Peter Hennessy: ‘A diary is an aid to humility, which every historian needs’ | History books

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Peter Hennessy is Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London. He is a fellow of the British Academy and was made a crossbench life peer in 2010. The author of a widely admired “postwar trilogy” of history books, his latest work is A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid. It combines deep knowledge of the UK’s political landscape over the past 80 years with a “new Beveridge” manifesto to create a fresh vision of the welfare state.

Your new book’s title is A Duty of Care. Can you define in brief terms what you mean by that phrase?
Well, the state in modern times has always had a duty of care of some sort for the people. After the second world war, it took on permanent duties of care with the welfare state. But in the pandemic an intense extension of the duty of care took place. So our awareness of what the state might have to do for us and with us, with parliament’s sanction, has increased very considerably. It was a collective experience that made me wonder whether the maps in our mind would permanently change, because the rattling of the pots and pans for the NHS was a wonderful experience. And it sounded to me like the sound of a people rediscovering themselves.

You kept a diary to write the book. Is that unusual for you and did you do it every day?
I thought that as a professional historian I should do something I’ve never done before, which is write a daily diary as an antidote to the time when I would write it up as a piece of finished history. There’s a terrible temptation for historians to tidy up excessively after the event. I’d scarcely finished the first page and the World at One producer rang and asked me to talk about the historic significance of what I thought might be coming. I then made the case that henceforth postwar British history will be divided into BC, Before Corona, and AC, After Corona. And I’ve written a diary every day since then. It’s an aid to humility, which I think every historian needs – certainly this historian does.

How did the period of lockdowns affect you?
Mercifully, my wife and I were Covid-free. I’m in the shielding category, because of a couple of things. But also, without realising it, I’d been rehearsing for it. I had a slipped disc from the summer of 2019, so I’d been at home anyway, very rarely getting into the House of Lords. We were both very fortunate because we had each other, we’re not short of money and we’re both the sort of people who can keep our interest going through thick and thin. We were as fortunate as anybody could be during a terrible time for everybody.

You quote Nigel Lawson saying that the NHS is the closest thing we have to a religion. But to improve its performance, does it need an overhaul or just greater investment?
It needs both. In our long history, the NHS is the closest we’ve come to institutionalising altruism. That’s why it has a special place in people’s hearts. I admire Nigel and regard him as a friend, but I must say if you’re going to turn anything into a secular religion, it might as well be the NHS… there are certainly a lot worse candidates. The potential fragility of the intensive care systems in this wretched pandemic was what was surprising. The people who staff it did surpassing wonders, but they are still worn out by it. So it survived the test but it needs long and sustained investment, plus an overhaul.

You also quote RH Tawney, who said that the mark of civilisation was to aim to eliminate inequalities. Can we move towards a more egalitarian future with a monarchy?
I think we can. For one practical reason – replacing the monarch with a republic will be hugely fractious for this country. All the royal prerogatives on which government operates would have to be rewritten. It would be an enormous task. And the monarchy, particularly because of the current monarch, is hugely popular. I’d also say that she’s been a remarkable asset in the story I’ve been telling in the postwar history books [Never Again, Having it So Good and Winds of Change] because she’s been the queen of the postwar settlement. She’s visited more hospitals and opened more things that were part of that settlement without ever being political about it. She’s been central to the extended notion of welfare. I’ve devoted a large part of my life to looking at the British constitution and she’s the only part that’s lived up to specifications.

Who are the historians you most enjoy reading?
Occasionally, I dip back into the works of JK Galbraith – he was an economic historian, among many other things – just because they’re so brilliantly written. I also revisit Keynes’s essays in biography, because they are stellar in every way. I also like rereading Tawney, not just because he was an economic historian of great brilliance, but also because he was a wonderful human being and a hero of mine. Just above my computer there’s a picture of him in his study, in brown tweeds of a thickness you can’t imagine, smoking a pipe and writing a draft of an economic history article!

As a constitutional expert, do you think “partygate” is a storm in a teacup or a fundamental breach of the contract between government and citizens?
I think it’s something fundamental. The North Shropshire byelection showed that we are still shockable as a people. We don’t just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way things are. Our system rests on decencies and without them it doesn’t work. I don’t want to join this long and constantly growing queue to slag off the prime minister, but I’ve watched prime ministers for a long time now. Just as my great political hero, Clement Attlee, was the incarnation of the modesty premiership, this one stands out as the vanity premiership. The great project is himself. I hope we don’t have another one like that for a very long time indeed.

  • A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid by Peter Hennessy is published by Penguin (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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