A New Decade. The Labour Party in special measures. The Conservative Party donning a cloth-cap. Times are a-changing. Or so it seems.
The un-electable Mr. Corbyn and his un-believable pledges, unprecedented mistrust, and overwhelming national frustration, combined to give Boris Johnson his big majority. It took over three and a half years, from the June 2016 Referendum to formal withdrawal, now certain this January. Yet from our application for EEC membership to formally joining in January 1973 took much longer.
Peter Hennessy tells the story in his Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties. General de Gaulle firmly blocked our entry in 1962, with a tearful Prime Minister Harold Macmillan privately denouncing him as the new “Napoleon”. For Macmillan failure to gain entry to the EEC was a tragedy. For us achieving withdrawal from the EU was a farce.
The two parties’ rhetoric was reversed in the early 1960s. The Labour Party under Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership opposed entry. “It means the end of a thousand years of history”, he declared at Party Conference. The UK would become “a province of Europe”. Not “a vassal state” - near enough though. The impact of joining the EEC on the Commonwealth loomed large. But the strategic argument has remained constant: fear of a politically federalist Europe versus benefits of economic membership. Plus Ça Change….
Peter Hennessy is Britain’s most sophisticated and entertaining political historian, both a respected academic, broadcaster, and active crossbench peer. Winds of Change is his third book in a chronological trilogy, the first starting with the Atlee government in 1945. Some background social history is sprinkled into most chapters. But his passion is for the history of government, political process and personalities, employing a range of sources: a fly on the wall during Cabinet meetings, international negotiations and the inner workings of the political parties. Armed with Macmillan’s diary and newly opened national archives, we have an insider’s view of the great transformative events of the early 1960s: the Berlin blockade; Cuban Missile Crisis; Decolonisation; Britain’s struggle for EEC entry; Trident and CND; Wilson and the “white heat of the scientific revolution”.
There is something endearing about Macmillan and Hennessy’s portrayal of him. The reader discovers a different, healthier, British political culture. Decent men admire each other’s oratory, disagree about how to move forward but, on the whole, agree about fundamental values and the society they want. Hennessy loves this Britain with a romantic intensity, even with its dissenters and mavericks like Enoch Powell.
There is a sharper edge when it comes to describing the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, just as there is to the man himself, amiable demeanour and pipe notwithstanding. Here is the 1964 Labour Party/Wilson’s Manifesto on Polaris - our nuclear deterrent at the time: “It will not be independent, and it will not be British and it will not deter”. Nonetheless, Wilson as Prime Minister kept Polaris reneging on his pledge to renegotiate the Nassau agreement with the USA which ‘shared’ Polaris - manufactured in the US - with the UK. Two recurrent themes emerge in the book: the inextricable link, mainly but far from exclusively in Conservative thinking, between Britain’s image as a global power and its ownership of nuclear weapons, and its corollary, the almost secondary importance of these weapons for defence.
Despite holding up the Commonwealth as a fig-leaf covering the loss of Empire, it was the Bomb that kept us at the top table. Macmillan, though, obsessed by the danger of nuclear war, had internalised the picture of the mushroom cloud that hung over the 60s. As Hennessy points out, apart from his steady-as-she-goes steering of the ship of state, Macmillan’s greatest achievement was the negotiation of a Partial Test Ban Treaty between the UK, USA and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. We have foolishly lost his salutary anxiety about nuclear war today.
What we haven’t lost is the taste for a good sex-scandal. Like any red-blooded male who lived through the Profumo affair, Hennessy enjoys telling the tale: a Minister of Defence sharing a “call-girl” with a Soviet agent posing as a diplomat, and their joint contribution to Macmillan’s decline and downfall, an inglorious story of sex, spies and toffs. Who could not enjoy?
Hennessy is too famous a writer for severe editing; some joyous but diversionary, anecdotes survive publication. Here is a Hennessy BTW holding up the flow in a passage dealing with Lord Denning’s report investigating whether there had been security leaks during the Profumo scandal. “Denning, by the way, spoke in what was usually called a rich Hampshire burr, a sound rarely heard on the early post-war bench (though it was made famous in the cricket commentary box by that poet amongst journalists, John Arlott)”. In an instant, you are back in the 1960s, watching TV, or tuning in to a sotto voce conversation in the Athenaeum; De Gaulle, Hennessy confides, declared that the Profumo scandal “taught the British a lesson for trying to imitate the French”.
Why is Lord Hennessy so important? Because he provides a political plumb-line. To the left of him you’re on the Left, to the right, you’re on the Right. The trouble with this simple test is that the ground shifts. And we are in the midst of an earthquake at the moment. But for those who were discovering politics in the early sixties, Winds of Change is an enriching journey down memory lane with an erudite, entertaining guide. Readers below the age of seventy will re-learn that the past is another country, though with many recognisable landmarks.
In 1962 both President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August detailing the miscalculations that lead to the First World War. Hennessy implies that the book influenced them during the Cuban Missile Crisis, if only as a warning. His Winds of Change may help future generations in crises to come. At the very least, Hennessy’s gentle judgements and search for the truth will become a poignant and, I hope, influential memory.
See TheArticle 17/12/2019
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