In the heyday of Mrs Thatcher, arguments raged over what had gone wrong with Britain since 1945, and who was to blame. High on the list of suspects were the Conservative governments of 1951 to 1964. On the Left they were accused of inertia in the face of social inequality and economic decline. From the Right they were attacked for appeasing the trade unions and failing to roll back the frontiers of the state. Pro-Europeans accused them of missing a historic opportunity by refusing to participate in the creation of the Common Market. Though the critics differed in their views, they all had one thing in common. They knew for certain what the politicians and the civil servants of the past ought to have done, and viewed them as backward pupils who had failed their history exam.
With Peter Hennessy as our mentor we move on from the polemics of hindsight to the trickier business of understanding the past in its own terms. His latest book is, among other things, a guide to a foreign country, the England of his childhood. ‘Like everyone else in “my age”’,