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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)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis