On his approach to the writing of his latest and most ambitious book - a social and political history of the Attlee years - he comments unapologetically: 'The technique was to pitch the narrative somewhere between the meticulousness of the historian's fine print and the word-pictures and simplifications of the politicians. There is a profession which trains you to do this. It is called journalism, a craft I practised full-time from 1972 to 1984 and part-time thereafter.'
The technique proves successful. Hennessy's own recollections and reflections are cut deftly into accessible but academically impeccable chapters. For example, I enjoyed the description of his family's dual celebration of victory. VE Day fell on the birthday of his sister Kath. Mother saved up rationed goods and produced a makeshift birthday cake complete with union flag and icing dyed with blue ink and cochineal. The damned thing had to be eaten because you could not waste food.
The author describes himself as 'a child of the late 1940s, a grammar school boy and a product of the 1944 (Butler) Education Act'. There is a wealth of pride in these phrases. His book also reflects the wealth of regret which many of his generation feel as they look about them today. 'The setbacks of the post-war period were all the more grimly felt because of the glory of its dawn,' Hennessey adds. 'One of my greatest regrets is that I was not around or not old enough to savour and to share it.'
I know what Hennessy means, being a child of similarly modest origins raised in the 1940s. I can just recall the atmosphere the writer catches so well: the pride in military victory over tyranny, and the belief that we really were going on to build a collectivist Jerusalem - efficient but benign - in England's green and pleasant land. We remained a superpower, and we believed that we had become a force for moral good in the world, an example to the rest of mankind. Our minds were full of social justice and industrial democracy. Vulgar questions of production hardly bothered us.
In retrospect the Attlee experiment contained within it the seeds of its own decay, and Hennessy is fair enough to point this out. It was idealistic when it should have been tough-minded, interested in redistribution rather than economic growth and renewed international competition. Above all it demonstrated what the writer calls 'a profound institutional conservatism': the Attlee government simply would not challenge entrenched institutions, be they trade unions, the civil service, the British Medical Association or the ancient universities. This thesis has been developed before by historians such as Correlli Barnett and Martin Wiener. But it is argued here with clarity and a wealth of examples.
There is, for example, a heart-rending description of the way in which the shipbuilding unions voluntarily abandoned demarcation and restrictive practices during the War - and the manner in which the government paid its debt to shipyard workers by restoring these crippling handicaps in 1945.
There is also an explanation of why the British atom bomb project fell behind schedule. It seems the scientists had no problem delivering their part of the bargain. The delay was caused by the failure of industry to create an infrastructure adequate for producing a few billets of plutonium. Hennessy blames this on an educational system geared to groom an intellectual elite at the expense of providing a good education for all.
Finally he quotes the prophetic words of that great lawyer, Lord Radcliffe, opening the 1951 Reith lecture: 'The British have formed the habit of praising their institutions, which are sometimes inept, and of ignoring the character of their race, which is often superb. In the end they will be in danger of losing their character, and being left with their institutions; a result disastrous indeed.' It is a sorry epitaph for a golden era.Reuse content