Veteran historian Peter Hennessy’s study of Britain 1960-1965 is readable and authoritative yet also mislabelled. This book would be more aptly subtitled Whitehall in the Early Sixties, The British Establishment in the Early Sixties or – to employ a phrase of Hennessy’s – A Certain Idea of Britain in the Early Sixties. The certain idea of Britain that Hennessy presents is resolutely Boys’ Stuff: dominated by government ministers, spies, secret nuclear bunkers, and the troubled life and times of prime minister Harold Macmillan’s prostate gland.
This high political history provides precious few glimpses of decade-defining social and cultural transitions. To cite just one example, the advent of the contraceptive pill gets barely half a page. While Hennessy masterfully captures the ups and downs of Macmillan’s Conservative government and the ascent of Harold Wilson’s Labour in 1964, this picture of the demise of the Keynesian-Beveridgian British postwar New Deal at times resembles a narrow portrait of the book’s presiding figure, Macmillan, and lacks a broader canvas. It is also beset by too much whatiffery, sycophancy to monarchy, Anglocentrism, and over-indulgent memoir. If the extent of Lord Hennessy’s political connections explains the establishmentism, less forgivable is the faint but unmistakable whiff of imperial nostalgia and, at times, a rather belligerent tinge of British nationalism.
On this note, and to return to the book’s title, the chapter dealing with the implications of Macmillan’s famous 1960 “winds of change” speech is the most disappointing. Hennessy captures the magnitude of decolonisation: in 1945, 630 million people lived under the British crown overseas; by 1961 this figure was 23 million. The fate of Commonwealth immigrants to Britain in the Sixties, however, is overshadowed by nostalgia for the dutiful gin-and-sun-soaked former colonial administrators who used to rule over them. This comes in the form of a rose-tinted aside about the author and the Prince of Wales addressing the Overseas Service Pensioners’ Association. This is typical of the chummy self-indulgence that pock-marks this work. Writing yourself into history is a theme Hennessy has explored in a previous book, Writing the History of One’s Own Times.
This is one of the numbers in a weighty back catalogue that looms over this book via numerous references to his previous publications. Particularly niggling are the number of footnotes citing merely “private information”. The reader might think that access has been granted to the private members’ club, but the doors are still firmly shut. And then there’s the trains. Lots of trains and lots of railway-based memoir: drinking oxtail soup on the footplate of a steam locomotive with the “choo choo” ringing in your ears, and such like.
If you can put up with the style and focus, though, you should persist with this book because of its wit and political insight.
There’s a genuinely quaint charm to Britain’s nuclear disaster planning of the time. If Armageddon came with prior warning, the government and a skeleton staff would have headed to a bunker deep beneath the Cotswolds. A stiff directive informed the chosen few civil servants that they could adopt an “informal” dress code but should bring a packed lunch and “a book or so” since subterranean entertainment would be “limited”. And while the heads of the cold war superpowers possessed a permanent staff armed with nuclear retaliation codes, British mandarins fretted over whether No 10’s drivers should be provided the requisite four pennies to make a phone call from a public phone box should Doomsday arrive while the PM was on the road, or simply request a “reverse charges” call.
This book might have functioned better as a straightforward biography of Harold Macmillan. Hennessy’s characterisation of the man as avuncular, bewhiskered old bibliophile is superb. As the construction of the Berlin Wall began, he was tucked up in bed in his country pile after finishing Trollope’s Barsetshire series; during the Cuban missile crisis frail old “Supermac” was plagued by explosive bouts of diarrhoea. A survivor of the Somme, he grudgingly respected the “Napoleonic” Charles de Gaulle but genuinely hated the Germans, the large piece of Krupp steel still painfully embedded in his thigh acting as a constant reminder of the fact.
Blood in the fridge
De Gaulle, the great frustrator of British attempts to enter the EEC, was invited to dinner at Chez Macmillan in November 1961 and humour worthy of PG Wodehouse ensued. Dorothy Macmillan was quite put out by the pints of the general’s blood that the French entourage insisted be placed in the fridge should an assassination attempt take place, which nudged aside her carefully prepared luncheon haddock. Macmillan saw de Gaulle’s Anglophobia as recidivist, “like a dog returning to his vomit”. Outside, as gendarmes and the Sussex constabulary swarmed, the canine theme continued with the Daily Mail reporter bitten on the bottom by an Alsatian.
Which brings us to Brexit or, if you will, the Daily Mail biting back. While excessive presentism is never a good look for an historian neither, on the other hand, is the pretence to an objectivity immune to the here and now. A lengthy discussion of British relations with Europe in the 1960s could not but mention Brexit, and Hennessy strikes a judicious balance, referring to it sparingly but pointedly. The British dilemma of whether to augment or weaken Europe while simultaneously wooing the Americans and remaining a nuclear power is conveyed brilliantly by the author, whose use of private diaries and cabinet minutes reinforces de Gaulle’s 1969 verdict: “England’s tragedy is to be compelled to choose between the remnants of empire at the cost of American supremacy, and fair play towards the continent of Europe.” It is in weighing the political minutiae of Britain’s initial application to the EEC against Britain’s longer term “aggregate emotional deficit with Europe” that Hennessy shows his strongest suit. With memorable turns of phrase, he brings across an over-riding sense of paradox. It is in the witty teasing out of this paradox – capturing the mood of a Tory ruling class at the end of empire – that this book finds its real value.