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Never Again: Britain 1945-51
Peter Hennessy

London: Penguin, 2006
£ 12.99, xvi-544 p., ISBN: 0-141-01602-7


Reviewed by Antoine Capet


Older members of the profession, like the present reviewer, will remember reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the original hardback edition of Never Again back in 1992. This had been followed in 1993 by a paperback reprint,1 but curiously the book seemed to have been left to die a natural death, since no subsequent editions were offered. This meant that it was only available to students through interlibrary loans if their local libraries had not been percipient enough to buy a copy before it was too late. Today, thanks to this Penguin reprint (with no amendments or additions, apparently: even the staged photograph of "Welcome Home Hector" has been kept for the cover) the book will be made accessible to the wide readership which it undoubtedly deserves.

The subtitle, Britain 1945-51, is slightly misleading in that the first chapter in fact briefly covers social aspects of the war years—what other authors have called the Myth of the Blitz.2 But of course this is an added bonus, and one cannot complain—the more so as it is arguable that the General Election results of 1945 are incomprehensible if one does not have at least some information on the so-called People's War and its impact on the evolution of mentalities. The second chapter, "Bunting and Ballots," does just that: it relates the Labour victory to all the plans and attendant expectations which had emerged from the war. This provides Hennessy with the guiding thread of his book, concisely and excellently expressed on page 70 : "this profound change from the do-nothing years of economic slump and high unemployment in the 1930s to the can-do, must-do 1940s."

The problem is that concision is rarely compatible with the sense of nuance which should impregnate historical writing. Not everybody agrees that the 1930s were "do-nothing years," least of all biographers of Chamberlain like Robert Self.3 And now that the theory of the "post-war consensus" has largely been repudiated4 it is clear that many contemporary Conservatives never accepted the optimism of "the can-do, must-do 1940s."5 Thus we must read the book in the light of the sub-text provided by subsequent events; in other words we have to be careful, when we read descriptions of the popular enthusiasm for social reform as advocated and largely practised by the Labour Government, not to forget that at best this represented only "the other half of the English people" as Priestley put it [70].

As we know, there is a further complication to the debate on the interpretation of "the five shining years" as Hugh Dalton called them: there was not only the overt or covert opposition of the Conservatives, but also the conflict between the Labour moderates and the Labour left, culminating in the resignation of Bevan in 1951 (that of Harold Wilson would now be largely forgotten if he had not become Prime Minister in 1964). Naturally, Hennessy is fully aware of all these difficulties, and his objective is not to eschew them. As he explains (and we could now say 'sixty" instead of "forty"): "The debate about what 1945 should have meant and what it actually meant continued to rage forty years after Attlee accepted George VI's commission to form a Government" [88].

The third chapter, "Songs in Their Hearts," attempts to contextualise what he thinks "was, perhaps inevitably, an hour for wishful thinking" [90]. Bevin and his associates were deluded by appearances of Imperial (implying economic) and military strength, a fact made worse because "all politicians operate to some degree in the realms of delusion and wishful thinking" [90]. Hennessy then draws the long list of handicaps from which 1945 Britain suffered, notably in the (inter-related) financial, economic and industrial fields—with what we can now see as total dependence on American good will. But then, Hennessy draws on the work of the respected economic historian Sidney Pollard to remind us that in 1950 Britain was still the leading industrial country in Europe. "What went wrong?" is of course a familiar question associated with the poor balance-sheet of  the "the five shining years." In the industrial field, the most severe indictment has come from Correlli Barnett,6 and for all intents and purposes Hennessy accepts Barnett's theses on the bungling and complacency of the management complicit with the restrictive practices of the unions (though he refutes his determinist theories on inevitable decline [116, 220])—but one man unexpectedly emerges unscathed (and no friend of Correlli Barnett, either): Sir Stafford Cripps, who was booed by the audience at a trade dinner of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders when he preached in favour of the mass production of a cheap car (like the German Beetle) primarily designed for export [105]. This of course shows the difficulty of attributing the ills of post-1951 British industry to the Labour Government. The chapter on "Songs in Their Hearts" ends with the idea shared in 1945 by Government and population alike that "The money [for the proposed reforms] would be found—somehow." The tragedy of course is that it was not—or rather that it 'somehow" was, that is at the cost of drawing a blank cheque on the future expansion of the British economy.

Here, the time has perhaps come to indicate that Hennessy begins his chapters with a superb selection of quotations in the form of epigraphs. The fourth chapter, on "Building Jerusalem," contains a magnificent quote—Attlee saying to the Commons during a debate on the National Insurance Bill in 1946 : "I cannot believe that our national productivity is so slow, that our willingness to work is so feeble or that we can submit to the world that the masses of our people must be condemned to penury" [119]. There was the rub, of course: the British economy had all the ingredients to sustain its welfarist ambitions according to Hennessy, but the British themselves ruined all their chances. In this, Hennessy openly embraces the views of David Marquand as expressed in 1988 in The Unprincipled Society: New Demands and Old Politics. Hennessy quotes him first in the epigraphs which open his chapter on full employment, "Towards the Commanding Heights" and in the course of his demonstration. The latter quote is worth reproducing here, as it neatly encapsulates an explanatory theory of "British decline" which cannot be ignored by critics of "declinism"7:

By the early 1970s, the British economy was among the most vulnerable in the developed world. But that vulnerability was not a fact of nature. It was a product of past choices, reflecting the moral and political preferences of those who made them. Unlike its counterparts on the mainland of Europe and in Japan, Britain's political class had never managed—even in its interventionist periods—to create an entrepreneurial or developmental state. It had also failed to construct an enduring cross-class coalition, with the strength and will to answer one of the central questions which lie at the heart of economic adjustments: the question of how its costs and benefits are to be distributed. [190]

If one accepts this view, as Hennessy does (later on he speaks of "a wider failure to construct the apparatus needed to underpin a modern Keynesian-Beveridgite mixed economy-welfare state, of the kind David Marquand calls in his The Unprincipled Society a “developmental state" [380]), this naturally begs the question of the responsibility or otherwise of the post-war Labour Government in this sorry state of affairs.

Apart from Cripps (for whom he seems to have a particular tenderness) [195-6], Hennessy does not try to absolve it from its responsibilities : "Attlee and his colleagues had not taken on board the stark realities painted for those who served in the War Cabinet at least, by Maynard Keynes in April-May 1945, or by his warning of a “Financial Dunkirk” in the first days of the new Labour Government" [197]. Hennessy illustrates the Labour Government's hopeless failure to adapt with the Empire question: apart from India, which it let go at the earliest opportunity, it got it wrong on almost all assumptions behind the post-war viability (and profitability) of the Commonwealth. The role of the villain, here, is largely ascribed to Ernest Bevin, totally blind to the changed realities of the post-war world : "Nothing would be given up unless Hindu lawyers or Jewish scholars (and guerillas) forced him to—and then with extreme reluctance" [244].
Bevin also appears as, if not the villain, at least an ambiguous character in the next chapter, "Chill from the East," devoted to the incipient Cold War. Hennessy as we now know was to write his next major book, The Secret State (2002), precisely on that subject,8 thus showing his sustained interest in Cold War problems. Bevin was outwitted by Molotov— the only extenuating circumstance being that anybody else would have been [258]. Still Bevin, backed by Attlee in public, was the only member of the Cabinet to urge strong-arm policies against the Soviet Union over the future of Germany [261]. In fact, we are told in a later chapter, "it's possible to put a precise time and place on the moment of NATO's conception—six o'clock in Bevin's room in the Foreign Office on the night of 17 December 1947—when Marshall called on Bevin to discuss the way forward from the London Foreign Ministers" Conference" [347] which had resulted in deadlock with Molotov. Later sources show that it was indeed the British (and Canadian) Governments which put pressure on the United States to accept the NATO concept [358]. Yet, the ambiguous Bevin swayed the inner Cabinet in favour of building a British nuclear bomb with "a bloody Union Jack flying on top of it"—largely to cock a snook at the Americans, who had reneged on the Quebec Agreement of 1943 to continue to share atomic secrets with Britain after the war [268].
But then of course all of this cost money. Defence absorbed 'something between 5 and 12 per cent of gross domestic product" [246]. And GNP suffered a major blow in the winter of 1947, when a combination of enduring extreme frost and insufficient coal production brought chaos to an industrial organisation which had not yet fully recovered from the disturbances of the war. When General Marshall propounded his celebrated plan to rescue Europe, once again Bevin rose to the occasion, immediately (July 1947) advising the Labour Cabinet to seize the offer [292]. But this was too late to ward off the inevitable result of the disastrous fall in the winter production—the suspension of the convertibility of sterling, which took place on 20th  August. "A great deal changed that day," Hennessy writes. "The Attlee Government came of age. Never again would external economic reality be far from their minds" [305]. The emphasis on external implies that the process was not yet accomplished for internal economic reality. But with Dalton's resignation in October 1947 and the consequent reshuffle, "the Attlee Government had entered its mature, second phase," with real GDP "growing by 3 per cent a year between 1947 and 1951" [339]. On the other hand the continued balance of trade problems led to the devaluation of September 1949, which "in retrospect" Hennessy sees as "inevitable" [369].
Cripps emerges once more as Hennessy's hero—he wanted to convince both sides of industry to introduce a productivity drive, but both were equally suspicious of "Whitehall" and "planners." They were right, Hennessy seems to imply, because "the British Civil Service was not in the business of modernising our economy" [379].

In all good plays, there is a villain to act as a foil to the hero—and here the villain of the piece is the Civil Service, or "Whitehall" as Hennessy prefers to call it.9 Its villainy appears most clearly in the next episode which Hennessy discusses at length—the refusal to join the European Integration process, beginning with the "almost contemptuous dismissal of the Schuman plan" [433], the rejection of the proposal made to the British Government to be a founding partner of the European Coal and Steel Community, the embryo of the EEC and later European Union as it turned out. Not that it was deliberate bloody-mindedness (though there was an element of that, notably on Bevin's part): Hennessy's main charge is that of myopia, a fault shared by all the élites of the country, Right or Left, whether they had risen from working-class backgrounds or came from well-travelled multilingual upper-class homes.
Once more, Churchill and Bevin—"the two halves of Britain"—were united, if no longer against the Hun as such, at least against the Continentals. As was often to be the case again (Hennessy makes an explicit reference to the first Gulf War in 1990: while the British Government was busy showing itself as the most zealous partner in the American Administration's military plans, the other Europeans were busy discussing plans for monetary union [404]. Since the 1992 text was not revised, he of course could not adduce the second Gulf War as another example), aloofness from European affairs went hand in had with closer diplomatic and military cooperation with the United States (Hennessy excellently explains why senior US diplomats always rejected the British idea of a "Special Relationship").

When the Korean war broke out, the British Ambassador in Washington immediately advised his Government to pledge military support to the United States, and his advice was followed, at great cost to the British Treasury, at great cost to the British economy (a balance-of-payments surplus of £307 million in 1950 was turned into "a deficit of £369 million in 1951" [415])—and at great cost to the cohesion of the Labour Government and more widely the Labour Party, since the decision to choose "guns, not butter" (in the 1930s phrase) or tanks and planes rather than dentures and spectacles "caused an intra-party civil war of a ferocity Labour was not to experience again until the even more electorally ruinous early 1980s" [416]. A much debated point, on which Hennessy remains extremely cautious, is whether the British participation in the Korean war put a mortal stop to an incipient British "economic miracle" at a time when Germany and Japan were fast conquering export markets (the Sidney Pollard thesis) or whether it made little difference anyway (the Plowden thesis) [416]. Indeed, the Leader of the Durham Miners could say before the Labour Party Conference in 1950 without fear of being contradicted: "Poverty has been abolished. Hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folks are cherished, and children are growing up in a land of opportunity" [423]. In his general assessment of the Attlee years, taking stock of the situation in "Mid-century Britain" (the title of the last chapter), Hennessy largely takes up this "positive" view, asking others to examine the awkward "counterfactual" question of what would have happened "if the British economy had managed to grow at its late-Forties rate of just under 3 percent for the entire postwar period" [454].

The book has a substantial (14-page) Chronology, but no Bibliography as such: one has to build it oneself from the copious end notes. Anybody at all familiar with the standard writings on the period will soon realise that Hennessy had read "everything." This is often complemented by unpublished papers at the then Public Record Office, and less classically with a large number of private interviews with actors and witnesses (thus reminding us that before becoming a distinguished historian, Hennessy started as a journalist). The 62 photographs are of good quality, and well chosen. The proof-reading must have been extremely meticulous, as not one typo was detected. Unfortunately the reproduction process used in making this reprint is not very good and the small type is somewhat blurred, making reading uncomfortable. Still, these technical considerations naturally do not detract from the high scholarly value of the book. If not already standing on their shelves alongside K.O. Morgan's Labour in Power, 1945-1951,10 it must be purchased by all University Libraries, as it remains an invaluable tool for the study of post-war Britain.



1. First edition: London: Jonathan Cape, 1992. Paperback reprint: London: Vintage, 1993. back

2. Cf. Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991 [Pimlico Paperbacks, 1995]. back

3. Notably chapters 8 to 12 in his Neville Chamberlain: A Biography. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. Cercles review: back

4. Hennessy himself, in the team which created Contemporary Record (now Contemporary British History) in the late 1980s, participated in no small way in the questioning of this supposed "post-war consensus." See Contemporary Record 2-2, 2-3, 2-6 (1988 & 1989) and the collection, The Myth of Consensus: New Views on British History, 1945-1964. Jones, Harriet & Kandiah, Michael [Editors]. London: Macmillan, 1996. The debate is excellently summed up in Addison, Paul. British Historians and the Debate over the "post-war Consensus." British Studies Distinguished Lectures, N°31. Austin (Texas): Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1996 (Pamphlet. Reprinted in Louis, William Roger [Editor]. More Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998: 255-264).  back

5. Michael Foot, in his massive biography of Bevan, reminds us of offensive phrases like "Bevan or Belsen" and "medical Fuehrer" used by opponents of the Labour programme to refuse the implications of the National Health Service. See Foot, Michael. Aneurin Bevan. 2 vol. Volume 2 : 1945-1960. London: Davis-Poynter, 1973: 143, 161. back

6. Barnett, Correlli. The Collapse of British Power. The Pride and the Fall, vol. 1. London: Methuen, 1972 (Stroud : Sutton, 1996); The Audit of War : The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation. The Pride and the Fall, vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1986 (The Pride and the Fall : The Dream and Illusion of Britain as a Great Nation. New York : Free Press, 1987); The Lost Victory : British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-1950. The Pride and the Fall, vol. 3. London: Macmillan, 1995; The Verdict of Peace : Britain between her Yesterday and the Future. The Pride and the Fall, vol. 4. London: Macmillan, 2001. back

7. The leading author in the field is no doubt Jim Tomlinson. Cf. "Economic “decline” in post-war Britain." In Addison, Paul & Jones, Harriet [Editors]. A Companion to contemporary Britain, 1939-2000. Blackwell Companions to British History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005: 164-179. back

8. The secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War. London : London : Allen Lane, 2002 (Revised & updated paperback edition: London : Penguin, 2003). See Cercles review: back

9. Cf. his earlier massive (over 850 pages) Whitehall. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989 (Revised edition with a new final chapter. London: Pimlico, 2001). back

10. Morgan, Kenneth O. Labour in Power, 1945-51. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984 (Paperback, 1985). This standard work on the period would also benefit from a long overdue reprint. back




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