A war of ghosts

The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War

Peter Hennessy <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 234

This is a fascinating but dispiriting book. Few authors could bear less superficial resemblance to the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers than the lean and distinguished Peter Hennessy. But essentially he shares with one of Charles Dickens's less engaging creations the aim "to make your flesh creep". Taking in the whole of the cold war - broadly lasting from Churchill's Fulton speech in 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - Hennessy has chosen to develop as his theme what exactly would have occurred if the worst had happened, the abyss had opened up and our own Brahmin caste, bustling about in the corridors of power, had found themselves staring at the prospect of nuclear war.

There is no guide to the oddities and quirks of Whitehall more sure-footed than Professor Hennessy. With his unrivalled command of documentation at the Public Record Office, he has certainly dredged up some pretty gruesome material - including evidence that, from a single nuclear strike on London, the Cabinet Office bleakly expected just about as many casualties as the entire United Kingdom suffered (in terms of both military and civilian fatalities) during the whole of the Second World War. It all makes for particularly grim reading, and I cannot believe that I will be the only reader to yearn, from time to time, for a little light relief.

It is not as if it were unavailable. Hennessy devotes an entire chapter to the issue of civil defence - and, rather surprisingly, comes down firmly on the side of a peculiarly dim Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd George, who unsuccessfully championed the cause of the state subsidising a nuclear shelter for every British home. Reading Hennessy's account of what he obviously takes to be the universal anxieties of those days, I could not help being reminded of a splendid anecdote related by J K Galbraith, in his Ambassador's Journal, about a visit that Jawaharlal Nehru paid the United States in November 1961. There had been doubt as to whether the then governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, would be able to find the time for a meeting with the Indian prime minister, but eventually he managed to do so, and the two men met at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Afterwards, Galbraith risked inquiring of Nehru how they had got on, only to be rewarded with the plainly mystified reply: "A most extraordinary man! He talked to me about nothing but bomb shelters. Why does he think I am interested in bomb shelters? He even gave me a pamphlet on how to build my own shelter."

Hennessy's narrative cries out for a touch of that sort of irreverence, or at least sense of proportion. Whatever may have been the case with British mandarins and politicians, the outside world was plainly not permanently transfixed - even in the year immediately preceding the Cuban missile crisis - with any apprehension of Armageddon.

The trouble probably is that Hennessy - the insider's insider, if there ever was one - identifies a little too fully with his own cast of characters. I have doubt that the picture he presents here of the mood of a small and select cadre is an accurate one; but it is really no more than a snapshot of those chosen few whose specific job it was not so much to think the unthinkable as to contemplate what to most people still seemed starkly inconceivable. What is missing here - as it certainly was not in the same author's Never Again: Britain 1945-51 - is the authentic voice of ordinary citizenry.

Only in one area does Hennessy widen his arc of vision, and that is in his chapter on domestic subversion (all too characteristically entitled "Defending the Realm"). Here at least we do get an inkling of what motivated the 1958 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its much more threatening offshoots of the early 1960s, the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100. Hennessy makes a good point in arguing that the wonder was that such protest movements did not emerge earlier: it was Clement Attlee's postwar Labour government, after all, that had disclosed in 1948, in reply to a planted written question in the Commons, that "all sorts of modern weapons, including nuclear weapons, are being developed". Yet apart from one brief splutter on behalf of the Hydrogen Bomb National Committee, sparked off by the test explosion of the American hydrogen bomb device at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, very little happened until CND came into existence in Canon Collins's house at Amen Court at the beginning of 1958.

Hennessy has had access to the MI5 files of the period, and he contrasts what the "spooks" found out with the almost contemporary account given by a single historian, the late Christopher Driver, in his authoritative The Disarmers (1964). It has to be said that MI5, with all the resources at its disposal, established rather less about the various pressures that went to form and make up CND than a single writer managed to do by relying simply on his instincts and insights.

Hennessy, though, has "scoops" of his own to offer. He discloses, for example, that for a long time - until 1965, in fact - no one bothered to acquaint the Queen with what the drill for her would be in the event of a nuclear war (the best her armed service chiefs could come up with was that she should attempt to sail away aboard the royal yacht Britannia to some suitable place of relative safety). There was certainly no room for her, or her family, in the bunker at Corsham within which the prime minister, cabinet ministers and various assorted bureaucrats and brass hats (to say nothing of their personal staffs) were all supposed to find refuge. To his credit, Hennessy has managed to penetrate this military underground headquarters (code name: Turnstile). He found it a "ghostly, dusty and slightly damp place". That is the most cheerful line in his entire text.

Anthony Howard is a former editor of the New Statesman