Forgetting the past, forging the future

Image: Harold Macmillan. Wikimedia Commons

Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties

Peter Hennessy, Penguin, 2020, 602 pages, £12.99

Lord Hennessy’s Winds of Change is the last in a trilogy covering the years 1945 – 1965, during which Britain helped win a war but began to lose an empire, and everything altered.

The preceding volumes – Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 (1992) and Having It So Good – Britain in the Fifties (2006) – combine believability with readability. Winds of Change is also autobiographical, because the early Sixties coincided with the author’s youth (he was born in 1947). Hennessy’s life-trajectory follows that of the country in which he grew up, and which he loves with understated intensity.

Sagacious reflections are interspersed with anecdotes of years lived under the shadows of recent war, and the even darker penumbra of potential annihilation. The West Country he walked, the Saxon-founded village he trudged home to after school, were not far from the government’s secret bunker at Corsham, from which any authority was supposed to be wielded in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear strike. The period was one of such startling juxtapositions – sunlit and subterranean, new and old, excited “dawnism” and ramshackle “declinism”. The shining white-cliffed bastion of 1940 was by 1960 a shabby second-rater, emblematised by the “chipped white cups” from which the intellectual Michael Young sipped tea in a Dover café, inspiring an influential genre of critiques. Britain had been pyrrhically ruined by its “finest hour”, and had inherited an expensive – and embarrassing – Empire.

Raymond Aron once marvelled how during the 1960s the British changed “from Romans to Italians”. He saw an epochal shift from dominance to dependency, solidity to fluidity, seriousness to frivolity. Even preparations for the worst eventualities were marked by parsimony. The system of notifying a travelling Prime Minister of a nuclear attack necessitated his chauffeur being able to find a functioning Automobile Association phone box. Hennessy cites an exquisite correspondence between civil servants wondering how to ensure the PM’s car would always have the requisite four pence to make the call. Perhaps, one suggested, the government should join the AA.

Macmillan’s favoured “creative dirigisme” was proving sadly inadequate; his Britain had an acute case of what P G Wodehouse called “anaemia of the Exchequer”. Her industries lacked investment and expertise, and mighty trade unions were impervious to change – a dead-end depicted in the 1959 film I’m All Right, Jack, starring Terry-Thomas as an amateurish and snobbish manager, against Peter Sellers as a gauchely obtuse, Soviet-besotted shop steward. Labour was demanding full-blown socialism for a new age of meritocracy and technocracy – and the Tory monetarists of the future were still up-and-coming ministers, albeit in the case of Enoch Powell, an un-ignorable one with an “air-raid siren” accent, whose Cabinet seat Macmillan ordered moved, so he didn’t have to face Powell’s “steely and accusing” stare.

Macmillan, who had presided over recent years when, to borrow his phrase, Britain had “never had it so good”, now looked decades out of date. He was 66, but looked older, with his Edwardian tailoring, walrus moustache, shuffling gait, weak handshake, lugubrious manner, and spare time spent grouse-shooting and reading Trollope. His ineffective image was deceptive – the halting walk and handshake were caused by gallantly sustained Great War wounds – and bumbling bluffness concealed a calculating political mind, a sharp sense of history, and mordant humour. It also masked powerful feelings, especially a dread of nuclear catastrophe, which impelled his greatest triumphs – advising Kennedy over Cuba, and the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. His relations with the White House’s epitome of sleek Sixties élan were unexpectedly warm, and globally decisive (a subject more fully explored in Christopher Sandford’s Harold and Jack).

Macmillan may have been too history-haunted. The anti-Germanism which distorted his European outlook was probably part-product of the recurring pain of the Somme shrapnel lodged in his pelvis. In search of both economic salvation and a post-imperial national destiny, he sought to join the booming European Economic Community. But rather than emulating West Germany’s economic miracle, or asking Bonn to help negotiate better entry terms, he trusted to General de Gaulle. The General appears to have taken a perverse pleasure in leading him on, only to rebuff him ultimately in the unforgiving glare of world media. Perhaps UK-EU history might have been different had he not publicly humiliated Britain – or perhaps not, because Macmillan, like other British politicians, overlooked the Treaty of Rome’s commitment to “lay the foundation of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Beyond Europe, Macmillan made a celebrated 1960 speech in Cape Town, about “a wind of change” blowing across the world – and his “wind” was fanned into a gale by Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod. Political and public sentiment had been scarred by Indian partition and the Suez debacle, and there was a rush to dispose of the Empire before it revolted, as had happened, or was happening, in Malaya and Kenya, and to the Belgians, French and Portuguese. One day in 1959, when one of Macleod’s advisers suggested it was time to move towards majority rule in Kenya, Macleod replied simply with a nod, a laconic signal of a tectonic shift.

19 territories gained independence between 1960 and 1965, absorbing colossal amounts of political capital; Macmillan devoted ten times more attention to the febrile Central African Federation (which lasted a decade) than to that more lasting imperial legacy, large-scale Commonwealth immigration. It was, recounts Hennessy, a “dash for the exit”, reminiscent of how contemporary cinema audiences raced for the doors immediately films had finished, although the national anthem was still playing. Hennessy believes it was “psychologically important” for the British to leave “with dignity and good order”. (Seen from today’s ‘decolonising’ perspective, all this punctilio seems pointless.)

The Empire’s ebb was paralleled by Macmillan’s waning powers – and not only his. The Profumo scandal of 1963 was a disaster for the old-school ‘Establishment’. Secretary of State for War John Profumo (Harrow, Oxford) had shared a mistress, Christine Keeler, with the Soviet naval attaché, and lied about this to Parliament. The appalling security implications became entangled in backstreet sordidness when two thugs who had also been involved with Keeler were involved in a shooting incident. The ensuing morality-play-cum-psychodrama led to one suicide, and a hurricane of prurient revelations and rumours about high society. The frenzy was given point and force by the nascent “satire boom”. The stage revue “Beyond the Fringe” had been going since 1960, and Private Eye since 1961, David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was entranced TV audiences, and Tony Hancock was at the height of his powers portraying bombastic, lonely losers. Macmillan commissioned a senior judge to lead an enquiry, and a photo of the bowler-hatted judge awaiting a rural train to take him up to London was humorously contrasted with one of the Sixties’ most famous photos, the naked Christine Keeler astride a strategically placed Arne Jacobsen chair.

London’s Post Office Tower under construction. Image: Wikimedia Commons

1963 was also the year de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s first EEC application. Tired and feeling betrayed, Macmillan resigned. The “Great Train Robbers” sensationally relieved a train of £2.6m in used banknotes (equivalent to £50m). Dr Beeching issued an unsentimental Report on Britain’s railways, which resulted eventually in the closure of a third of all lines, and even now needles many Britons (including Hennessy, who misses the “romantic mess” of the old network). The Bishop of Woolwich’s book Honest to God attracted accusations of atheism and heresy but sold 3.5 million copies – while across the denominational divide, Vatican II was in full council. The 22nd November events in Dallas ensured ‘63 ended on global notes of anger, doubt and fear.

Change was everywhere, and accelerating – expanding education, motorways, supermarkets, tower blocks, the Pill, pop (the Beatles first UK No. 1 was in 1963), pop art, teen fashions, and technological processes. Harold Wilson’s masterly oration of October 1963, which hailed a Britain “being forged” in the “white heat” of technology captured a craving for change and equality. Wilson’s rhetoric was Whiggishly patriotic, invoking all the promise of the Industrial Revolution without any of its squalor. He promised “economic purpose, social, purpose, world purpose” – the Left then, as always, more focused, more urgent.

There were darker notes – Mods and Rockers knife-fighting at Brighton, racial resentments, spiralling crime and drug use – but cautionary notes couldn’t be heard above the thundering juggernauts. Macmillan’s aristocratic successor, Alec Douglas-Home, was stiff on TV, uncomfortable with mass culture, and motivated by noblesse oblige rather than ambition. As his Countess mother remarked when she heard he had replaced Macmillan, “So good of Alec to do Prime Minister”. The white heat came, and smelted everything, although rarely with the intended effects.

The author does not admire all the outcomes, but his Boomer optimism remains largely undimmed. There is some repetition in Winds of Change, and arguably too much on economics, too little on either culture or the environment. He nevertheless provides a reliable guide to what happened, and why, and how some of it seemed to some of the period’s protagonists. It is a bittersweet reminder of a “better yesterday”, when there was simultaneously space for certainty and scope for hope.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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