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Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties by Peter Hennessy, review: erudite and indispensable

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Harold Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in late 1959 with the slogan:
Harold Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in late 1959 with the slogan: "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

This erudite history tells how Britain lost an empire, toyed with the Common Market and was rocked by Profumo, says Simon Heffer

One reason why so many history books cover a period before their authors were alive or sentient is that it can be tricky to obtain the correct perspective on events that the historian has experienced. Yet Peter Hennessy powerfully makes the counter-argument in this flavoursome, but authoritative, account of Britain in the early Sixties, when he was in his teens.

Hennessy’s speciality is high politics. As a respected historian on the subject, and since 2010 as a cross-bench peer, he may well know more about the workings of British government, and about the exact anatomy of its entrails, than anyone else alive.

But in Winds of Change, amid the detailed and scholarly analysis of cabinet papers (Hennessy has lived sufficiently long that almost all the classified documents he would need to write this history properly are now available to him), he also gives us personal reminiscences, of hearing about the Cuban missile crisis, of fighting through the snow in the Arctic winter of 1963 to get to school to continue his O-level studies and, best of all, of life in his Gloucestershire village in 1960: “Arthur Heaven, whose farm was right in the middle of the village, was sighted… driving down Crawley Hill to Uley with a pig in his passenger seat.”

With Hennessy’s background as a historian of the secret state, it is little wonder that much of this book describes the steps Britain was taking to ensure it did not lose the Cold War. This was a time, he writes, when “the spectrum of British defence stretched between two lines: its first line was intelligence; its last the Bomb. The Cuban missile crisis showed the world that the distance between them could be very short.”

Mushroom cloud of the first hydrogen bomb test on Enewetak Atoll in 1952 Credit: HO

Britain had acquired a serious nuclear weapons capability in 1957, and much of Whitehall’s work in this era was planning for the contingency of the Russian strike that could, mandarins feared, be launched with only a few minutes’ warning. One contingency concerned the obliteration of the prime minister himself – at that stage Harold Macmillan – and who, in that exigency, should authorise retaliation against the Soviet Union. In October 1961, Macmillan told the cabinet office his decision: “First Gravedigger: Mr Butler. Second Gravedigger: Mr Lloyd.”

Tim Bligh, Macmillan’s private secretary, was worried about the complexities of a reverse charge call being put through to Downing Street in a nuclear emergency. “We are considering the possibilities of this office taking up membership of the AA – which would give our drivers keys to AA and RAC boxes throughout the country.”

Like much of what Hennessy writes, this has its resonances today, with a ruthless autocrat in the Kremlin, still in charge of a nuclear arsenal, and apparently willing to provoke the western world when it amuses him. Yet nothing in this book is so instructive as the blow-by-blow account of Britain’s failed attempt to join the Common Market, which culminated in General de Gaulle’s theatrical rejection of the idea in January 1963.

General de Gaulle in Algeria in 1958, declaring "long live French Algeria!" Credit: Keystone-France 

Everything de Gaulle said about Britain in exercising his veto was more or less true. “She has, in all her work, very special, very original habits and traditions… In short, the nature, structure, circumstances peculiar to England, are different from those of other continentals… How can Britain in the way that she lives, produces, trades be incorporated into the Common Market as it has been conceived and as it functions?”

Sadly, Hennessy doubts there is any truth to the story that de Gaulle, in intimating to Macmillan that he would take this line, quoted Edith Piaf: “Ne pleurez pas, Milord.” What is quite clear – and this was a catastrophic misjudgment that resonated down the decades – is that when Macmillan’s Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, a pro-European, warned him that the question of the dilution and loss of British sovereignty would be serious, Macmillan virtually ignored the issue; as did Ted Heath when he succeeded in taking Britain into the EEC a decade later.

Unlike “other continentals”, the British had not been conquered within living memory; sovereignty had a meaning for them that did not travel. In Macmillan’s desperation for Britain to find a post-imperial role, he simply failed to take that into account.

And Kilmuir, as Hennessy reminds us, was not the only political grandee to give him such a warning. Hugh Gaitskell – perhaps the greatest loss to British politics in that era, when he died of a rare auto-immune disease early in 1963 aged just 56 – had in his last party conference speech cautioned of compromising “a thousand years of history” if Britain went into the Common Market on the terms likely to be offered. In 2016, Gaitskell, like other anti-marketeers of the period, would be vindicated.

Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies arrive at the Old Bailey in 1963 Credit: PA

The centrepiece of this superb book is Hennessy’s account of 1963, a remarkable year in British history (like 1911 or 1936) when – without there being a war or a general election to distinguish it – the pace of events brought British history to a turning point. Soon after de Gaulle’s veto came the Profumo affair, and Hennessy is to be praised for making a case for Jack Profumo as an unduly traduced politician, and as a great man. His pen-portrait of Macmillan (who, the previous July, had in panic sacked a third of his cabinet) as a supposedly “unflappable” man losing the plot is superb.

Macmillan was taken apart in a Commons debate on June 17 1963, notably by his former ministerial colleague Nigel Birch (in a speech which, for its comic timing and brilliance, is perhaps the greatest delivered in Parliament since the war), and never recovered. There follows a sublime depiction of the headless chickenism of the Tory party conference of that autumn, which happened just after Macmillan was taken into hospital for a prostate operation, and realised the time had come for him to retire.

Rab Butler and Quintin Hailsham (the latter in the process of disclaiming his peerage so he could sit in the Commons) thought they were the rivals for the crown, only to find that the 14th Earl of Home, the foreign secretary, was disclaiming his peerage, too. After some manipulation by what became known as “the magic circle”, Home was duly installed.

Enoch Powell, shown in 1974 Credit: Roger Taylor 

Hennessy provides evidence to suggest Butler might have led the Tories to an election victory in 1964, when they only narrowly lost – not least because the intellectual powerhouse of the government, Enoch Powell, refused to serve under Home, as did the increasingly talismanic Iain Macleod. As it was, the old grouse-moor image of Conservatism went to the wall with Home, and Harold Wilson became prime minister – the event with which Hennessy ends his page-turning narrative.

This is not merely a history of high politics, though the main events are all here, properly documented. We are reminded of how society, too, was changing in the early Sixties, with the growth of the new universities, the Pill, the advent of the Beatles (Hennessy points out that Cliff Richard might be considered the apogee of popular culture had a nuclear device eliminated Liverpool in 1962), Top of the Pops, the package holiday, the spread of motorways, the end of steam trains (and, thanks to Dr Beeching, of many of the railways) and the effect on the national psyche of losing the British Empire.

Hennessy’s account of Macmillan’s management of that essential process is fascinating, with him pointing out that the colonial secretary of the time – Macleod – pursued a “gale of change” rather than a wind. It is rather a miracle, after the haste with which it was done, that a Commonwealth cohered together; the unfortunate events in some former British colonies, notably in Africa, in the decades after independence suggest that the rush for the exit had regrettable consequences, and this deserves to take some of the lustre off Macmillan’s questionably impressive reputation, 60 years on.

Harold Wilson on holiday with his wife Mary in the Scilly Isles, August 1965 Credit: PA Wire

This book completes a trilogy, with Never Again (1992) and Having it So Good (2006), which covers, with equal scholarship and authority, Britain from the advent of the Attlee government to the fall of Home. It ends with a valedictory tone, but one can only hope that Hennessy will stray, in time, into the Labour government of 1964-70, its massive disappointments but also the seismic social changes that occurred in that period.

“A nation is more than simply its institutions,” Hennessy concludes, in a self-consciously Gaullist observation, “but they are an essential part of it. And they, the personalities and power of our history which make my country – in all its moods, through all its fluctuating fortunes – have continuously touched my deepest imagination and shaped, as I have attempted to explain, my certain idea of Britain.”

This history is none the worse – quite the opposite – for being such a personal one; but it is the intense erudition underpinning Hennessy’s intimate reflections that makes it so utterly indispensable.

Simon Heffer’s Staring at God: Britain in the Great War (Random House) is out now. To order your copy of Winds of Change for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop