Professor Lord Peter Hennessy: ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’

As part of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing on the theme of Political History and Life-Writing, OCLW welcomed Professor Lord Peter Hennessy last Tuesday to give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. True to his chosen title, Hennessy’s lecture was in large part introspective. Reflecting on his personal development as a historian, he gave an account, rich in anecdotes and humour, of the strata underpinning his historical outlook; what he vividly referred to as his “compost”. This biographical narrative was presented alongside a plethora of anecdotes illustrating the role of the personal in British political history and its effect on the current political landscape.

Hennessy started by explaining the rationale behind his lecture: an attempt at examining the degree to which others’ personality has shaped his own approach to history. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s dictum -“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” – he went on to consider how a historian’s own biography could also be of the essence. Confessing to having his hippocampus “stamped with biographies”, Hennessy intimated that his first conscious memories of a Prime Minister were of the 1950s when Winston Churchill was in power. Although professing to shy away from theories—“Gossip with footnotes is what I believe” – Hennessy maintained that British people acquire expectations of the activities of a Prime Minister through their experience of the first Prime Minister they encounter in their own lives. The man who made his mark in Hennessy’s case was Harold McMillan. Through that experience, Hennessy gained the sense that a Prime Minister should be steeped in history, polished by the classics and dripping in self-confidence. It is no wonder, he pointed out, that he felt disappointed from then on.

Politicians have a way of constructing an image of themselves almost from the start of their careers. To this purpose, Hennessy argued, props are useful. Odd names, such as Winston, Enoch or Boris may help. Or physical props, like hats or cigars. Even initials, such as R. A. Butler can serve the purpose. But glasses, he added, can be a problem. Seemingly insubstantial, such factors “have a chance of clinging to the velcro of collective memory”. Language is also extremely important. Referring to the contemporary political scene, Hennessy noted that even before the election, our “palates are jaded”. The language of political exchange, he argued, is very meagre and inadequate for the political conversation that is needed in Britain today. Hennessy proposed the need for a model, and offered Orwell, who famously warned that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, as a candidate. Hennessy argued that Orwell’s list of bad examples in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ reads well by today’s standards, and it could serve as an antidote for what Hennessy described as the “Blue Peter out of management consultants’” language – a  “preachiness combined with opacity”—that is currently pervasive in politics.

Hennessy’s concern with current political discourse led him to share his doubts about the efficacy of debates as a platform through which to discern who could best perform the task of prime minister. Hennessy worried that to succeed in a debate one needed the skills of a “plausible tart”, which would rarely be needed in the role itself. Although these ideas were shared with a great deal of wit, the underlying concern was serious: there is a real possibility that current practice is narrowing the flow of good prime ministers, favouring instead those with “well-rehearsed spontaneity”.

Hennessy made passing mention of a few personal regrets. One of these was not having written a history of the role of rumours and gossiping in politics. Recognising this is something hard to preserve, he argued that it was nevertheless crucially important: “in some weeks the world is moved by little else”. Although he felt it went too far, he quoted Carlyle again, this time stating: “History is a distillation of rumour”.

The point the lecture kept illuminating was that “one’s personal biography jostles with other people’s”. Rejecting Napoleon’s theory that one looks at the world the way one did when one was 20, Hennessy believed that his defining moment was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which coincided with the first ascent of Everest. To this, he added the shaping influence of Eagle comics as well. This experience of 1953 led him to acquire a belief that the British are good at mixing tradition and modernity. He described how at that time people still talked in terms of before and after the war, and they were still rationed. And yet, in spite of this, there was an enormous sense of optimism. Hennessy felt that living in that atmosphere allowed him to consciously absorb the notion that “my country was a success story country”. He asked us in the audience to think, on the way home, about the year that formed our norms.

Emphasising the importance of bringing both humility to the writing table and a sense of what is unknowable, Hennessy ended the lecture with a nod to two writers who informed his view of the process of writing history. The first was Lytton Strachey, who in his biography of Queen Victoria spoke of the “secret chamber of consciousness”. Hennessy warned that “It’s hard enough to know one’s own, let alone anybody else’s”. Fittingly for a historian lecturing at Wolfson College, Hennessy ended with Isaiah Berlin quoting Kant: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.

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