Peter Hennessy — The Books Interview
The eminent historian and "Never Again" author on Thatcher, Blair, Brown, “overmightiness”, hindsight and the role of historical advice in politics.
One of the themes of your latest book, Distilling the Frenzy, is the danger of passing off “contemporary prejudices in fancy dress” as history. Is it one to which you’ve ever succumbed?
The danger for me, which I have to watch, is that when I get a run of cabinet committee minutes I have to resist the temptation to heckle them, saying, “Come on, wait a minute, it wasn’t that simple even then!” That’s my besetting sin: wanting to heckle retrospectively.
You observe that all historians write from a particular historical vantage point – in your case, it’s 1961. So, is the history you do a matter of explaining how we got from there to here?
There’s always an element of that, because you want to try to make sense of it to yourself, and also to your own age group.
It’s what Melvyn Bragg calls “generational kinship”. It’s a desire to explain the world to yourself, your age group and the generations younger than you. But also to do justice to the people on whose shoulders you stand – the Attlees of this world, the Bevans.
You are particularly interested in the office of prime minister. One of the paradoxes of the premiership is that it has a tendency to “overmightiness”, even though the occupants of No 10 rarely feel powerful.
Those who are on the receiving end of excessive prime ministerialism certainly feel it. But I remember when Mrs Thatcher was at her height she had a seminar on management – Michael Heseltine’s pioneering stuff at the Department of the Environment. Michael presented at the seminar, and the other ministers, or the vast majority of them, resisted. When it was all over she said to a friend of mine, “Why won’t they do what I want them to?”
Yet Thatcher’s was one of the two “command premierships” of the postwar period. The other was Tony Blair’s.
Yes, but there’s a big difference. Margaret liked to get her way after a bloody good argument. Tony didn’t like the argument. Margaret’s style was to declare, in her opening remarks, the conclusion she wanted, and almost defy other people to defy her. But she wasn’t happy until they’d had a go at knocking her off her position. She really did love the biff-biff of cabinet government but Tony didn’t. And that’s a big difference.
Has cabinet government recovered at all from the pummelling that it took under Blair?
It’s recovered quite a lot. I think if David Cameron was on the end of the phone, rather than me, and you put that question to him, he would say he wanted to restore an element of cabinet government, that he didn’t want to be like Gordon or Tony. I never accepted the argument that one got in the Blair years, that 24-hour media and the nature of the world, the nature of the markets, mean that you can no longer have the leisure of collective discussion. My toes always curl when I hear these justifications for taking short cuts with collective cabinet government, because, in a country without any institutional checks and balances, the potential for overmightiness in No 10 is always there. The problem is, if you get a destiny politician in there – someone who thinks that he or she is indispensable to his or her party, the country, Europe, or the world – you’re in deep, deep trouble.
Do you wish that historians were more involved in government and policymaking?
William Hague made a very good speech last year about getting historians back into the system. They’ve got very good in-house historians at the Foreign Office and a good research department. I think there should be a chief historical adviser to the Prime Minister. You need someone who’s got the bandwidth, who’s got, as Enoch Powell said, the “800 years”.
Even 60 years would be a start, wouldn’t it?
In a way it would, although to understand, for instance, the deep-set problems of British industry and competitiveness, you have to go back to the Great Exhibition of 1851. There are certain things in Britain that are very, very deep-set.
Peter Hennessy’s “Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Times” is published by Biteback (£18.99)
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