A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid by Peter Hennessy - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Brave Old World

A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid


Allen Lane 256pp £20 order from our bookshop

As his admirers frequently say, Peter Hennessy is, like Alan Bennett and Dame Helen Mirren, a national institution. He pops up on Radio 4 as often as the shipping forecast and his contributions have the same quality of reassuring predictability. As a journalist on The Times and then as an academic, he studied the great and good of Whitehall and Westminster, and now he sits with them in the House of Lords. He is an exponent of the ‘good chap’ theory of government and is on intimate terms with the most illustrious of these good chaps. We read about ‘Clem’ and ‘Nye’ and ‘Rab’. I notice, though, that he has stopped talking about ‘uncle Harold’ – perhaps he got a frosty note from the late Duke of Devonshire, who really was Harold Macmillan’s nephew.

Most of Hennessy’s previous publications have focused on the period from 1945 to 1979, which he presents as the golden age of the good chap. He is mainly interested in the centre and centre left of politics, a spectrum that extends from Denis Healey to Iain Macleod. The challenge to the consensus formed by such figures is seen as coming mainly from the Thatcherite right, with the left of the Labour Party not getting much attention. Now Hennessy has turned his focus to the impact of Covid-19. Like many who seek out ‘lessons from history’, Hennessy’s main conclusion is ‘I was right all along.’ The greater part of the book is a survey of postwar history that repeats much of what Hennessy has said before: he quotes generously from his own series of radio interviews with politicians. He describes a postwar period in which Keynesian economics dominated, the welfare state flourished and a Bevin-esque variety of patriotic Atlanticism prevailed. It turns out that what we need is the same again and that the right response to the effects of the pandemic is a ‘new consensus’ and a ‘new Beveridge’. These conclusions will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read Hennessy’s previous work or, for that matter, to anyone who has read virtually any journalistic commentary on Britain in the last few years.

Occasionally, evidence is mentioned, almost in passing, that seems to contradict the sweeping assertions of the main argument. One chapter begins: ‘It was plain from the moment we saw the electoral map of Brexit that Leave areas very largely coincided with areas of relative deprivation.’ Actually, the two maps that Hennessy produces in evidence show nothing of the sort. The book also ricochets around in ways that were not, I think, intended by the author. The description of Britain after 1945 is designed to support Hennessy’s prescription for what should be done after the Covid crisis ends. But it has exactly the opposite effect. Britain after the war was in a completely different position to Britain today. The pandemic, moreover, is a global event and it reminds us of even darker clouds on the horizon – particularly climate change. Hennessy’s consideration of post-pandemic politics, however, mixes national and global problems with little sense of how they might be different. I dare say it is theoretically possible that a future British government might solve the problem of care for the elderly or revive technical education – though the fact that no recent administration has come close to doing so suggests that these challenges might be trickier than they seem. But a British government acting on its own could do little to halt global warming, even if it trebled gas prices, abolished the internal combustion engine and made it illegal to eat meat except on Christmas Day.

Covid has highlighted the fact that the most severe inequalities are those found on a global rather than a national level. This raises questions about the implicit nationalism of the British welfare state. In 1944, Friedrich Hayek wrote that socialists ‘proclaim as a duty towards the fellow members of the existing states, [what] they are not prepared to grant to the foreigner’. In any case, are the architects of the postwar settlement people we would want to imitate now? What would Keynes have said about contemporary Britain? A eugenicist, he might have made some sinister remarks about the effect of Covid on the ‘unfit’. Had he witnessed British politics over the last few years, his scepticism about democracy would hardly have been attenuated. He might well have pointed out how different things would be now had graduates possessed two votes in 2016, as they did in 1945.

Somehow it seems appropriate that Hennessy wrote much of this book on South Ronaldsay overlooking Scapa Flow, because the most striking characteristic of his analysis is its insularity. His indifference to things that happen outside Britain (and especially in non-English-speaking countries) is so marked that he makes Nigel Farage look like Isaiah Berlin. Even nuclear weapons are discussed mainly in terms of British security. Given that the Attlee government so admired by Hennessy presided over Britain’s withdrawal from and partition of the subcontinent, it is also odd that this book does not contain a single mention of India.

Hennessy’s great skill is flattery. He flatters those that he writes about but he also flatters those who read him. He writes about Britain in the first-person plural and is much concerned to emphasise the virtues that ‘we’ display. He states banal opinions with a confidence that will give anyone who holds such opinions the impression that they must be very clever. Everyone gets to bathe in the warm glow of their own virtue. At times, this book reminded me of those television programmes from the 1970s in which some established star – say Val Doonican – would present a line-up of his friends. There would be an exchange of mutual admiration and the performers would sing a well-known song together.

Hennessy is forever introducing us to his friends, who are then quoted as authorities on whatever topic he is addressing at that moment. We read about ‘my friend of decades, Sir Richard Aikens QC, former Lord Justice of Appeal’; ‘my shrewd friend Sir Nicholas Soames’; ‘my great friend Tam Dalyell’; ‘my Scottish friend Lord Robertson’; ‘my friend Nick Macpherson, now Lord Macpherson’; ‘my lifelong friend John Browne, former CEO of BP’. We get a tantalising reference to a ‘wise insider friend’, though it is unclear whether ‘an old SIS friend’ is the same as ‘a wise friend of mine who spent his life inside the Secret Intelligence Service’. These friends rarely suggest that the people responsible for the problems of their country might be themselves. I was, in this context, curious about an absence. Pretty much the only name not dropped by Hennessy is that of his former student Simon Case, who is, at the time of writing, head of the British civil service.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter