Michael Howard

Whitehall’s murky recesses

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Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One's Own Times

Peter Hennessy

Biteback, pp. 259, £

Peter Hennessy is one of the most engaging and perceptive commentators of our time, so it was with a feeling of pleasurable anticipation that I approached his latest book. This was increased when I discovered, to my considerable surprise, that he had stood as the Conservative candidate in his school’s 1964 mock general election.

My anticipation was heightened by his introduction, which promises an examination of the roles of myth and imagination in the writing of history. Of the many quotations we are treated to, the one which seemed best to reinforce that promise appears on the very first page, and comes from Enoch Powell:

All history is myth. It is a pattern which men weave out of the materials of the past. The moment a fact enters into history it becomes mythical, because it has been taken and fitted into its place in a set of ordered relationships which is the creation of a human mind and not otherwise present in nature.

An examination of this fundamental and eternally fascinating question from the Hennessy pen would indeed be a prospect to savour.

This book, however, is not it. What we have instead is a series of chapters almost all of which had their origin in lectures which the author has given to various distinguished audiences. This inevitably means that it is difficult to discern a common theme — certainly not the theme promised in the introduction — and that the chapters are of variable quality.

There is, for example, an interesting one on the history of policy-making in relation to Britain’s nuclear deterrent. But whether it was necessary to take up 22 pages with a comprehensive chronology of every meeting and document dealing with this subject between 1940 and 2011, including a separate listing of each of the six meetings of the Official Group on the Future of the Deterrent in 2005-6 is, to put it mildly, questionable.

The discussion of the relationship between policy-makers and historians is well worth reading, even if the argument for each Whitehall department to have its own chief historical adviser is less than compelling. And its concluding tribute to William Hague, lamenting the dismantling of the Foreign Office library, is thoroughly justified.

Hennessy has interesting things, too, to say about the changing role of prime minister, the apparently never-ending twists and turns associated with plans to reform the House of Lords and his own prolonged involvement with the Official Secrets Act and the various unsuccessful attempts by different governments to thwart his determination to shed light on the murky recesses of Whitehall. His analysis of the policy evolution which led to the formation of the National Security Council and its impact on the intelligence world is full of insight and extremely instructive.

But one is left with the feeling that perhaps the best parts of the book are its quotations, many of which were previously unknown to me. Here, for example, is Churchill in 1917, as recorded by a fellow MP, McCallum Scott:

As we were leaving the House last night, he called me into the Commons to take a last look round. All was darkness except a ring of faint light around under the gallery. We could dimly see the table but walls and roof were invisible. ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘This little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we shall muddle through to success and for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency leads her to final destruction. This little room is the shrine of the world’s liberties.’

Those words were uttered nearly 100 years ago. They could certainly have been said again 25 years later, in the middle of the second great conflict of the 20th century. But what resonance would they have today? Now there’s a topic to which Hennessy’s erudition would provide an intriguing answer. Perhaps it is yet to come.