surprisingly well placed to adopt a single currency because of the flexibility of its labour market. Indeed, the hard evidence from the history of the recession and the recovery is that Britain was better placed to join and remain a member of the euro area than any of the existing members except Germany.
It is a tremendously provocative argument, and without being an economic expert myself, but being well aware of the extraordinary lies told by the Brextremists in UK political debate, I find it very attractive.
I'm afraid a lot of the other chapters left me rather cold and made me realise to what extent Westminster politics matters only to those who are really interested in it: what if David rather than Ed Miliband had won in 2010? what if George Osborne had resigned in 2008? what if Andy Burnham had won in 2015? I found it difficult to care that much. But I guess I should also mention with honour Tina Burrett's thoughtful analysis of "What if Primakov, not Putin, had become Russian president in 2000?" and Adrian Moss's humorous victory for Ed Miliband, "What if Lynton Crosby had changed sides in 2015?" Worth a look for politics junkies, and Huhne's piece is worth the cover price on its own.