Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties – The establishment story

Review: Peter Hennessy’s history has its irritations but also wit and political insight

Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, right, and Labour politician and leader of the opposition Harold Wilson in 1963. Photograph: Murphy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, right, and Labour politician and leader of the opposition Harold Wilson in 1963. Photograph: Murphy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

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.

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