“You must go and study under Hennessy,” said Ben Pimlott on the day I graduated from his Masters course in politics and public administration at Birkbeck. “You’ve a lot in common – he’s a journalist, likes tweed jackets, loves the Queen, and he’s conservative in the best sense.” Not long after I ran into Peter Hennessy outside Parliament and, having never met him before, went up to him and introduced myself. I started but did not complete a PhD under his supervision, but the friendship has blossomed – for which enduring thanks to Ben are due.
Winds of Change – Britain in the early sixties is the latest in a series of books chronicling Britain, its society and institutions, produced by the country’s leading contemporary historian. It is a tumultuous and pivotal period that he is chronicling. A turning point from apparent certainty and stability to shock and change. Many events and personalities are well known – Kennedy/Kruschev, Cuba, Berlin, Profumo, mass motoring and motorways, hectic housebuilding, empire ending, a new role being sought – Hennessy covers it all, at pace, never becoming bogged down, keeping his story on the move. Quirky stories emerge such as the, ludicrous, one of the Prime Minister having to obtain permission from his Private Secretary to reverse the charges to call his own No 10 office if he was caught away from a telephone should the four minute warning siren sound and he had to use a public callbox to authorise the use of Britain’s nuclear weapons. This is not a lone farcical going on at the heart of Whitehall. It is Harold Macmillan’s search for a new role for Britain that really stands out here in this 600 page volume, which resonates with us today, and is what moves this from a good to read to a must read book.
As the British Empire evaporated at extraordinary speed, Harold Macmillan and Britain’s leaders wrestled with the challenge of how to keep a leading role for the country in world affairs at the same time as its economy and diplomatic clout shrunk. The challenge to Britain’s leading role had come even before the end of World War Two and by the 1960s had becoming a defining issue. One answer came in Macmillan persuading President Kennedy to share in and support Britain’s acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent. Even if the country had relatively small conventional armed forces Britain’s military capability came increasingly to be defined by its ability to unleash nuclear armageddon. The other part of the strategy to ensure Britain remained in a unique and leading position was to be the unique link between the United States and the European continent. This, determined Macmillan, required Britain to be a member of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union we know today. It was, from its inception, a political decision made for political and diplomatic reasons. The years reviewed here are 1960 to 1964, and what years they are. The central decision by Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, whose searing experiences as a World War One soldier and World War Two government minister are key to understanding his thinking, to place Britain at the heart of the European alliance and the transatlantic relationship is the one we are wrestling with today sixty years later, and which his successors will continue to wrestle with for years to come.
Peter Hennessy says this will be the last of this size and scope that he produces, although smaller ones are promised and to be hoped for. This third book, there have been two previous ones covering the years 1945 to 1959, is a mighty addition to the history of that extraordinary period between the end of the War and the beginning of modern Britain. No-one has lived as an author in this period more joyously and enthusiastically than Peter Hennessy and to read this book is as close as you will come to actually being there short of a quick trip back in time in Dr Who’s Tardis. There is little Peter Hennessy enjoys more than hearing what he calls ‘weapons grade gossip.’ Distinguished historian he may be but there’s enough of the journalist remaining in his DNA, to know how to extract from the archives what would have been gossip at the time to turn it into history.