Bugger everyone

R.W. Johnson

  • The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 by Peter Hennessy
    Allen Lane, 686 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9340 5

Peter Hennessy’s new book hasn’t persuaded me that its central preoccupation, the current dispute over prime ministerial power and its extent, is not sterile and, indeed, rather boring – yet it is a splendid read. The truth is that the Westminster system is quite inadequately democratic and transparent, and Hennessy is, if anything, too respectful and conventional in his proposals about how the office might be reformed. Party discipline, a weak Parliament, quasi-presidential power, great secrecy and the fact that the PM, invariably gifted with a safe seat, is insulated from direct electoral pressure all mean that the system is just not accountable enough. The most disappointing part of Blair’s constitutional reforms is that he hasn’t faced up to the problems of the central edifice itself. There is no separation of powers, there are far too many MPs, secrecy makes it much too easy to hoodwink Parliament and the public, the second chamber remains a patronage-based absurdity and so on.

What makes the book so riveting to read is, on the one hand, the thoroughness of Hennessy’s examination of the documents now open on pre-1970 Administrations, combined with a great many interviews and inquiries of his own, and, on the other, his investigation of the PM’s role in military and intelligence affairs. There is, however, a sharp cut-off point. What he has to say about Administrations up to 1964 is fresh and fascinating; Wilson’s Administration of 1964-70 was so voluminously covered by press leaks at the time and by endless diaries and memoirs soon afterwards that the official documents have nothing new to tell us, and the Public Record Office is still closed for the Administrations after that, so the quality and interest of the coverage fall sharply away. You read the chapters dealing with the period up to 1964 with bated breath and the ones thereafter with a yawn that becomes progressively harder to stifle as you reach the age of Major and Blair.

The prime minister alone, as Hennessy reminds us, can activate the codes for a nuclear strike. The only one to authorise such a strike was Churchill: the 1943 Quebec Agreement meant that he had to give the go-ahead for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Repeated attempts were made to get him to take the decision to Cabinet, whose Combined Policy Committee supported him, but still he refused. The framework for everything that followed was set by Attlee: he was the one who had to face the Cold War, who authorised the building of a British atom bomb and drew up detailed preparations for World War Three. The Chiefs of Staff, fearing an imminent Soviet attack, threatened their collective resignation in order to force him to keep open Mediterranean and Middle East bases from which the RAF could bomb the USSR. But Major Attlee had fought at Gallipoli and was correspondingly sceptical about what generals had to say, favouring the MI6 view that the Soviet Union would not risk a major war until at least the mid-1950s. Yet by 1949 Attlee’s inner group of ministers had launched a programme of subversive activities behind the Iron Curtain and approved war plans that included censorship, civil defence and internment camps on the Isle of Man.

Even at this distance one trembles at the description of Churchill’s return to office in 1951. It was a bizarre scene: he would take a late breakfast in bed with cold grouse or partridge and a whisky and soda. Lunch would follow with ‘enough champagne and brandy . . . to incapacitate any lesser man’, as his private secretary John Colville put it. He would talk to ministers with Toby, his budgie, alighting (and sometimes doing more than that) on their heads. He had frequent sleeps. His method of dealing with crises, he explained, was to ‘turn out the light, say “bugger everyone,” and go to sleep’. He thought he could run the Cabinet as if the war were still on, had a stroke (which was hushed up), and became increasingly senile. ‘Churchill is now often speechless in Cabinet; alternatively, he rambles about nothing,’ Macmillan wrote in 1954. ‘Sometimes he looks as if he is going to have another stroke . . . He was always an egoist, but a magnanimous one. Now he has become almost a monomaniac.’ It was into these unreliable hands that the first British atomic bomb was delivered in November 1953 – ‘an extraordinary thing’, as Hennessy points out, ‘for a man who had fought at Omdurman in 1898’. When, in July 1954, he revealed to the Cabinet that a mere committee had, several months before, taken the decision to build an H-bomb, the angry ministers walked out.

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