Professor Peter Hennessy, FBA
Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History
Phone: +44 20 7882 8351
Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History and was recently elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Before joining the Department in 1992, he was a journalist for twenty years with spells on The Times as a leader writer and Whitehall Correspondent, The Financial Times as its Lobby Correspondent at Westminster and The Economist. He was a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme from 1987 to 1992. In 1986 he was a co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary British History.
His books include Cabinet (1986), Whitehall (1989), Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (1992), The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution (1995), The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (2000) and The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (2002). He has recently published Having It So good: Britain In The Fifties (2006).
This wonderfully engaging book evokes a Britain emerging from the shadow of war and the privations of austerity into a growing but precarious affluence. Peter Hennessy takes his readers into Britain's front rooms, classrooms and new high-street coffee bars - and also into the top-secret rooms where decisions about the British bomb were taken and plans prepared for the catastrophe of a Third World War. This was the decade when rationing ended, of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock', the Wolfenden Report on Homosexuality and Prostitution - and also the decade of the first Aldermarston Marches.
Hennessy brings to life the glorious, but ageing, Winston Churchill, in his last spell as Prime Minister, trying to hold Britain's place at the centre of the three interlocking circles of the Anglo-American Special Relationship, the Empire and Commonwealth, and the nascent European Community. The hinge of the book is the politics and trauma of Anthony Eden's disastrous Suez war, the moment more than any other when Britain began a long, painful adjustment to diminished power and status. 'The trouble with Anthony,' said his successor Harold Macmillan, 'was that he was trained to win the Derby in 1938; unfortunately he wasn't let out of the stalls until 1955.'
'Supermac' himself is the dominant personality in the book, gliding over 'little local difficulties' with his Edwardian insouciance, but genuinely wrestling with the persistent problems of sustaining enormous defence and overseas commitments and a welfare state with a now less than world-class economy. At the end of the book, Hennessy identifies the moment when Macmillan moved his own mind away from the world of his predecessors to an increasingly European future for his country.
Above all, Having It So Good recaptures the feel and flavour of an extraordinary decade in which affluence and anxiety combined to produce their own irresistible winds of change.