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Peter Hennessy

Peter Hennessy

Peter Hennessy is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Among many other books, he is the author of The Secret State, Whitehall ('Much the best book on the British civil service ever to appear', Anthony King, Economist), Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 ('Written with the combination of scholarship and élan which makes Hennessy's work a joy to read', Roy Hattersley, Sunday Times) which in 1993 won the NCR Award for Non-Fiction and the Duff Cooper Prize, and The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing The British Constitution ('Peter Hennessy has become the irreplaceable analyst of the inner core of the British system of government', Andrew Marr, Independent). His latest book is Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties (Penguin, 2006).

In The Prime Minister Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, provides a controversial assessment of the relative performance of every Prime Minister since 1945. Here, he talks to about all things political, including the role of the media, the secret state and the Queen's drill for the end of the world.

How would you characterise the difference in the role of Prime Minister from the end of the Second World War to now?
At the end of the Second World War Britain was a great power, not a superpower like America or Russia but a very substantial power. We are not now a great power in anything like the same sense and yet the job of being British Prime Minister within the scope of the United Kingdom and its central government is much, much more powerful than it was in Mr Atlee's time or Mr Churchill's last premiership in the early 1950s.

Now why is that? It's a number of factors; one is the intrusive nature of the media, which has exploded in the last twenty-five years. It focuses on the number one, usually to the exclusion of virtually everyone else. Even with subtler prime ministers like John Major or James Callaghan that was true, let alone the monstrous engines of self-publicity like Harold Wilson, Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair. Also, functions have fallen into the prime ministerial lap because they don't quite fit anywhere else. When Britain became a serious nuclear power in the late 1950s, that awesome responsibility of deciding to let it off in extremes fell to the Prime Minister. Likewise, the re-jigging of the United Kingdom from within, and the constituent parliaments of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and so on has to be reconciled through ministerial council, which in the end will involve the British Prime Minister trying to keep the entire show on the road. In the eyes of the electorate the role of the Prime Minister seems to have increased. The real paradox is a country so much weaker in relative terms, [but] a Prime Minster so much stronger in relative terms within the orbit in which they operate.

Having plotted the trajectory of the Prime Minister from 1945, how do you think it will change from now on?
It's very difficult for me to foresee big shifts because of yet another set of paradoxes; can the British premier hope to be so potent both within his or her own country, and the world, if we remain a part of the European Union, which we are almost certain to do, and that European Union continues to disintegrate? The British Prime Minister has always been very well placed, compared to any other European Prime Minister or heads of government, because of our huge intelligence reach, special links with the United States, and the nuclear weapon. Apart from those very specific residual Cold War functions, it's hard to see the British premier conducting such a dash on the world stage, but they will undoubtedly try. Equally, if the devolution settlement is worked through, what is left for the British Prime Minister, and the central government over which he or she prevails, to do?

Having said that, and I speak as a traditionalist, the proper way of conducting the British Central Government has to be a collective executive, a cabinet government as opposed to a single executive prime ministerial one. But we cannot go on, as we have been since 1997, with an all-powerful Prime Minister who doesn't like argument, prevailing over a supine, largely accommodating but increasingly resentful cabinet. There will come a time when events will cause this command model of Mr Blair's to falter and then the accumulated resentments will show.

In theory there is endless scope for greater and greater accumulation of prime ministerial power, in that we don't have a written constitution. How much longer can an effective government rely on there being enough 'good chaps' to make it work in the way it has traditionally worked?
It is possible to be very gloomy about the over concentration of power at number 10. It was Mr Gladstone who said 'nowhere in the wide world does a constitution depend so much on the good sense and good faith of those who work it'. Now that, of course, sounds ludicrous to the would-be transformer of society in the two major political parties and it would sound ludicrous to Mr Blair and his own people. Can that 'good chap' theory of government carry on indefinitely? It's been broken down to quite a high degree already. For the right reasons it is much more intrusive, it demands civil servants to come and give evidence and so on; the anonymity of the private government is very largely gone and with it the capacity to sustain the collective confidential outfit; cabinets leak like sieves.

You haven't endeared yourself to the Prime Minister and his immediate entourage, how do you feel about this?
If I had a performance indicator as a historian and a commentator, it's that whoever is in authority at any one time would be pretty cross with me; if I'm accepted beyond a certain point, then it's deeply worrying. To put it crudely, I cannot see a groin in authority without wanting to put my knee into it. Of course, because they are very sensitive people, politicians bleed very easily. After Labours great triumph in May 1997 I haven't endeared myself at all ... but I'm deeply misunderstood really, essentially I'm a care-worker for the political classes. When everyone else has forsaken them, the power has drained away and they are no longer deferred to, I shall go round with my tape recorder and make them remember that there was a time when they really did strut their stuff.

You've been given the honour of giving the Penguin Lectures in October of this year. Why did you choose the subject of Secret State, Whitehall and the Cold War?
Come back with me to the early nineties; the Cold War has been over a couple of years and William Waldegrave, a very scholarly politician, is Minister For Open Government. I said to him, could we not have the intelligence assessments that the joint inelegance (sic) committee produce which analyses the Soviet threat? When they came out William Waldegrave said "If you and your historian colleagues would like to ask me for more I'll have it looked at", so we got together twice and we gave him shopping lists. Then, the departmental record offices from Whitehall came, and there was this wonderfully fruitful symbiosis.

As a result of the Waldegrave initiative, as it's called, there's a hundred thousand files that have been re-reviewed and declassified. Some of them had amazing sensitivity, the intelligence world, the security vetting world, the bomb and the letting off of the bomb; there's never been a better time to be a contemporary British historian. That's why I was so pleased to do the Penguin lectures and so keen to do them on The Secret State, Whitehall and the Cold War 1945-70, which covers the span of the declassifications - this amazing treasure-trove of very revealing documents should go wider. It's a terrifying story on one level, when you get deeply immersed in war drills it can get fatally depressing, but then you have to say it didn't happen, it's alright, and you feel immensely cheerful.

We've still a long way to go but we can now, for the first time, piece together what the extra state we had to build to fight the Cold War looked like, it was literally a new state bolted under the existing one. Large numbers of really gifted people had to deploy their best working years on this, watching it, planning it, and looking at the nightmare possibilities. If there were a nuclear attack, at what point would society break down irretrievably, how could you keep a microcosm of government going, where would the war cabinet go? I've been let into virtually all of the World War Three bunkers underneath the Cotswolds and have some lovely pictures, which will be displayed in the lectures. That was an extraordinary experience. When you go down into that bunker in the Cotswolds you find the nuclear biological chemical warfare room. There are little discs and on them the squaddies had stencilled 'Gas, Bio or Atom'; they were to go into slots to tell the people in 'Turnstile', as it was codenamed, that the world had gone up above. That's when it comes home to you; you need something as mundane as that. It is going to be very difficult for generations down the line to 'get' what it was like when you if would war come, what would it be like, who would survive, what the civil defence was? - the answer is actually bugger all.

Has any episode or file particularly intrigued you?
Yes. As late as 1965, 17 years after the Berlin airlift, nearly three years after the Cuban Missile crisis, a new chap, a naval officer in the cabinet office is going to have to do the transition to war job; the planning of it, keeping it all up to speed. He's reading his way in and he realises the Queen has never been fully told about the drill for the end of her kingdom. Would she like to know? Yes indeed, she would, came back the word. He was told to keep it short, a little summary for the Queen from the government war book, which is still not declassified. I was allowed in to see one of the background files on this, not the government war book itself, and I was warned that some sensitive stuff had to be removed. What was removed was the summary for her Majesty the Queen of the end of her kingdom and the world. But, there is a god in the archives. I was in there with one of my students with sharp eyes, and packed in amongst pretty boring letters is a little scrap of paper, and there in a biro with pencil overlays and corrections, this navy man has done his first draft of that paper that went to the Queen about the end of her world and our world, and they'd left it in by mistake - because it is so small and scruffy and so tightly packed between boring letters they'd over looked it. So, we've got the Queen's drill for the end of the world. Essentially these lectures and the 'Secret State' book [Peter's next book] will be about the kind of short history that would have been written on the inside. If the Queen had asked in '65 for a historical explanation of what that little bit of paper meant, right to the last bit, 'Operation Visitation', which is the code name for letting it off, the end of the world, my little book is the sort of thing they would have produced.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Shellmex building [where Penguin is based] and its part in the Cold War?
There was a time when it housed the most secret bit of the secret state. In World War II, and for a while after, it was the Ministry of Supply. The Ministry of Supply did weaponry and was the lead department in making the first British Atomic bomb, from January 1947, when a cabinet committee which Mr Atlee chaired decided to make one, right through to 1952 when it was tested off the Australian coast - it was all run from here.

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