Guy Walters, THE LEADER
Headline, 2003, pp340, ISBN 0-7553-0057-2 £18.99

Reviewed by L. J. Hurst


Crises create strange bedfellows. Afterwards someone is likely to be pushed out of the bed so that whoever is left may re-make it as they wish. That is the premise of Guy Walters' second novel, THE LEADER. The crisis in question is that of 1937 leading to the abdication of Edward VIII, except that in Walters' alternate history there is no abdication, Edward overcoming Baldwin's government with the assistance of Winston Churchill and Sir Oswald Mosley. Unfortunately for Churchill, Mosley reveals himself to be of a Hitler-like cunning, takes power in a putsch, and as in Germany enemies of the party (the "British Union of Fascists and National Socialists" in Sir Oswald's case) soon find themselves in concentration camps (the British government re-opens the old ones it established on the Isle of Man during the First World War) while the press and the man in the street begin to find the muzzle biting. It is not too long before His Majesty's Secret State Police start helping people to disappear as the Fascist electric flash banners begin to cover the streets. It is these banners mingling with the Union Flag and the Swastika that greet the German Führer Adolf Hitler as he visits King Edward and The Leader.

What is going on? That is the question being asked around the dinner tables of all the best families in Chelsea and Kensington. It may be being asked in Golders Green and Bethnal Green as well, but Walters never takes us there for dinner. It is at such a table that we meet James Armstrong - a sometime officer with a good war record who now uses his powers of command as Chief Whip of the Conservative Party. They were not enough to help the National Government drive out King Edward, they were not enough to keep out Mosley. They are not enough to stop Armstrong's rebellion against the Fascists leading to his arrest and internment on that island in the middle of the Irish Sea. They are enough to help him escape back to the mainland and join up with the resistance, though. And he has been thorough enough to have established a list of sympathisers throughout the country - an opposition in waiting.

As we drop in on The Leader's cabinet we meet his colleagues - Minister of Information, William Joyce, among them. You'll recognise the names (or should do). Mosley berates men like Armstrong as Jews and Communists, though Armstrong is neither. When we meet Armstrong's eventual East End collaborators they are not Communists either. However, Walters throws an international spanner into the works - what do the real Communists - that is, the Stalinists and Stalin himself - want for Britain? Walters follows Stalin's spies through their furtive meetings in Clapham, identifying them by their pseudonyms. If he told us their real names too soon perhaps we would realise who has been betraying Armstrong and the resistance.

Guy Walters is a former journalist on THE TIMES and this is his horror story for old-fashioned TIMES readers. A frisson of terror may be raised when a Chief Whip of the Conservative and Unionist Party might find himself arrested and sent to live in a terraced house outside London (we're not talking barracks when we talk about the Isle of Man, did you know?), but the real Chief Whip of the Conservative Party at the time (David Margesson) probably helped inflict far more suffering on the British people through the Means Test. Modern authors from the conservative trend in politics have difficulty working alternate history (I'm thinking here also of Niall Ferguson's essay collection VIRTUAL HISTORY, reviewed VECTOR 195), and it has something to do with failure of imagination. Guy Walters lists his sources - they make interesting reading, and a useful bibliography for sixth-form modern history students, but, unfortunately, he has failed to realise their full potential.



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This review first appeared in VECTOR The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

© L J Hurst 2007