Britannia In the Time-Stream

by Phil Masters (phil@philm.demon.co.uk)

I'm beginning to get the sense that any alternate history with extended or modified British power is assumed, in some quarters, to be dominated either by arrogant aristocrats, comic-but-honourable Kiplingesque chaps in pith helmets and monocles, boot-on-neck Steam Lords, or in extreme cases, eternally monarchist Plantagenets or Tudors.

Well, that's one approach. But it's a bit of a Hollywood cliche of Britishness, and frankly, it leaves us looking regressive, overly hierarchical, and bluntly imperialistic. All of them vices to which the British have been horribly prone, of course (mostly because they're side-effects of empire, as the Spanish demonstrated in the past and the USA will quite likely demonstrate at length in the next hundred years), but still just one side of the coin.

So perhaps we need some alternate alternates. Off the top of my head, and wide open to revision:

Cromwell-1

It took hard work, a lot of shouting in various Parliaments, and some appallingly ruthless quiet eliminations of certain extremists, but eventually, by the time the fevers got him, Oliver Cromwell had hammered together a working sort of proto-representative democracy. Cromwell's own son retired to become a country farmer, and the young Charles Stewart dies of drink in exile. The other powers of Europe adjusted to the permanent change (while their radical movements learnt from it), and the New Model Parliament system proved adaptable enough to keep Britain's American colonies happy. (There were, eventually, minor revolts and compromises, but no big Revolution.)

Of course, wars with the Dutch were probably inevitable, but the Cromwellian Tradition kept British military forces strong, and shared interests in facing down the Catholic powers encouraged a degree of accommodation. Talking of which - religious intolerance was a bad habit and hard to break, but it did soften a little over time, once the Cromwellians felt more secure, and wanted to throw their Catholic neighbours the odd small concession in diplomacy. Hard-core Puritanism faded a little in the face of prosperity, too. It usually does.

The current year is 1802, and the Industrial Revolution on Cromwell-1 seems to be mirroring that on Homeline fairly closely. Of course, greater democracy may be slowing it down a little, as the first big mills can't depend on quite such a compliant, crushed workforce. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the patchwork of Allied Independent Protectorates and uneasy-neighbour Dutch colonies face the Catholic powers of France and Spain, and aren't so quick to forget old enmities.

[Think of 1802 Britain as 1902 America but without the industry; proud of its authentic democratic traditions, but not terribly good at relating to other nations. However, it's much more like the good guys than most of its neighbours, whose kings have spent the last two centuries trying to make sure that what happened to Charles I doesn't happen to them.]

Ramanujan-1

It took just the right amount of vision among a certain group of late-18th-century capitalists - enough, but not too much. Oh, and a certain slightly ruthless disregard for sentimental attachments to home. But really, why ship unrefined cotton thousands of miles to the mills, when you could take the mill technology to the cotton? Especially when that gave you access to an even larger workforce, who everyone assumed would be more compliant. They were just Indians, after all.

Well, the workers were fairly compliant, anyway. But there were also Anglo-Indians with a certain sense of personal superiority, and mercantile castes who could be as clever with money as any British mill-owner. Within a generation or so, a fair proportion of the Indian Mills were locally owned. They were also using more advanced technology, which needed some skilled engineers; so the mill-owners decided to look locally for them, too, and set up technical schools. It turned out that some local scholars were quite interested in mathematics.

By 1900, the industrial epicentre of the British Empire was undeniably India, and every other colonial power saw high-population equitorial possessions as the key to industrial might. Britain still had financial power, prestige, and the nominal capital, but the old queen had spent half her time out east. (Oh, and the Suez Canal was an entirely British project. The idea of French influence over that line of communication was unthinkable.) The series of minor and colonial wars, as Germany struggled to gain access to an Imperial-sized workforce, were pretty nasty.

The current year is 1951, and a lot of people talk about the Anglo-Indian Commonwealth. Indian scientists split the atom, and HMS Ashoka and its nuclear-powered sister-ships can project Commonwealth power to any sea on the globe. Commonwealth citizens pride themselves on their tolerance (and over half of the governing classes are Indian), though that tolerance doesn't always seem to extend to the African dominions. Australia is being opened up to Indian immigration as it seeks to lead the next wave of technological development. However, all is not well; the German principalities are reuniting to threaten France once again, and the Russian Bear, emerging from a half-century of turmoil, is said to be eyeing the huge workforce of China...

[Think relatively light, pleasant steampunk in a multi-racial world, with the Commonwealth saturated with Indian cultural details.]