Page 6, 18th September 1992

18th September 1992
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Page 6, 18th September 1992 — Followed by the shadows of the past
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Followed by the shadows of the past

Never Again: Britain 19451951 by Peter Hennessy, (Jonathan Cape, £20) John Battle MP AS increasingly we're warned that economically it's "back to the 1930s", looking afresh at the efforts of the 1945-1951 Labour Government could prove vital.

Peter Hennessy's lively and scholarly volume is an excellent starting point.

Try the account or the 1949 "sterling crisis" for historical light on a topical issue, discover the genesis of the BBC, or retrace the original arguments against European Community union, centring on defending sovereignty against federalism, if you think we can't learn from the past.

The European episode featured the Catholic Sir Edmund Hall-Patch who had the prescience in a memo to Bevin in August 1942 to set out a European Community future for Britain. His advice was rejected. Lord Franks commented: "We did not see how we could both preserve the sterling area and be full memhers of a European customs area".

Hennessy fills in the background, pointing out that the Schumann Plan for a coal and steel community was regarded at highest government levels as an international Catholic plot. (Recently in the House of Commons the Pope was attacked for introducing "suhsidiarity").

Hennessy sets out to tell "the story of the world in which my generation, the post-war baby boomers, was born and grew up".

To get the six years in focus he starts out in September 1938 with the Munich crisis, takes us through the War, the planned economy with the Emergency Powers, to the origins of the welfare state, the NHS, and public council housing.

These are embryonic times as we move towards 1947, that "annus horrendus", when the Cabinet was brought back from holiday to meet on August 14.

The build-up to the account of this pivotal year, two thirds through the narrative, has taken us through the history of nationalism (contrary to the impression given by Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher 30 years later — a relatively brief encounter), the invention of the atom bomb and the dismantling of the Empire.

1947 is also the year Hennessy himself was born. Moments of autobiographical interjection, returning to his own bombed street, even letting us in on his work of "writing history" personalise the text.

Though he aims to create a picture of British life "embracing high politics and everyday experience from Court and Cabinet room to kitchen and queue", Hennessy is really at home in the Cabinet ante-rooms.

If it's an embryonic account, the title may appear ambiguous. Reading the text it's clear enough: "They were driven not merely by the pressing need to turn rubble into factories and homes and roads, but... to ensure that never again would slump and economic depression be allowed to distil the social poison that made fascism possible."

For a post-war generation, there was at least consensus on that objective.

John Battle is a Catholic Herald columnist and Labour MP for Leeds West.




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