29 May 2016

Peter Hennessy mastered the political profile


The political profile is a paradoxical thing, and that is part of its fascination. Power is rarely introspective: at its height it is usually unable to reflect or describe itself, and even at rest the last person you would ask for insight into the politician is the politician. But there comes a phase in political careers when the essential battles are over, when there is no message to stay on, but all is still recent enough to be vivid in the mind and to inform some part of the present day political contest. This is the moment that the eminent historian of government Peter Hennessy chooses to conduct the profiles that are collected in his new book Reflections: Conversations With Politicians.

Hennessy’s famously disarming manner and deep knowledge (there is no political reference so recondite that Hennessy cannot immediately supply a date or a name) are put to work across the spectrum. Here are long, discursive interviews with figures that contrast so sharply one almost wishes they were interviewing each other: Shirley Williams and Norman Tebbit, John Major and David Owen, Nigel Lawson and Clare Short (there are 11 profiles in all). There is more of Labour than the Conservatives, although that may reflect the long ascendency of Labour in the last two decades. There is also a short and trenchant chapter on the art of political interviewing.

As Hennessy points out the birth of the modern age of political interviewing can be dated precisely. It happened on a Sunday in February 1958, when Robin Day conducted a live television interview with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that introduced a tone that had not been heard before; ‘vigorous questions courteously but not deferentially put.’ That interview opened an entirely new arena in political debate, and perhaps marks the first step on the road that has led to the present day’s self-defeating studio duelling.

Hennessy clearly wishes to reinstate the concept of the conversation, although he says his model is not so much Robin Day but John Freeman, the interviewer in the BBC’s Face To Face TV series of the 1960s. Freeman was a combination of politician, courtroom cross-examiner, and psychotherapist. Hennessy quotes from a transcript of Freeman’s quite extraordinary interview with John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC. The questions begin obliquely – “Lord Reith, tell me how tall you are” – but develop in a way that is quietly persistent, forensic, and in the end quite lacerating.

In fact this is not Hennessy’s style in these interviews originally conducted in a BBC Radio Four series; if pressure is put upon the interviewee, it is of the very gentlest sort. Questions that his subject does not wish to answer may be rephrased, and if still no answer is forthcoming, he moves on.

Politicians may not be at their best when attempting to give an account of their own formation or personality, but they are often good on friends, colleagues and enemies. Here is Roy Hattersley – himself a political biographer – on why the Gordon Brown premiership turned out so disastrously: “I have to say … I fear it was personality problems, it wasn’t political problems, it was personality. I think he waited too long – the sort of Prince of Wales effect, the worst kings we’ve had have all been Princes of Wales who waited too long.” And here again is Hattersley on Blair: “He was a very clever man. He worked for me; his first job was when I was shadow chancellor, and he was the lad who did the running about late at night. And he was marvellous: he was lucid, he was loyal, he was hard working, he was very clever. But he came to politics very late: at university he wasn’t really interested in politics, if at all … And I think therefore that he snatched hold of some half-thought-out ideas, like the market, without having thought about it quite so clearly as he should have done.”

These interviews are full of sidelights like these, as well as unexpected facts of life. Who would have thought that Norman Tebbit (the ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ who presided over the nightmares of 1980s liberals) had been a member of a print union? Who would have guessed that the Steels would stay over at the Owens’ house? Or that David Owen, who tried to break the Labour Party by creating the SDP, is now “more or less back with the Labour Party … I have given the Labour Party money in the last couple of years.”

But some of the most unexpected details make perfect sense. Norman Tebbit had been forced by the closed shop to join the print union Natsopa: that created a grudge, says Tebbit, and there was then a second grudge when his wife, a nurse at Barts Hospital, became ill. ”There was at the time a sort of Soviet that was seeking to run the hospital, and amongst the demands of the strikers involved at that time was that they were going to decide who could be admitted to the hospital on emergency grounds, and they decided, with all the wisdom of shop stewards, that my wife’s case was not sufficiently urgent for her to be admitted to hospital. I think they realised afterwards that they must have made a mistake.” There speaks Sir Thomas More.

Two themes run through these interviews. One is the repetition of the great travails of politics. For the Conservatives the travail is Europe, which did as much as anything to terminate the four-term Conservative run in 1997, and is today threatening to do something similar. For Labour, it is what Hennessy calls the ‘Labour Civil War’ that broke out after the 1979 defeat that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, a struggle which could hardly be more resonant today. These disputes arise from a fundamental fracture within each party, over what the party is for. The difference is that now these travails are playing out simultaneously at each end of the spectrum.

The other, broader theme is what Nigel Lawson identified as the dynamic created by ‘two great weather systems’ of post-war politics, the first to roll in being the Attlee Settlement of a mixed economy and a welfare state, the second being Margaret Thatcher’s re-animation of the market economy. As Lawson says, the mixed economy model was persistent even when clearly dysfunctional, because the Conservative Party accepted it, even believed in it. “The Conservative government accepted this as a change because there had been this theory, this belief, that somehow the Depression of the 1930s had destroyed the old idea of the capitalist free-enterprise economy … it was on that basis that the Attleeite settlement wasn’t really rejected at all by the Conservative Party.” It is a pity that Lawson does not discuss the possibility that the crash of 2007 and subsequent long recession are having comparably disruptive effects on long-held beliefs and political positions.

Hennessy’s last question is always “what trace will you leave on history?” The answer in almost every case is “very little”. “How do you think you will be remembered?” he asks Norman Tebbit (a man who it must be remembered asked for an unlimited supply of Sancerre and Claret as his desert island luxury):

“I think as a footnote, probably.”

“A flavourful footnote, at the very least.”

“Oh I hope so, I hope so.”

Reflections: Conversations With Politicians is published on 26 May by Haus Publishing

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.