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What would Britain look like today if we’d chosen to follow the roads not taken?

What might have happened if Britain had … But where do you go with that thought? Especially in such grim times as these. If only we had voted against Brexit, perhaps. Or been better prepared for Covid. Gripped the climate crisis more ruthlessly. The list of missed moments and might-have-beens in our recent past is dauntingly long.

But always remember this. Might-have-beens are not always more benign options. Missed opportunities can look very different from the Guardian reader-pleasing list above. If only Britain had … Not joined the EU in the first place. Not imposed a Covid lockdown at all. Sent the Windrush generation back. Kept on digging the coal to fire the power stations.
Those who see a divine hand in human affairs don’t think much of a question like: “What if events had turned out differently?” Marxists who see history as the working out of the iron laws of dialectical materialism sometimes think the same. EP Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, once dismissed such speculations as “unhistorical shit”.

Thompson was right, gloriously so, about lots of things. But he was wrong about that one. History was the future once. Its formation is always contingent, sometimes on accident, sometimes on conscious choices. As a friend said this week, it’s why diaries are so illuminating for historians – and now for Covid inquiry chairs. Those who write them do not know what comes next. They are driving without lights into the darkness.

That is why counterfactual “What if?” exercises are not irrelevant to history. On the contrary. Counterfactuals are more than a game. They can deepen history too. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga put it this way: “The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes.” So must the newspaper columnist.
This summer, Berlin is mounting an absorbing exhibition on this subject. Roads Not Taken, which runs at the German History Museum until November, provides a subtle look at some of the pivotal moments that shaped German history over the past two centuries. You come to each stage of the exhibition knowing what actually happened. But in each case the exhibition also invites you to reflect on what could have happened instead, but did not – the roads not taken.

It is a hugely imaginative show. It takes 14 moments that mattered for Germany, starting with the year that the Berlin Wall fell, 1989, and then working backwards in a series of episodes. Finally, it arrives at the revolutionary year of 1848-9, when the Frankfurt parliament, elected by male voters in what were then multiple German states and kingdoms, attempted unsuccessfully to create a unified constitutional monarchy with a charter of fundamental rights.

To underline that other outcomes are always possible, the treatment of 1989 is deliberately deflating. Suppose, it asks, East Germans had decided to emulate China’s repression of the Tiananmen Square uprising in the summer of 1989 and had cracked down on their own burgeoning democracy protests. East Germany’s leader Egon Krenz went to Beijing that autumn to congratulate the Chinese leaders. Repression was a genuine option when he came back. It nearly happened.
So did the 1970s attempt to overthrow Willy Brandt’s diplomatic detente with West Germany’s eastern neighbours. Back the exhibition goes, through Joseph Stalin’s tantalising proposal of a reunified but neutral Germany in 1952, through the genuine possibility of the first nuclear bomb being dropped not on Hiroshima but on Ludwigshafen in 1945, through the failure of the assassination of Hitler, through the rise of the Nazis, the struggles of the Weimar republic and the failure of the peace movement in 1914. At the end, it asks what might have happened in 1849 if the Frankfurt parliament had actually created the democratic, federal and constitutional Germany that proved to be so elusive over the next century and a half. Historically, that may be the biggest might-have-been of all.

Imagine such an exhibition devoted instead to British history. We have not had the same traumatic history that Germany has. But we have had big turning points. What are some of Britain’s roads not taken?