LORD Peter Hennessy has effortlessly moved from sharp-penned Whitehall correspondent, to outstanding contemporary British historian, to recent elevation as a crossbencher in the House of Lords, and even aspirant national treasure.
And all, as he would say, quoting the late great Tommy Cooper, “just like that”.
Now, marinated in characteristic Fifties nostalgia and self-deprecating wit, he gives us the nearest thing to an autobiography he says he’ll ever write.
In a collection of uneven essays – in length, more than anything else – he has more than a few pertinent things to say about the political and social life of our times. It makes a wonderful half-term report on the Coalition.
He argues strongly for retaining a British nuclear deterrent and the renewal and updating of Trident. Britain will need it to retain credibility with both friends – particularly the Americans – and foes in an increasingly uncertain world gripped by nuclear proliferation.
But he has little to say about how such a posture would deter other states in a world where a Pakistani scientist can pedal his nuclear know-how to almost any buyer, including North Korea and Iran.
Moreover, he doesn’t confront the news that up to 18 different powers are thinking of acquiring a nuclear arsenal on the cheap by buying relatively inexpensive long-range missiles and tipping them with nuclear warheads.
One of the major revelations of the book is the clear inference that the deal is already done to replace the current Trident system with one that will last until 2050.
His careful recitation of decisions and precedents shows that first Tony Blair, then a reluctant Gordon Brown, and now the Cameron-Clegg duopoly have agreed to the essential work on the next generation of submarines, warheads and launch systems that it will be hard to undo, whatever the promises about a final decision being taken during the term of the next government.
Hennessy loves precedent, and at times it is both his master and mistress – most spectacularly on the issue of House of Lords reform. He winds us through all the attempts at modernisation and reform since the Parliament Act of 1911, which cut down the Lords’ powers of veto, and urges eventual replacement by an elected Upper House.
He is not in favour of such a rush to democracy, however, as he believes it would drain away the collective expertise in the present appointed membership. For the crossbench constitutional expert and historian Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, it would be like a turkey voting for Christmas.
In some ways his clinging to the wreckage of precedent in Hogwarts – as he calls his new place of work – means he misses a fundamental driving force in parliamentary reform.
That is the need to bring the people into Parliament by extending the franchise – which has always underscored parliamentary reform.
In an era of low polls, democratic deficits and regional tensions, it’s hard to argue for keeping an unelected Upper House.
Similarly he misses a bull point in his depiction of the new National Security Council as the forum for forming and agreeing crucial foreign, security and intelligence policy and procedure. He believes the fact that experts on defence and intelligence now present directly to key ministers, including the Prime Minister, is a good thing.
The question he does not address is whether the new NSC set-up in any way would have mitigated the confusion and sheer folly of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The temptation to play to the prime ministerial gallery must be irresistible.
The book is an engaging testament by someone who has done so much to bring good history and good writing to a wide audience and show it is fun. Unwittingly it reveals a lot more about the author himself, and his and our times, than he may realise.
Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Times
by Peter Hennessy
Biteback, 304pp, £18.99
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