Peter Hennessy is a national treasure. He is driven by a romantic, almost sensual, fascination with British history, culture, and the quirky intricacies of British democracy and the government machine. His curiosity is insatiable, his memory infinitely capacious. His innumerable contacts confide in him freely because his discretion is absolute. His tireless work in the archives is spectacularly productive. His generosity towards his students is boundless. His books — 14 at the last count — are gossipy, erudite, discursive, intensely personal: not your conventional academic history, but all the better for that.
His latest book — the third in a history of post-war Britain — ranges over the early 1960s. For most of that time the prime minister was Harold Macmillan, thoughtful, politically astute, driven by a sense of public service. Macmillan had restored confidence to a country demoralised by the bungled Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956. Now he set out to modernise the economy and the machinery of government, and to accelerate an orderly dismantling of empire.
But he was also seeking to solve an even tougher conundrum. With the shift of power from Europe to America and to a threatening Soviet Union, Britain, as the former American secretary of state Dean Acheson said cruelly but accurately, had lost an empire but failed to find a role. Macmillan’s solution was to get Britain into what was then called the European Community. He failed for reasons that remain entirely relevant.
He spent Christmas 1960 in bed, drafting what he called his ‘Grand Design’. Britain, he concluded, still had powerful cards to play: its Commonwealth associations, its relationship with America, and its independent nuclear force. But its economic future and its international influence could best, perhaps only, be secured by membership of the Community. There was a moral dimension too.