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Peter Hennessy: the eminent historian on the scoop he missed and whether we’re going back to the 1970s

The cross-bench peer and broadcaster has some lessons from history.

By Stephen Bush

All journalists have professional regrets. Peter Hennessy, the historian, cross-bench peer and broadcaster, is no different. Two weeks before Harold Wilson stepped down as prime minister in 1976, he treated Hennessy, then at the Financial Times, to a long interview about the structure of the Cabinet Office. “It was brilliant; I thought, ‘Why have you got so much time on your hands!’” 

“It’s the scoop that got away,” he grinned. Wilson, Hennessy remembered, “seemed to be demob happy and indeed he was, but nobody realised it.” Wilson only appears in the closing chapters of Hennessy’s most recent book, Winds of Change, but will play a bigger role in his next one, A Duty of Care, which tells the story of the British state and society from the origins of the welfare state all the way to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve always retained a soft spot for Harold, partly because he was very kind to me,” Hennessy said. “Harold’s stock is rising all the time, isn’t it? And partly because of the way he and Jim [Callaghan, Wilson’s successor] handled the 1975 referendum [on Europe].”

Wilson’s standing has risen as David Cameron’s, his successor-but-six, has fallen. Like Wilson, Cameron held a referendum on Europe to keep his fractious party together. Unlike Wilson, Cameron failed to win his referendum. It’s become a commonplace to put Cameron down among the relegation zone as far as British prime ministers are concerned, competing with Anthony Eden (Suez) or Neville Chamberlain (appeasement) for the bottom spot.  

“I’m not sure where I’d put Cameron,” Hennessy told me, “because I actually thought there needed to be a referendum at some point on our membership of the EU, because you had to be 63 years or over in 2015 to have voted in the 1975 referendum, and I thought that given our emotional deficit with the EU, we had, as it were, to re-legitimise the relationship in the eyes of the British people. So I’m not as anti-Cameron as many people are.” 

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As a journalist, Hennessy has covered every prime minister from Wilson onwards closely, while his work as a historian goes as far back as Clement Attlee. But it’s another Harold – Macmillan, prime minister from 1956 to 1962 – who for him is the definitive PM. 

“I don’t have many theories about things, really, to do with politics,” Hennessy said, “but one theory I do have is that we shape our conception of what the British premiership should be very largely on the basis of the one with whom we were first familiar when we were growing up – and in my case it’s Macmillan.”

My first prime minister was John Major, who, as a small child and much to my mother’s frustration, I was convinced was a “very nice man”. 

“Can I tell you the day I realised that John Major was really very special?” Hennessy recalled. “I was going to see him about some obscure constitutional thing, I think. Anyway, I come in and he greets me with this huge smile on – and he’s a naturally charming man – and I said, ‘You’re on good form, aren’t you?’ and he said, ‘Haven’t you heard?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘Tony Blair went to the Women’s Institute annual conference this morning in the Albert Hall and they booed him!’ I said, ‘Really?’ ‘Oh, yes’ – and you could see the pleasure suffusing him. I said, ‘Well, he should have known better.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘The WI, John, they’re yours, aren’t they?’ ‘Oh, do you think so?’ I said, ‘I know they are!’ Then he paused, and he said, ‘What a pity the franchise couldn’t have been restricted to the WI in 1997!’”

In some ways, Boris Johnson is an intriguing echo of Macmillan: both men were educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford; many of the Labour seats that Johnson has won, like Hartlepool, were last in Conservative hands during Macmillan’s premiership. But Hennessy finds Johnson an unconvincing echo, describing him as “the finest proponent of what I would call the music hall tradition of politics”, whereas Macmillan is “such a fascinator… very few had his wit formation or his word power, or his depth of reading”.

One undeniable similarity between the two is in the leader of the opposition they faced. Although Hugh Gaitskell, who led Labour from 1955 until his death in 1963, sat for Leeds South, he lived in North London and was both criticised and praised as a member of the North London elite, much like Keir Starmer. I asked Hennessy what he thought the cause of those echoes was.  

“I think it’s one of the faultlines it’s dead easy to plunge into when things have gone wrong,” Hennessy said. “After the ’51 election was lost, my old friend, Douglas Jay [Labour MP and Gaitskellite], was in the vanguard on this, wanting to look at whether nationalisation was the key policy any more, and they were denouncing the Frognal set.

“It’s interesting, these geographical expressions of dissent, because the Notting Hill set was the Cameroon equivalent,” Hennessy mused, “But Frognal/Hampstead has always figured high in the demonology: it just means, “I’m pissed off with clever intellectuals,” doesn’t it? And also one of the many virtues Attlee had is he was an intellectual but he disguised it very, very successfully.”

The historical parallels between Starmer and Gaitskell flatter Johnson: Gaitskell led his party to a yet worse defeat in 1959 than the one it had suffered before he took over, and was never able to unite Labour. But the other unflattering parallel is between the UK today and in the Seventies, when so-called stagflation (stagnant growth, high inflation) bedevilled the economy. 

“The Seventies parallel is intriguing, but not convincing,” Hennessy said, because the problems facing British society and the economy are different. “Some of the side effects do make it look like the Seventies by other means, though.”

[See also: Peter Bottomley interview: The longest-serving MP on why politicians should be paid as much as doctors]

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