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The ‘What If’ moments of modern Britain

We often talk about there being days that “changed history”; modern British history has had its fair share of them. But what about the days that looked as though they would – but didn’t? Which days once felt like they would change everything but, with the benefit of hindsight, now seem false-starts? Here are three contenders.

The 26th of June 1984. The day Britain nearly turned to Europe.

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was No. 1 and the first edition of Crimewatch had just been broadcast. In Fontainebleau, 40km south of Paris, and after four years of very public and often nasty arguments, a European Council meeting ended with an agreement having finally been reached on the British budget rebate, signaling a fresh start for Europe’s perennially awkward partner. For a while, Britain looked ready to grasp the opportunity being offered; with the budget issue settled, the European Commission sought to build political momentum behind a new effort to establish a single market for goods, services and people. Margaret Thatcher was an enthusiast, even showing herself willing to sacrifice Britain’s veto at the Council of Ministers and endorse the use of qualified majority voting to ensure it would work. For the first time since it had joined in January 1973, Britain was working towards more integration with Europe rather than less. But, in the end, it all went wrong. The European Commission and its President, Jacques Delors, argued that the new single market must have a “social dimension” and, separately, after a decade-long hiatus, European leaders once again began to talk about a single currency. Margaret Thatcher was singularly unimpressed and used her 1988 Bruges lecture to set out her Eurosceptic stall. “We have not rolled-back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at European level”. Pro-European Conservative MPs were left high-and-dry and, within a few years, Margaret Thatcher’s burst of Euro-enthusiasm was all but forgotten.

The 6th of January 1996. The day Blair turned left

At a time when he was already odds-on to win the next general election, Tony Blair found himself delivering a high-profile speech on “stakeholding” in Singapore. The speech was unexpectedly radical, right down to the Corbynesque pledge to create a future Britain “for the many, not just the few”. Blair argued that the British economy was being disfigured by an ideology that viewed firms as “mere vehicles for the capital market to be traded, bought and sold as a commodity”, which discouraged long-term investment, good relationships with workers, productivity, and trust. Blair was light on the details of his stakeholding alternative. But this was, nevertheless, an important moment. New Labour might, after all, be about more than a variant on the tried-and-tested social democratic theme of taxing, spending and redistributing the money made by firms. Blair, it seemed, might be willing to remake capitalism. But the moment passed. Stung by criticism that stakeholding was all about appeasing the trade unions, Blair took fright and stopped talking about economics in order to focus on the much-safer electoral ground of education and the NHS.

The 31st of August 1997. The day Princess Diana died 

The death of Diana really was one of those moments. Everyone remembers where they were and nobody expected what happened next: public outpourings of grief; the “People’s Princess” soundbite from Blair that resonated across the country; fury at the paparazzi; and “what do they think they are doing?” disappointment and anger with the Royal Family and their apparent lack of interest in or care about Diana’s death. Was there a Republican revolution in the air? For a few short days until, belatedly, the Union Flag was lowered to half-mast at Buckingham Palace, the question did not seem silly. Today, Diana’s fame stands but there are few traces of the anti-monarchist attitude left. Nine photographers who had been trailing Diana’s car through central Paris were charged with manslaughter but subsequently released. Despite the public outcry at what happened, there was no new press regulation. Indeed, two decades on, it is difficult to see much difference in the treatment meted out to Diana with that experienced by Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. As for the Royal Family, it weathered the reputational damage created by Diana’s death remarkably well. Criticism over Prince Charles’ premarital affair ground to a halt and republicanism, never more than a minority taste, remained on the periphery.

History does sometimes turn on a day. The general election on 3rd May 1979 that ushered Margaret Thatcher to power. 9/11. The collapse of the Northern Rock bank. The publication, in the Daily Telegraph, of MP’s expenses in 2009. But, as these ‘could-have-been’ moments show, history sometimes looks to turn only to then turn back.

Featured image credit: ‘Union Jack Flag’by Andrik Langfield. Public domain via Unsplash.

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