Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties, by Peter Hennessy

David Bell enjoys a lively overview of an era by ‘the doyen of post-war British history’

一月 2, 2020
Party leader Harold Wilson (1916 - 1995) addresses the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, 30th September 1963
Source: Alamy

Harold Macmillan. Harold Wilson. John F. Kennedy. Charles de Gaulle. From the vantage point of 2020, it is tempting to look back nearly six decades and pine for political leaders from a different era.

The historian’s craft, of course, is to put people and events in proper context. The pressures of the times, as well as the foibles and weaknesses of statesmen (and most of them were men), then come into sharp relief. And who better to chronicle the period than Peter Hennessy, the doyen of post-war British history?

The book’s title is taken from prime minister Macmillan’s speech in Cape Town in 1960. In a significant and highly controversial moment, he acknowledged that the British government would not stand in the way of colonial independence movements.

That is the familiar bit of the story. However, and eerily topically, Hennessy also describes Macmillan’s efforts to join the European Economic Community (EEC) as a way of repositioning Britain in the world. With his penchant for sweeping historical analysis, he saw Britain’s inevitable destiny in being integral to the European project. It was, for Macmillan, part of his “Grand Design” to unite Britain, Europe and the US to halt the advance of communism.

Ultimately, Macmillan retired exhausted, physically and mentally. He was an Edwardian throwback and his brief successor was the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home (“So good of Alec to do Prime Minister,” as his mother memorably put it). The future belonged to Harold Wilson as the relatively new leader of the Labour Party. And if anything captured Wilsonian dynamism, it was his call for the “white heat of technology” to forge a “new Britain”.

As Hennessy convincingly demonstrates, the phrase was not merely an election slogan. Rather, it reflected and, to some extent, shaped the zeitgeist.

The book is notable for a single chapter on what Hennessy sees as the pivotal year: 1963. This is a remarkable piece of writing that could make a short book on its own, rather than just a summary of an extraordinary 12 months.

In this one chapter, Hennessy is able to discern the underlying currents that were to shape – and, to a large extent, still shape – modern Britain.

He also indulges in his passion for everything to do with Britain’s secret nuclear state. Much of it will be familiar from his previous work, but it particularly resonates when talking about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and the influence Macmillan had over the much younger JFK.

There is an interesting section on the Robbins report on university expansion. Hennessy argues that it was another facet of early 1960s’ modernisation as the cohorts shaped by Rab Butler’s seminal 1944 Education Act came of age.

Winds of Change covers everything from the impact on the railways of the review by the hard-nosed technocrat Dr Beeching, through long-forgotten changes such as the abolition of resale price maintenance, to the Beatles’ first hit in 1962, Love Me Do. Hennessy has the all-too-rare gift of being able to combine academic rigour with wry observation, gently observed moments from his own formative years and beautifully written prose. We can only hope that the rest of the 1960s, and beyond, gets similar treatment.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland and a former Whitehall permanent secretary.

Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties
By Peter Hennessy
Allen Lane, 624pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781846141102
Published 5 September 2019


Print headline: In white heat, the UK was reshaped



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