...what makes him such a deft public historian is the way he stitches these patches of rich local colour into a narrative with the widest possible reach. Having dealt with the immediate postwar period in two of his previous books, Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992) and Having it so Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006), here he picks up his story in 1960, the moment Britain becomes modern. Don’t, though, expect a slack meander through the entire decade, stopping off at the usual staging posts: Profumo, the Pill, Beeching, Mary Quant, blah blah blah. What we have instead is a forensic look at the years from 1960 to 64, what one might call "the low 60s", when everyone aged over 35 still wore a hat... Such is the length of this book – nearly 600 pages long – that it would be easy to slip and slide in the shale of detail. But Hennessy has such a keen associative eye and such a generous heart for the sheer oddness of everything that the narrative spins along like a comfortable chat.
This book might have functioned better as a straightforward biography of Harold Macmillan. Hennessy’s characterisation of the man as avuncular, bewhiskered old bibliophile is superb. As the construction of the Berlin Wall began, he was tucked up in bed in his country pile after finishing Trollope’s Barsetshire series; during the Cuban missile crisis frail old “Supermac” was plagued by explosive bouts of diarrhoea. A survivor of the Somme, he grudgingly respected the “Napoleonic” Charles de Gaulle but genuinely hated the Germans, the large piece of Krupp steel still painfully embedded in his thigh acting as a constant reminder of the fact.
He seems to have gathered up every single scrap of official paper — cabinet minutes, Whitehall briefings, diplomatic telegrams, ministerial diaries, handwritten notes scrawled on civil service submissions — to recreate the behind-closed-doors debates and political calculations, often anguished, that shaped the decisions at the top. The result is a deeply informed book that has, nearly 60 years later, powerful resonance....Hennessy is at his best in describing how Macmillan and his colleagues managed the transition from global empire to significant European power. Anyone still interested in today’s Brexit argument between Remainers defending Britain’s European vocation and Leavers asserting a much wider role — Global Britain, Boris Johnson calls it — will find their antecedents in the debates of the early 1960s.
...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.”... 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.
Peter Hennessy’s inside story of the shuttle diplomacy and party politicking that resulted from Macmillan’s fevered vision is told with his characteristic storyteller’s brio. The account not only establishes one of the key contexts for the historian’s narrative of a formative three years in our national life, but also sounds a resonant alarm over our present follies... This is the third in Hennessy’s wonderfully insightful series of books that make up a portrait of a nation coming to terms with victory in a ravaging war and the loss of empire. Like the others – Never Again and Having It So Good – it performs a singular balancing act between social history and cabinet-room politics. No current historian is as versed as Hennessy in the internal cogs and springs of the British state, but he also has a keen eye for the luminous face of passing time.
As these vignettes suggest, Hennessy’s writing is characterised by a wonderful mixture of wit and erudition. It also contains beguiling fragments of autobiography. For example, he recalls reading in Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo affair a description of the ‘Man in the Mask’, who allegedly served naked diners wearing only a waitress’s pinafore, and remarks that this by no means accorded with dining practices in mid-Gloucestershire when he was a schoolboy. As a Cambridge undergraduate he attended a lecture, never forgotten, in which Ronald Hyam illustrated the former vastness of the rapidly vanishing British Empire: ‘If you were a chap almost anywhere in the world around 1904 and you went for a pee, you would point your cock at a piece of porcelain on which was written “Shanks of Greenock”.’ Later, as a journalist and historian, Hennessy met many of the participants in his story, and he enriches it with intimate glimpses of their personalities.
For those who know him only from the radio, Hennessy is as good a writer as he is a talker. One feels that if he were to drop a hammer on his foot his expostulation would probably be noted for its elegant good humour and its apt reference to something Harold Wilson once said.
And he has done the work. Where others have been scurrying around for years, seduced by the immediate present, he has been meeting everyone from the immediate past — the ancient politicians, the long-retired civil servants — and reading everything from the cabinet papers releases to the diaries of people only a few remember ever existed.
Hennessy concludes with a powerful expression of faith in our age-old institutions. But he admits elsewhere that ‘our British political system is being tested on the anvil of Brexit’. Britain’s problem with Europe will not be resolved soon, whatever happens at the end of October. Genuine patriots of all stripes might think that their priority is now to preserve our democracy and reunify a sadly fractured people.
Hennessy, in this fascinating but whimsical book (whimsical because it is dominated by the author’s personal enthusiasms, researches and memories, and thus more political than social) observes that the veto was “one of the great Cartier- Bresson decisive moments of the 1960s… From today’s perspective, the emotional deficit many British people felt towards the European Community… showed there was a good deal of psychological corroboration for de Gaulle’s analysis.”
It is a nice speculation that, if Macmillan and Heath had come clean as Kilmuir suggested, there might today be no Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, because there would have been no European membership. The British people would still be steaming in splendid, albeit threadbare isolation behind that much-loved locomotive the Mallard, as their hearts, if not their brains, always preferred.