Thursday, 11 October 2012

Peter Hennessy, Distilling the Frenzy

This book is interesting in that Hennessy is a historian who writes not about the past but about now.  We understand the present by understanding the past, it is said, but this is the other way round – perhaps we can understand something of Britain’s history by looking at where we are now.  That’s the idea, anyway.  And it works, kind of.  He begins with a grand meeting in the very grand Locarno Room of the Foreign Office in 2011, in which William Hague looks at the role of the Foreign Secretary, and, by extension, at Britain’s place in the world.  Almost immediately we are reminded that defence reviews have come and defence reviews have gone, and most of them have been technical documents, many of which have had to be scrapped or revised because of unforeseen world events (the Korean War, Suez, 9/11).  On very few occasions has there been a vision attached.  One of those occasions was the publication under Macmillan in 1959 of a document entitled ‘Future Policy Study’, done in great secrecy and looking forward to what Britain’s place in the world was expected to be up to 1970.  Hennessy rather wistfully hopes for something similar to be created by the present government (he is a cross-bench peer), but does not appear optimistic.  He notes that Britain is a nuclear nation, that no government has wished for it to cease to be so, and inevitably cites Nye Bevan’s “send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber” speech to Labour party conference in 1957 as an example of this.  Not that Labour were in government at the time.  Whatever else Bevan was, as a politician and as a political thinker and strategist (some might argue that he was effectively none of these things) he was committed to the notion that it is governments which do things, and which change things.  Parties in opposition can do nothing.  The first Labour leader to understand that was arguably Tony Blair.  (Which does not appear to be Hennessy’s view: it is mine.)

The Bomb, and versions of it, has exercised parliamentarians, and political thinkers, since 1945.  Every vote on such matters has been controversial, mainly but not always in the the Labour Party.  In 2007 Parliament voted, overwhelmingly, to renew Trident, and a number of Labour MPs who had pledged their anti-nuclear passion to their party General Committees voted for it.*  Let us remember too, as Hennessy helpfully reminds us, that neither the leaderships of the UK nor the UK has wanted France to be the sole nuclear power in Europe.  No.  This book relies quite heavily on Cabinet committee papers and on the briefings of senior civil servants, and as such is a valuable resource.  Hennessy intimates, for instance, that Gordon Brown as Prime Minister told a non-proilferation session of the UN Security Council that the UK would retain “only the absolute minimum” nuclear deterrent capability.  Neither full Cabinet nor the relevant Cabinet committee had been consulted.  He did it on the hoof.

Hennessy’s writing is fluent and readable, which saves the more detail-rich passages from dryness and keeps the reader with him.  There are moments of cliché “the shadow of the Russian Revolution” but there are not many of them.  He indulges himself at moments, such as when he imagines the Sermon on the Mount as it might have been reported by The Times, ending with “Pontius Pilate’s Press Secretary said,’That bit about “blessed are the persecuted” will go down particularly badly in the Centurions’ Mess’”.|  But on the whole he is forgiven for his moments of indulgence.  For me it was worth it, to have set out precisely what duties a Prime Minister has (not many, in fact).

There are some fabulous quotes too.  I loved this one, from a letter to The Times from T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie in 1970:
“Sir – my husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi.  As he got in, the driver said: “You’re T.S. Eliot”.  When asked how he knew, he said ‘Ah, I’ve got na eye for a celebrity.  Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?”, and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.” 

* Including, naturally, Martin Salter

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