From cold winds to white heat – the Britain that was

Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties, Peter Hennessy, Allen Lane, 2019, 603pp

STEPHEN GARNETT is reminded of a time when Britain faced challenges with hope

It was on 3rd February 1960 that UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke to the South African parliament in Cape Town, famously warning them that “The wind of change is blowing through this continent”. Having led the Conservative Party to election victory in 1957 following the resignation of Anthony Eden over the Suez crisis, Macmillan – 1st Earl of Stockton and a veteran of the Somme – had been victorious again in October 1959, increasing the government’s majority to 100 seats. The party had campaigned under the slogan “Life’s better under the Conservatives”, citing a strong economy, low unemployment and a rising standard of living.

However, even as he made that speech, just a few months after the country had voted for him, the popularity of Macmillan and his government was already on the wane, with an increasing number of people in the country questioning whether a 66-year-old, tweed-suited Edwardian who packed his Cabinet with fellow Old Etonians was the right man to lead Britain into the 1960s. At the same time, developments in the UK, Europe and the USA were setting daunting challenges that would force Macmillan to brace himself against winds of change much closer to home. Many of these would be storm-force, rattling venerable national institutions, uprooting many of the old certainties of post-war Britain, and blowing and tossing the ship of state in directions that he was powerless to control.

Tony Benn inspects ‘the white heat of technology’

In this third part of his trilogy, which follows Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (1992) and Having it so Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006), Peter Hennessy paints a vivid picture of the country, its government and people at a time of great social change. At the centre of it all is Harold Macmillan and his attempts, through what he called his ‘Grand Design’, to reposition the country so it could prosper economically and continue to play an important part in world affairs. In terms of GNP Britain lagged far behind Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands, and Macmillan’s top priority was to take the country into the EEC (then comprising six member states) with all the benefits for trade that joining the increasingly influential bloc offered. He also viewed a strong EEC – with Britain a key player – as an essential bulwark against the expansion of communism, then regarded as a threat both economically and militarily. The author allows us to eavesdrop on the Cabinet meetings, and subsequent Parliamentary debate, in which Macmillan put his case for opening negotiations, with much discussion about the effect membership would have on British agriculture, on our relations with the Commonwealth and on national sovereignty.

Of course, it wasn’t only the Cabinet, Conservative Party, Opposition and, ultimately, 50 million Britons that Macmillan had to convince: the great barrier to UK membership was the resident of the Elysée Palace. French president Charles de Gaulle opposed British membership for a variety of reasons. Our history as a maritime nation with strong trading links to the Commonwealth and our very different agricultural sector made us incompatible and a potentially destabilising and divisive influence. He did not want to risk France losing her dominant position in the bloc. He was suspicious of the effect our close relationship with the United States would have on our commitment to the European ‘project’ – and he felt some personal resentment at what he perceived as France’s exclusion from the Anglo-American nuclear partnership. The accounts of their meetings and the verbal duelling that took place at the Chateau de Rambouillet, the President’s summer residence in the le-de-France, and at Birch Grove, the Macmillan family home in Sussex, are fascinating.

As expected, de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s application for membership, in January 1963, but the shift towards Europe and away from the Empire had been set in train and was an historic moment. The speed and scope of the retreat was also astonishing, with 26 countries achieving independence, within the Commonwealth, in just ten years.

London’s Post Office Tower, opened 1964

When it came to domestic policy, Macmillan spelt out what needed to be done: increase productivity, eliminate restrictive practices, take advantage of new technology and bring Britain up to date in almost every sphere of life. Macmillan was a believer in a planned economy, a philosophy which towards the end of his life brought him into conflict with Margaret Thatcher, and in September 1961 he launched the National Economic Development Council (NEDC) to bring together management, trades union and government. This attempt at co-operation was the idea of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd. Unfortunately, so too was the deeply unpopular ‘pay pause’, which restricted wage increases to between 2% and 2.5% and was an important cause of the shock defeat suffered by the Conservatives at the Orpington by-election on 14th March 1962. A swing of 30% saw the Liberal Party take the formerly safe Tory seat by a majority of more than 7,000. Four months later, in what became known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, Macmillan sacked a third of his Cabinet, with Reginald Maudling replacing Lloyd at the Treasury.

This undercurrent of discontent was reflected in the satire boom, with writers, actors and comedians using humour to poke fun at those in authority. On television, That Was The Week That Was, presented by David Frost, produced by Ned Sherrin and first broadcast in November 1962, broke new ground by making fun of political figures. It had great appeal for the increasing number of educated, idealistic young people in Britain who had benefited from the opportunities offered by the Education Act of 1944. Four bright Oxbridge graduates (Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore) were also creating a stir on stage, first in Edinburgh then in London with their satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. This included Peter Cook’s brilliant parody of Macmillan, considered quite shocking at the time. The ageing Macmillan was often compared unfavourably with JFK, whom he met for the first time in March 1961.

In the opening chapter of the book, Peter Hennessy describes his teenage years in the Cotswold village of Nympsfield. Although in many ways life in the rural community had not changed much from how it was before the war, even people living in a remote settlement such as that (during the winter of 1962-63 the village was cut off for two weeks under eight feet of snow) could not escape the ever-present threat posed by a more permanent chill: the Cold War. The 350 souls who called Nympsfield home would have been astonished to learn that just 25 miles away, near Corsham in Wiltshire, was a top-secret bunker that was to be used by the government and up to 4,000 officials in the event of a Third World War. Codenamed ‘Stockwell’, it was 90 feet underground and in 60 miles of tunnels comprised 800 offices, dormitories, kitchens, signals areas, sick bays etc.

For those who didn’t live through the period it must be difficult to understand how the threat of nuclear war was always there in the background, its likelihood rising and falling and rising again in tune with events. It certainly exercised the minds of those in government, as the preparation of that huge nuclear bunker demonstrates. But if the existence of that 240-acre site would have shocked and alarmed the British people, the way in which the Prime Minister was to be informed of a likely nuclear attack if at that moment he were travelling in his car would probably have provoked derision – or disbelief. The plan was to use the AA radio link to inform the PM’s driver, who would then take Macmillan to a phone box so that he could call Downing Street. This led to some concern about what would happen if the Prime Minister or his driver didn’t have the four pennies needed to make such a call, and whether it would be sensible to take out AA membership as drivers would then be given keys and access to AA boxes across the country.

The ability of the Prime Minister’s driver to locate a phone box was never put to the test, but there were numerous flashpoints between East and West in the early Sixties: the ongoing crisis in Berlin (the wall was erected in August 1961), the unmasking of spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the belligerence of Khrushchev in Moscow and the fear of a Soviet pre-emptive strike or sudden military advance into Western Europe. But it was the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, made even more dangerous by the shooting down of a US spy plane flying over the island, that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. As tensions rose, the author, then a schoolboy, set off with some friends for a walk in the Black Mountains, “thinking that if the world was going to end, this was as beautiful a spot as any in which to finish one’s part in it”.

So much happened during 1963 it is unsurprising that the author devotes a whole chapter to those 12 months, and many of the events and people involved continue to colour our view of the early part of the decade. The year began badly, with De Gaulle vetoing the UK’s application for EEC membership, causing Macmillan to write in his diary: “All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins”. A few days later, Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, died suddenly; following a ballot he was replaced by Harold Wilson. In March, the Beeching Report, The Reshaping of British Railways, was published. One of the great delights of this book is the way that the author, as well as given us facts and background information, occasionally inserts personal anecdotes. Steam railway enthusiasts will enjoy his memory of an encounter he had at Tebay station in the Lake District in August 1961.

The biggest story of the year was what became known as the “Profumo affair”, and Peter Hennessy expertly – and often humorously – analyses all the ins and outs, taking us back to that unforgettable summer when, stoked by hostility to the government, the national newspapers made household names of figures such as Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. The public couldn’t get enough of what the author describes as a “heady cocktail of sex, secrecy and scandal” and rumours swirled about other Establishment figures being up to no good. When Lord Denning’s eagerly anticipated report was published in September people queued to purchase copies, and although it wasn’t overly critical of Macmillan, the whole business, as well as his poor health, weakened him, precipitating his resignation a month later. Amidst all the scandal in high places, what was possibly Macmillan’s greatest achievement was overlooked: the vital contribution he made to a Partial Test Ban Treaty which prohibited future atmospheric testing by the nuclear powers.

The author gazes far and wide – the Great Train Robbery, domestic nuclear power, Maudling’s “dash for growth” – and is especially entertaining in dealing with the political intrigue that eventually led to the appointment of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Macmillan’s successor. It is good to be reminded of some of the key political figures of the time: Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell and others. It is easy to see why Harold Wilson’ famous “white heat” of technology vision, linking science and socialism, had such wide appeal, resulting in a Labour victory in the General Election of October 1964. To read the account of the lively campaign that preceded the vote is to realise what a powerful speaker Wilson was (“We are living in the jet-age but we are governed by an Edwardian establishment mentality”).

The Beatles, package holidays, Telstar, CND, Doctor Who… it was a lively, colourful, exciting period on so many levels. Those of us who lived through it should be grateful to Peter Hennessy for reminding us how lucky we were.