Peter Hennessy
Peter Hennessy
Whitehall
ISBN: 0029144418
Whitehall
Author and journalist Peter Hennessy described the British civil service in his book Whitehall. Whitehall, the name the British call their civil service, derives from Whitehall Palace where many government offices were housed. The civil service is traditionally a very behind-the-scenes organization. Hennessy broke tradition by examining the lives and influence of 19th and early 20th century career civil servants in the public eye. British civil servants, unlike their U.S. counterparts, keep their positions when the government changes. Hennessy, who has reported on the British service since the early 1970s, additionally examined the "code of honor" that has been a part of civil service culture. Whitehall was rocked in the 1970s after a number of corruption cases were discovered. Hennessy finished the interview talking of the civil service today and its evolution under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
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TRANSCRIPT
Whitehall
Program Air Date: November 26, 1989

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter Hennessy, author of the new book "Whitehall", what is Whitehall? It is a geographical expression, as its leaves to be known as until it was unified, and it is a cluster of government departments within spitting distance from the Westminster parliament, down the main street called Whitehall, which used to be the king's palace, when the kings ran the show, but that's all changed. Now some people would say the civil service runs the show.
LAMB: This book is in American book stores, how come?
HENNESSY:The publisher, showing I would naturally think, great foresight, thought that there was a market for something about the hidden elements of British government in the United States, because you too have spent quite a lot of time, although you are a very open society compared to ours, worrying about the entrails of your government, and I think if there's two countries in the western world that do worry about the insides of government, for reasons of (?), ethics, not allowing Watergates, all that kind of thing, it is the United States and Britain, so I hope the publisher was right, to make that judgment.
LAMB: Who is on this cover, what is this a photograph of?
HENNESSY:This chap, when I first had that picture taken, was not even a household name in his own household, Sir Robert Armstrong. What made him famous, certainly in Britain and Australia, and I think across the world, was the spy catcher trial in Australia, when the poor man had to travel to Sydney to have the revenge of several centuries of dominion and imperial status made up for by being attacked by Australian lawyers, and as I would think, unsympathetic judges, because he seemed to be the incarnation of the British stuffed shirt, who thought that the secrets should be kept forever.
LAMB: Tell us more about the Spy Catcher, because we heard a lot about that controversy, so we can get his background. There is, there is a book.
HENNESSY:Yeah. It was by what you would call a whistle blower, Peter Wright, who had been in our equivalent of the FBI, MI5, and because of a great row about his pension, usually it’s something like that which starts whistle blowing, at least in the British context, it seems to be. He decided he would blow a great many of the secrets he knew and write a book, and when the British government heard about it, they realized he was going to spill the beans on the scale about our intelligence operations, that we had never, ever encountered before. Remember we have never had any Phillip Agee in this country. Nobody seriously had blown even the feeblest whistle on any of the cold war operations since 1945, and this man was going to do it on a Wagnerian scale, and the British government felt they had to stop him by any means they could, through the courts here or in Australia, to discourage the others from following suit, and it happened over several months, in 1986 and 1987, and Robert Armstrong then became the most famous British civil servant since Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.(?)
LAMB: Again, why was he so famous?
HENNESSY:Wolsey? (?)
LAMB: No, Sir Robert Armstrong.
HENNESSY:Sir Robert Armstrong? Because he was cabinet secretary and the prime minister's advisor on security and intelligence, and it was felt he, a civil servant, had to go and explain it away, rather than sending a minister, which I think was a great mistake, because under our system of government, ministers, politicians have to carry the can. Civil servants carry the can privately, as it were, but anything up front, a minister is meant to do it, and on this occasion, foolish, now I think, Sir Robert Armstrong allowed himself to be put on the British Airways flight to Sydney, with disastrous results.
LAMB: Where is he now?
HENNESSY:He is retired, now but he stayed on longer than he was going to because the prime minister wanted his help a little bit longer, in case there was an election which produced a funny result, and you need the civil service around to help you through a hung parliament. Didn't happen like that. She got another big majority. But he is retired now and he helps run a museum and he is a director of this and that. The usual kind of post retirement portfolio that the senior British civil service acquires.
LAMB: How many people work in the British civil servant, service?
HENNESSY:600,000 of them. Extraordinary range, as in most of (?) countries, from people that do nuclear warheads, people that do tests on tires, lorries(?), vehicles, right through to a small group of senior policy makers, about 4,000 of them, who work closely with the cabinet ministers in the formulation of policy. But the great distinctive feature of the British civil service, certainly compared to the American, is they are permanent. They do not change any of them when the government changes. There is no new blood brought in, old blood washed away. You go in at 23 and you stay until you're 60. It is career for life, only understanding that you are politically neutral. You're a piece of transferable technology, which a set of ministers borrow when the electorate puts them in the cabinet room. When the electorate removes them, you go on to the next lot.
LAMB: Chapter 3, the first sentence, "The last person truly to reform Whitehall was that well-known expert in public administration, Adolf Hitler." What are you getting at?
HENNESSY:If you have, as we have, have had since Mr. Gladstone invented it in the 1870s when he was prime minister, a great institution in the realm, in the kingdom, fixed and permanent, of civil servants who are recruited on the basis of cleverness as demonstrated through competitive examination, a meritocracy, you create in many ways an awesome monster. It is very difficult to reform aristocracies of talent compared to aristocracies of birth. They become a self-regulating profession. They outlast any prime minister, they acquire instincts and impulses of their own, traditions of their own, and if you want to reform a group of clever people, substantial in numbers, in knowledge, in memory, it takes a near cataclysm, and under the pressure of total war, they had to change, they had to bring in people from industry, the city, the universities, the professions, to help them mobilize the home front in Britain for total war, and build up new ministries to do things, to make munitions. In other words, the moment that the senior civil service ceased to be mere regulators and became doers, makers of weapons, procurers of uniforms, rationers of food, requisitioners of ships, they had to bring in people with hands on skills from the real world, if you like, outside, that had actually done it, to work with them, and they did it. And between 1939 and 1945, we had the best civil service probably the world has ever seen, but lessons were not learned. After the war, the people brought in as temporaries, to work along side the regulars, went back to their factories, their city solicitor's offices, their universities, and it went back to the old Victorian model, that you have a small number of people, gifted amateurs in a way, no specialist knowledge in particular, the classics, maybe mathematics, working along side successive cabinets, as if the world hadn't changed forever in terms of the size of the welfare state and the tasks that any advanced government has to take on, so Hitler was the last person who forced them to do the right thing. And Mrs. Thatcher's gone some way to remedy that, but only some way.
LAMB: Have you ever been a civil servant?
HENNESSY:No. I think it's wrong, it sounds pompous, but it's true, for a working journalist to go inside government, because you almost become part of the system, even if you leave and go back to being a journalist, I think acquire obligations of friendship and ways of thought, that mean you're almost part of the system.. So, unless there was a national emergency of some kind, where state service, as it were, became obligatory on everybody, I would stay outside the system as an observer, and I wouldn't accept an honor, because they do hand out knighthoods to journalists there you know. It is absolutely incomprehensible to American journalists, but they do, and even worse, British journalists accept them, so for me, I don't work for a government of any kind, I don't accept any honors. I am loyal to the Queen, but let's keep it at that.
LAMB: In our country, by the way you spent some time at Harvard...
HENNESSY:Yes.
LAMB: Did you go to school there or teach there?
HENNESSY:Well, I went there as a post-graduate on the Kennedy scholarships, which send over about half a dozen a year to MIT or Harvard.
LAMB: What year?
HENNESSY:1971, 72. Very interesting year. Nixon time, the mining of Hyphong(?) time. It was a time when the United States' economy was going over to some kind of intervention. Exchange rates were floating, that was freer, but there was some attempt to get control of incomes. A very interesting time to be here.
LAMB: Did you have a chance to study at all the American ah, government and civil service operation?
HENNESSY:Not then, only a little bit really. I pick it up by nuance. Oddly enough, where one comes across the feel more, for the American civil service, is if you read the documents declassified here or talk to people here about multinational organizations in which we work together, the IMF, NATO. But one thing you don't have to read any textbook or read any document at all, even live in the United States for a time to appreciate it that yours is an open system. You have policy arguments out in the open. One department, one agency battling it out, the national security council saying something entirely different, and by and large, by our standards, congress knowing pretty well everything that's going on most of the time, London isn't like that. London is a very secretive system, and as much cultural as legal. The laws are very repressive by your standards. It is almost impossible to get any notion of freedom of information accepted here. It is regarded as wildly revolutionary, ruinous of good government. We also have a press which is very largely uncurious, not willing usually to do the hard reading, putting a cold towel around the head and reading the stuff that is available in the public domain, in the reports of our select committees, which would be equivalent to your congressional committees, though smaller and much less powerful, or in the government documents that are released. We have a press which lets governments get away with virtually everything here. We have a managed press. It's very regrettable, but it's very true.
LAMB: When did you write this book?
HENNESSY:Why did I?
LAMB: When.
HENNESSY:When. I wrote it in bits in a way. I had written one or two tasters, one or two chapters I had done as papers for scholarly journals or pamphlets, but I wrote the bulk of it between September 1986 and December 1987.
LAMB: When was it first published in Great Britain?
HENNESSY:January 1989.
LAMB: And did the, the, I have seen it in the book stores in the United States in the last month or so. How long has it been in the States?
HENNESSY:It was published in the United States in the second week of October.
LAMB: How did it sell here?
HENNESSY:It sold by our standards, as it were, for a heavy book priced 20 pounds sterling, however many pages it is, it's 850, very well, it sold nearly 5,000 copies in hardback, which is what I would think if a good sale for a hardback. The paperback, which is coming out in the spring here, should, I hope, sell pretty quickly twice that many. But that's a pretty good sale. I am quite pleased with that.
LAMB: It sells in the United States for 35 dollars?
HENNESSY:Yes.
LAMB: Any sales in the states?
HENNESSY:Not that I know of yet, but I think the publishers as well as me, are hoping for roughly the same number of sales in hardback. Remember there's what, 260 million of you, there is 56 million of us. c
LAMB: Roughly, I think the Americans have about, we Americans, have about 2, 2 million people that work for the civil service..
HENNESSY:Yeah.
LAMB: 600,000, that's in a country of 250 million people...
HENNESSY:Yeah.
LAMB: 600,000 in a country of about 60 million people.
HENNESSY:Yeah.
LAMB: Too many civil servants here, or do we not have enough?
HENNESSY:The states do so much more for you. A vast amount of what would be done at state level in your country, is done centrally in London here, that's the big difference. It is very difficult to compare one bureaucracy with another, because we have a more interventionist welfare state that you do, although our national health service, which is a million strong, are not civil servants. They are one stage removed from Whitehall. Some nations bring their post office in, some keep it out, and when you get to the activities which make up the big numbers in any civil service, the raising of taxes, the paying of benefits, that kind of thing, as well as the post, some nations keep them within the civil service, some without. In some nations all the teachers are civil service, you see, so international comparisons are very, very difficult indeed. Most people most of the time think there are too many civil servants because they don't know what they do, and the big numbers do come, even with information technology, they still are in the business of raising the taxes and paying the benefits. That's where the big numbers are.
LAMB: Of the 600,000, how many of them are here in London?
HENNESSY:Let me think. I think it is roughly 90,000, it's a very, it may even be smaller than that now, because we have had a policy of successively pushing them out into the regions. It may be smaller than that, but I think...
LAMB: Is the post office included here?
HENNESSY:No, the post office is now excluded, it's a nationalized industry, a state industry, but it was included until 1969, all terribly confusing.
LAMB: The telephone system used to be owned by the government. Did they used to be included?
HENNESSY:They used to be part of the post office, and then when the post office became a nationalized industry, they too were part of the post office, then they were split off into British telecommunications, still part, a separate nationalized industry. Then they were finally privatized. They are now a public limited company.
LAMB: Where are you on the privatization, do you think it's a good idea?
HENNESSY:Up to a point, which is a typical civil servant answer. I'm in danger of sounding like them, but we in this country uniquely have spent a great deal of political nervous energy and time arguing since the war, where the precise boundaries of the public and private should be drawn, instead of just making sure that whoever did the job, it was done well, efficiently, and a good service delivered. It became so politicized, it became a talisman of political virtue for each side of the divide, labor or conservative, that we were wildly deluded by vast and unsustainable claims by either side, (laughter), for the virtues of this or that. Other European nations are far less ideological than us, the French or the Germans, about it, you see. And I think with luck, we will settle down in the 1990s, not to be quite so neurotic about it, because the pendulum won't swing back to public ownership on the grand scale, even if labor forms a government, and we will get mixed forms of enterprise. We will get probably closer to the American way of regulating activities without taking them over. And also, government departments here in the process of the biggest change in anybody's memory, probably forever in peacetime, of separating out the big businesses that they do from the policy making, into what are known as executive agencies. And the way they are set up, they are in the public service, they are civil servants, but they have as much private sector methodology and reward systems and penalties, as you can possibly shove in, so that at last we are producing a halfway house between the public and the private, which I hope, because I am very tired of this debate, might actually calm it down in the 1990s.
LAMB: Let me ask you about some of the pictures you have in the book, there are people that I have never heard of most of them, but it might be a way of us getting a better understanding of what you were after. Who is this man?
HENNESSY:He is called Sir Charles Trevellian. He was the top civil servant in the treasury in the 1840s and 1850s, and he was one of those wonderful, high-minded, Oxford and Cambridge educated, evangelical Protestants who wanted to clean up British government, and he had worked in India as a young man. Now in India, which of course the British government ran, there was a civil service that was recruited on the basis of you could actually count and read and you weren't corrupt. It was a meritocracy. Back here, the civil service was a job creation scheme for the friends of the ministers and the dim and unemployable sons of the aristocracy. Trevellian came back from India to the treasury here, and said, "This is not good enough. This is an advanced nation, a great world power, but we have a civil service that's dim and corrupt and useless and it's got to change." And for 20 years he ran a one-man campaign in parliament telling select committees of MPs that this should change. Telling any minister who would listen to him, and he had to wait, as so often happens for reform in our society, until he found a set of ministers who agreed with him, and they said, "Write the report." He wrote the report, and this being England, it took another 25 years to implement, and it wasn't finally run in until the early part of this century. And the key to it was quite simple, that instead of having patronage, ministers' friends, job creation for the worst kind of people, you would have clever people, from the newly reformed universities who showed they were good through written examinations. The problem was, he wanted to get them young, because they were more malleable and they were cheaper to hire, he ruled out the possibility of bringing in people with other experience and that has been the one great hobbling factor on his wonderful 19th century reform.
LAMB: Right outside the house of commons, there is a statue of this man, and here is a photograph of Lloyd(?) David George...
HENNESSY:David Lloyd(?) George.
LAMB: I mean David Lloyd(?) George, excuse me, who is he?
HENNESSY:He was the prime minister in the first of our total wars this century, in the first world war, and he was an outsider. He was a Welshman, who had none of the kind of grooming that most British prime ministers had at that time, by going to ancient university or public school, by which we mean private, in that funny way we describe things here, and he only became prime minister because there was a cataclysm. In the middle of the first world war there wasn't enough shells for the British Army in Flanders to fire and he had been a hugely successful minister of munitions, a real hands on man, try anything, see if it worked, and he became prime minister, and he, not having any background, any grooming, looked at the instruments he had as prime minister, the government departments, and said, "This is not good enough." And he refashioned British government for the duration of the first world war, totally into a war fighting instrument. He, as happened in the second world war, got in the businessmen. He called the men of push and go, to actually get the shells made, and he was completely nonideological. The sad thing is he was corrupt, both sexually and financially, but he is the nearest thing we have had to a genius at number 10 Downing Street this century. And he knew that he wanted change, and as he hadn't been groomed for the job, he had no hang ups about the proper way of doing anything. He 'd try anything to see if it worked.
LAMB: Why does he deserve a statue outside of the entrance of the House of Commons?
HENNESSY:Because he was one of the half dozen best orators we have had in the House of Commons ever. He was prime minister from 1916 to 1922, and he was chancellor of the exchequer, the leading economic minister, for a very long time before that, and he started the welfare state. We had no welfare worthy of the name, until he was chancellor of the exchequer, and pinching ideas from Bismarck's Germany, he started that process. So he is one of the great shapers of modern Britain.
LAMB: Is he on an equal footing with the statue right across the hallway from him there, Winston Churchill?
HENNESSY:Some would say he is. They were both, were great war leaders. They were both outsiders. They both had a tremendous command over the English language. They got it, they made us stand up and fight, both of them. Worth ten divisions, Churchill's speeches, in 1940, ten divisions the British army didn't have. They both worked together. Churchill looked up to Lloyd(?) George. He invited him to join his war cabinet in 1940. He had been the junior partner in the liberal government, (?) with liberal government. Lloyd(?) George had been the chancellor of the exchequer doing one chunk of the welfare state, Winston Churchill had been president of the board of trade doing another and they worked like as a team. What a duo. Extraordinary. Both turns up in a million.
LAMB: How much does a top civil servant make?
HENNESSY:Not a lot, by industrial standards or city standards. The very top make about 90,000 pounds sterling a year, which is pretty trivial.
LAMB: That is considerably higher than what a member of parliament makes.
HENNESSY:Much. They make 26,000 pounds a year. They are underpaid as well. We believe in getting public service on the cheap in this country. It's almost being seen to be stooping to trade, to use a 19th century phrase. To be the (?) about money. I think it's hopeless really. It ought to pay more, given how important a cabinet minister is, the prime minister, given how important a senior civil servant is, given that all 56 million of us depend on them getting it reasonably right, far more than we depend on the multinational getting it right. The imbalance is extraordinary.
LAMB: In the United States the top dollar paid to anybody besides the president and the vice-president, and the speaker, is about, well a member of congress is $89,500, and no civil servant makes more than that. You're saying that your top civil servants make as much as $135,000 140,000.
HENNESSY:Yeah that's right. That's right. But remember your congressional people get good backup. On the public purse, they get a big staff. They get a proper office. They get information technology. The allowances for our members of parliament are extraordinarily meager, extraordinarily meager. I actually believe in merit in the sense that if people are doing important jobs, whether in the public or the private sector, they should get a proper rate for it. It amazes me how so many good people continue to go into the British civil service, given the pay and conditions they have. It's an old fashioned 19th century public service impulse, you see. It's a great cliche of the business schools in the 1980s, here anyway. That if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Well that's not true. If that had ever been true, you'd never have had anybody with two gray cells to rub together in the sea of British civil service. And, as we all know from the people we perhaps are familiar with in industry and finance, you can pay gold plated peanuts and you still get monkeys.
LAMB: How many are there in that top category?
HENNESSY:About 4,000. The very top, the top rank, permanent secretary, very revealing that, permanent but secretary, makes them sound second rate and deferential, but permanent, camouflage again, very important people, they're are 41 of them.
LAMB: Do they have more power, I know its a simple question, do they have more power than the house of commons?
HENNESSY:In many ways, yes. Because they're closer to the minister's ear. They look after the minister at a time of trouble. They brief the minister. They are his or her information bank. They also become quite good friends very often. They are also to, most of the time, and even if they're not, they pretend they are, on the side of the minister. That is not true of MPs in the house of commons. They're trying to trip them up a lot of the time, whether they're in the opposition or in their own party. So they do get a great deal of influence. It is not flashy, showy influence, it is concealed, but it's consistent. Many people think that the power of the civil service has declined under Mrs. Thatcher because she is such a dominant politician, she knows what she wants, she doesn't want the pros and cons, the argument, she wants to get on with it. They're there to do what she tells them, they're there to take orders. But I think just as the power of the British civil service may have been overestimated at some point since the war, it is now being underestimated. You see, they're rather like the red army or the Russian army, whether it's red or not, they wait for the snow and time to take care of the invader. And if you are clever, and you make it your career for life, and if you're a senior civil servant in the treasury now, you've got through certain chancellors of the exchequer since you've joined up. Five prime ministers, extraordinary. Very difficult for a minister, unless he or she is very good and very determined, to get the better of the civil service, you see.
LAMB: Do they have to testify before committees?
HENNESSY:Yes, but this being England, they have 60 ways of saying, "I can't answer that question." There is a set of rules, there was a reform almost ten years ago to the day, to get close to the congressional system. For the first time we had committees of parliamentarians that shadowed the great departments of state all the time, watched it. For example, we have never had anything approaching your armed Services committee, ever, until 1979. There is going to be a great, great breakthrough. The leader of the house of commons, Norman (?) , is steeped in parliamentary tradition, so this is the most significant reform this century in parliament. He was going to change the balance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch. It didn't, could have done, should have done. One of the reasons it didn't, though it's a great improvement on what's gone before, is the Civil Service department immediately put out a set of rules, refined rules, saying how a Civil servant could refuse to answer, how to get out of answering a question, and they are all don't. You shall not... There is no way in those rules, you shall tell parliament the truth to the best of your ability, you shall not mislead parliament, none of that, very English, all don't, you see, and there's a review going on in the house of commons at the moment of this, the procedure committee it's called, is looking at it and I hope to heavens they change that, because I think it's an affront, I really do. The Civil Service have it far too easy in front of those committees.
LAMB: Is there corruption in the Civil Service?
HENNESSY:Very little. I think one of the great virtues of the British Civil Service compared to anybody, is the relative freedom from that. You occasionally get court cases where contracts have been given to building firms and so on, but it's very, very rare. Of course, there's always the fear you don't know it's going on. There was one famous case in the 1970s, a builder went bankrupt and all sorts of corruption was appearing. In one case, to quite a high level in the Scottish office, and this was very alarming and the rules were tightened, but as far as I can judge, we really have as clean as a bell civil service as you can reasonably hope for, and that's a great asset. Taken for granted here, because it's been that way since that funny chap you held up a moment ago, Trevelian(?), got his reform through, you see. It was corrupt as hell before that, in almost every conceivable direction. But the clean and decent impulses of Victorian England pretty well took care of that.
LAMB: Rate the British civil service in the world of civil services around the world.
HENNESSY:Very good at diplomacy. Britain punches higher than its weight in world forums, not just because of old folk memories about a great power and empire and all that, standing together in the war, but because its diplomatic service is very good at mobilizing allies, very smooth at paper work. People all say the same thing in international forums, they keep their disagreements for back home. Very well done, very well groomed. A bit too smooth for my taste, to be quite honest, but very good at it. Where we don't do so well...oh, we do very well at the welfare state end. We have clerical armies of people,...amazing how difficult it is to motivate people without good pay and they don't get good pay, but they still do a straight job. The benefits, like Wells Fargo, always get through to the people who need them. Great asset. Where we don't do so well is on the industrial front. We have been ambivalent about whether the state should intervene in the economy or not. It is part of the schizophrenia of the British adversarial system of politics that I was describing a moment ago. But we've never, ever managed to grow, even when we wanted to, anything equivalent to the French senior civil service, very technocratic, engineers and so on in it, being able to run nationalized industries if they had to, just shift over and do it. Or anything like M.I.T.I. in Japan, Ministry of International Trade and Industry. We have managed never quite to get successful economic ministries in the sense of actually, if you had to, being (?) good entrepreneurs. Some people would say it's ludicrous to try to create (?) entrepreneurs, but if you have state industries, it does help to have people who know about that kind of thing. We have never, ever taken the kind of leap that the French took, with their (?) after the war, to produce a technocratic elite capable of actually of a hands on approach to industry, if ministers wanted them to have it, so that where we've been weak.
LAMB: Rate the, what you know of the American civil service.
HENNESSY:Well, it's like everything else in the United States. The best is superb and at the other end you shudder. I am amazed sometimes how good it is, given the fact that there is such a complete clean out when a president comes and goes. Because I have a prejudice, which I think, it is a prejudice and I recognize it as such, but there is a lot of basis of it in fact, that if people are chosen for the beauty of their political opinions, that's pretty useless, because the one thing a politician doesn't need, when he or she becomes a cabinet minister in your system or mine, is prejudice. They're good at that. They got there by being prejudiced. What they do need is expertise, disinterested advice, capacity to compensate for the areas where they're bound to be relatively weak, unless you're very lucky, and I worry too much that all too often the people that are brought in to your bureaucracy when a new president arrives, are chosen because of the beauty of their political opinions, or even in appallingly worse cases, are given ambassadorships because they contributed to the funds. And I don't think that's the way to run it, and I think you lose out on that.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "Whitehall". You can see it in just a second, I hope. Now, there we are. We weren't ready for it. This is the book by Peter Hennessy. Where are you from originally?
HENNESSY:I grew up in North London, but spent my teenage in the west country, in the (?), much beloved of American tourists, and I went to university at Cambridge in the London School of Economics before going to Harvard.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in the whole issue of civil service and when did you get interested in it?
HENNESSY:I can give you the date exactly. September 1965, as a grammar school boy in the (?). I got as a sixth form prize a wonderful book by a journalist on the Observer then, Anthony(?) Sampson, called, "The Anatomy of Britain". It's the second edition of a series he wrote, and it was essentially who is what behind the scenes in Britain? And it needed doing because we are a very private society, very often the front men bear no relationship to real power, you know. And Antony, with a great journalist's flair, took the lid off the city, the civil service, you name it, and the chapters I found most interesting, as I sat there, at home in the (?) in the autumn of 1965, age 17 or whatever I was, 18, were the chapters on the treasury and the civil service. I always had a slight suspicion that people who mattered in government were those I'd never heard of, and this convinced me of that. Shortly after, as I went to Cambridge and read history, got used to handling declassified documents, and I realized that many of the people who mattered in the 19th century were not so much the politicians whose names are very familiar, but these civil servants, you see, after Trevelian's(?) reform, once the clever ones were in. And when I became a journalist, through a set of curious chances, not exactly my intention, but I'm glad I did, I was asked when I first joined the Times, in 1974, to find something to write about the paper didn't cover, because they put you on the night desk, like so many newspapers do when you start, to do the fires and the outrageous, the train crashes, you know, and there's long quiet patches. And you drink cocoa and watch nasty movies on the television or play Scrabble, but I thought I would try and write about Whitehall, because nobody really had done so, certainly not in my generation, and I got all the secondary literature, and oddly enough the best piece of literature was by two American scholars, Hugh (?) and Aaron(?) Wildovski, called, "The Private Government of Public Money", and they'd come over, in this wonderfully breezy American way, and wouldn't take no for an answer. When the secretive British civil servants said, "We can't tell you about that." They kept asking, no deference you see, very American, and they wrote by far the best book that had ever been written on British central government, as it really was. Wonderful book, and I'd sit there in the small hours of the night, on the Times desk, in between ringing up Scotland Yard to see if there were any crime figures or the ambulance service, any deaths, you know, fire service, reading this stuff. And then when I was ready, I let it be known inside Whitehall that I was going to start writing about it, and you know who made me possible, Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of the day. He heard I was going to do it, he instructed Robert Armstrong, that chap on the front of the book, then his private secretary, to send a message round, right down the policy divisions in the civil service, saying I was about to start operating and nobody was to talk to me. You can't buy publicity like that. A prime minister's minute. everybody reads it, and they thought, "Who is this person?" They'd never heard of me, they had no reason to hear of me. Harold made me. I am eternally grateful to him, and as a result, people leaked me the minute, began to tell me things. Broke all the rules, of course. But they thought I was more sinned against than sinning, so that's how it happened. And I've been doing it for 15 years. I am going gray in the service of writing about Whitehall.
LAMB: Pick up the phone and call a civil servant, do they take your calls?
HENNESSY:No, not unless I've known them for a long time. They refer you to the Press Office, and as they don't tell the press officers anything, it is a vicious circle. You have to do, to grow your own network of private informants, and you have to operate, even now, on what John LeCarre(?) calls Moscow rules, meetings that haven't taken place, with people you don't know exist. It's absurd. You wouldn't think we were an open society. I must admit sometimes it's quite funny, sometimes I quite enjoy the thrill of the chase, and with one or two of my more paranoid informants, I have had to take walks in public parks, all that kind of thing, even when the information that was coming across was pretty sort of boring really. But the real reason I kept at it, to be quite honest, is that, back to the Antony Sampson book, I have always had an interest in the behind the scenes people, the people who are not (?), the hidden side of institutions, and also I like their company because they're very ironic, very funny, very clever, and the trick is you can only stick at something as difficult as reporting Whitehall was, certainly in the early days, if you find it inherently fascinating, and the people pretty good company. I also had a very good reason for not wanting to change, because we had the equivalent of the White House correspondents, they're called lobby correspondents, because they lobby ministers, 150 of them, they all go to the same briefings, given non-attributively by the prime minister's press secretary. They all take it down at dictation speed, all write the same story, give or take a bit. Three newspapers at long last have bust that system and broken out of it, but most of them do it that way.
LAMB: How'd they bust out of it?
HENNESSY:They said, "We won't go to the briefings, and when they take place, we'll report them, we'll say you said what, and they did." The Independents which I write a column for, took the lead there. But I was briefly one of those political correspondents, for the Financial Times, and I hated it. I felt like a kept man. All the time, I kept thinking, when I was there, going to these awful non-attributable briefings in my little notebook, with all the others, I would much rather that I was back operating behind the scenes, and so I went back, and I kept at it again.
LAMB: Can you, well, a couple things. Any reaction to this book?
HENNESSY:Oh yes, they all looked in the back to see if they were mentioned in the index, whether they had been “Hennessyed.” I gather that's the phrase. Some of them looked in the footnotes, because if it's information that is still sensitive, not in the public domain, not in a document that's available, it's private information, says the footnote. Some have taken great pride in saying to me, "I've counted them, I am 15 private informations", and there's a kind of informal competition going on. You see, they all pretend they don't like the limelight. In the past, they've always wanted recognition beyond the grave, in the sense they wanted a good obituary in the Times, now in the Independent, which is in many ways a substitute for the Times, as the serious paper of record, public service, really independent quite a lot. And having been quiet, unobtrusive, behind the scenes, influential in their lifetime, they always like to think the obituary is going to be the moment when somebody will say, "Now if only you knew, this chap really mattered, or this woman really mattered." I decided to speed up that process, and they all pretended to hate it, but in private they like it, I know they do.
LAMB: If you were, and I don't say this to be unkind, if you were to name, the 2,000 or so political appointees at the top of the government in the United States..
HENNESSY:Um....
LAMB: A lot of them would be familiar names, but below that, I don't know that you could, most of our citizens, could name four or five.....
HENNESSY:Exactly.
LAMB: ..civil servants.
HENNESSY:Exactly.
LAMB: Could you name 4 or 5 civil servants here, if, could the average person that pays attention to politics,
HENNESSY:No.
LAMB: name them here?
HENNESSY:No, no. With the exception of Armstrong, there has to be some awful scandal or argument, for them to be in the front line. They can name Mrs. Thatcher's private secretary on the foreign affairs side, Charles Powell. They can name her press secretary, Bernard(?) Ingham, because they're very controversial in the western affair, which was a very complicated procurement row initially, very boring, but matters to industry and all that.
LAMB: That's when Michael Hasselton(?)...
HENNESSY:That's right, when Michael Hasselton(?) walked out of the cabinet. Because the secretary of state for trade and industry, Leon Britton, got permission from Number 10 to partially leak one of the low officer's letters about this argument, you see, and those who gave him permission, were two civil servants, in her name, the prime minister's name, Bernard(?) Ingham and Charles Powell. Well, you don't do that, you see. An elected minister doesn't ask appointed civil servants for permission to break the law, which is what it was, as well as all the rule books, both the official secrets act, you see because, I think it did, ha, it's arguable, that ministers can authorize themselves to break that. Anyway, all the rule books and conventions worthy of the name, when we have laws, were all broken in one go with that. The prime minister wasn't even asked, according to the official version. Bernard(?) Ingham and Charles Powell gave Leon Britton what was known as cover. Now, that brought them into the public domain, on a grand scale. The select committee on defense, the equivalent of the armed forces committee that you have on the hill, wanted to investigate them and get them to give evidence. The prime minister said, "No". Robert Armstrong, the ubiquitous fall guy almost, went and gave evidence on their behalf. They became famous. Armstrong himself became famous. But, apart from that, very, very few are known. Very, very few indeed.
LAMB: Who heads Whitehall today?
HENNESSY:A chap called Sir Robin Butler, who replaced Sir Robert Armstrong, and they had worked together in Number 10, in the private office for both Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. There's a kind of apostolic succession about all this.
LAMB: Who makes the decision as to who heads Whitehall?
HENNESSY:The prime minister.
LAMB: Unilateral, a single decision. Doesn't have to be voted on.
HENNESSY:No, no. What happens normally, though this, in this case it's tricky, normally for the senior appointments, the head of the civil service himself, will chair a committee, a selection committee, a lot of the permanent secretaries, top civil servants, and they will produce a slate for the prime minister, usually three, and they will say, "We favor this one, but it's up to you." And usually the prime minister chooses from within those three. Not always the one they recommend, certainly not Mrs. Thatcher, and sometimes she goes beyond and asks them to think again. So, it's prime ministerial patronage, but there is an element of the profession itself saying, "Well, they're three or four people who could do the job, some are better than others, for this or that reason."
LAMB: One of the things that seems unusual when you're looking at it from our perspective, is that a, and I inadvertently learned this from one of our interviews, is that in the house of lords, a number of the lords are former civil servants ..
HENNESSY:Oh yes.
LAMB: top government employees for years.
HENNESSY:Yeah, because they're not elected. They're appointed, you see. And it is a peculiar institution, the house of lords. Part of it is just straightforwardly futile, men with funny names and, you know, show that the genetic element is not enough. I musn't be unkind because they are very nice people by and large. Harmless. There is an element in there though of life peers, which Harold McMillan(?) created in 1958, to get new blood in there that didn't depend on the accident of birth, you see. And they put former chiefs of the defense staff in there, former top civil servants, former big industrialists, even some from the universities, though God knows why, the universities are the discount under this government, and you have a kind of elderly forum of the land. It's a wonderful place really. They speak in nuance, understatement, and some of them actually even know something about the subject, unheard of. And to the great joy of some of us, who like at least a little bit of opposition, they have defeated Mrs. Thatcher's government a hundred times on votes since 1979. Very gratifying. Shows there's life after death.
LAMB: Does it matter when they defeat?
HENNESSY:Sometimes. Usually they can get it back in the house of commons, if the majority is intact, which it usually is, but sometimes they see reason in it, and they let it be. Very good idea. I do wish they were elected though, you see. They would say to you, "If we had to stand for election, we wouldn't bother, you wouldn't get people like us."
LAMB: How many of the 1,200 or so peers or members of the house of lords, are former civil servants?
HENNESSY:Oh, I shouldn't think it's more than 50. I'd be surprised if it's that much. But they tend to turn up. They sit on the cross benches usually, which means they have no party, you see. In between. But they do tend to turn up and they're wonderful at putting in reasoned amendments because they know the background, they know the, they know the tricks, you see. And they can sometimes give the government spokesmen absolute hell because quite often the government is reliant on people who are blue blood, you see, who are in there because of blood, particularly on the conservative side. And that doesn't always mean, how can I put it charitably, that they have much of a grasp on reality or on the complexities of the issue. And when you're faced by the former permanent secretary to this or that department, on an issue of local government finance, property taxes or something, it's going to tie you in knots. It's very, very painful to see, but of course it's done with extreme courtesy, but everybody knows what's happening. They stitch them out, to put it crudely.
LAMB: Let me ask you about publishing a book in this country. Is it a hard thing, have you ever, have you written another book?
HENNESSY:Yes, I've written a few, yes..
LAMB: Several?
HENNESSY:Yes, yes.
LAMB: Five.
HENNESSY:Yes, something like that. Some co-authored, yeah, that's right.
LAMB: Is it hard to publish a book here?
HENNESSY:Not if you're a journalist on a quality newspaper. I think we're treated, and this sounds very odd, but we're treated far better than we should be. Because after all, publishers have to know somebody can write to a deadline. Not many people can do that, unless they have had to for a lot of their working life. They have to know somebody's reasonably literate, and if you're on a quality newspaper and you survive, you are. So we actually have the field to ourselves. If I was going to be a bit unkind, I would say that where I am surprised is the academics should have left nowhere in this field for me to occupy. They should have written these books, but the academics have become hyper specialists in this country. They write little fragments, they won't do a big book on a big theme like Whitehall or cabinet, you see. The cabinet system. So, they leave it open for me. I'm glad to say.
LAMB: By the way, we just showed the audience who you dedicated this book to.
HENNESSY:That's right.
LAMB: For Nid(?), who's Nid(?)?
HENNESSY:See, that's, Nid(?) is my wife, it's short for Enid. And she is a medical researcher. And one of the pleasures of our marriage is she doesn't share my interests at all in central government, but she has tolerated it, for the bulk of our married life (laughter). And I thought one way I could get her to read at least a chunk of one of my books would be to dedicate it to her. And she knows this is all written up in there, you see. We have a degree of self-irony about each other's professions. And I think it's a good thing because I like to leave my work at work when I go home. I live a very different life at home.
LAMB: Publishers in this country, who, who published it here? I've got one that's by Free Press...
HENNESSY:Yes.
LAMB: ..which is an American...
HENNESSY:Yes, here it's (?), which is part of a big conglomerate, the Octopus Group.
LAMB: Do you write books to make money or do you write books for other reasons?
HENNESSY:A bit of both really. It's the greatest pleasure, I think I have, really, is professionally is writing the books. I actually love the process. But I'm lucky enough, because I've written a few and they've sold reasonably well, to be able to get a reasonable advance, you see. And so I get the best of both worlds. But I'm never happier than when I'm actually researching and writing a book. It is one of the great things. Some might say it's vanity that, if you, if you start life as a journalist, you know how ephemeral it is, even on the corners of newspaper, yesterday's cuttings are nothing really. But if it goes between (?) overs, and after all there is a great tradition, now this does sound vain and I don't mean to sound vain, but we have a great tradition in this country of political journalists writing constitutional books, like Walter Badgett(?) did in the 19th century. Nobody knew what the British constitution was because nobody will write it down here, you see, until he wrote about it. He wrote a series of essays in the "Fortnight in Review", bundled together as the British constitution. The great cliche, for example, about the monarchy now in Britain, is the Queen has the right to advise, encourage and warn the prime minister, does it every week, on a Tuesday evening at 6 o'clock in Buckingham Palace. Where does that come from? Walter Badgett(?) wrote it, in 1863, you see. Nobody had written down what the monarch's job was in a, in a limited monarchy, contained monarchy, if you like, in a democracy, until Walter did it. And then it became part of the scene because the Prince of Wales who became Edward VII in 1901, when Queen Victoria died, was taught how to be King by a scholar from Cambridge University, by getting in to read Badgett(?), so it became accepted that that is the British constitution. And Badgett(?) made it fun. You see, we're not like American scholars who actually do care about the constitution, a wonderful constitution there. Here it's regarded as fantastically boring, and it's reduced to a question of procedure, what do you do in the house of commons if you lose a vote? The constitution is what happens here really, to be honest about it, and normally it's fantastically boring, but Walter Badgett(?), for a brief period in the 19th century, made it fun, and one of my missions, it's actually trivial, is to bring the politics of joy to this country, because I like Hubert Humphrey, but that's in fact what I tried to do, you see. And when you find a tribe like the British Senior Civil Services, the lost tribe of public life, you're suddenly stumbling upon an anthropological group with rich and bizarre habits, and doing a (?) on the few writing them up and that was my approach.
LAMB: Have you even seen Whitehall change because of something you have written?
HENNESSY:Only marginally. There was one issue, one weapons procurement, when I made a terrible row about it, and the public accounts committee in the commons took it up, and they changed the rules, of a formal accounting department, and I'm proud of that, but that's not exactly a vast impact, though in the, it has made some difference. I think I've, I have to be careful here, I think I've helped a little bit, to make them more open, because I kept at it, they had to get used to having their names in print now and again. They didn't recoil with quite such ferocity after a few years, once they realized I wasn't going to go away. But that's about the sum total of my impact. But I don't write for them, don't write to change things. If I have a mission, it is to think of the 17 or 18-year-old doing the examinations before they go to university. They need up to date stuff about the way the government works. It's very hard for academics to get it, because they don't, can't operate behind the scenes in the way that a journalist can, you see. They can't take people out for discreet lunches or whatever. And they haven't got the resources or the time, so if I, if I have a sense of mission it's to update the picture of British government behind the scenes, that the 16 or 17-year-old gets. It's easier in your country because it's all open and there's vast numbers of books on the presidency. We haven't had a book on the British prime minister written since 1956, and that was written by an American scholar.
LAMB: You mean a book about the office of....
HENNESSY:The office of, that's right. We've had biographies, but about the office and the way it works, and if have a shelf of books on the office of the American presidency, it groans, and most of them are wonderful, wonderful pieces of work. But we haven't had that here, you see. And I'm trying to do something about that as well.
LAMB: Earlier you said that you became a journalist by either a strange way or by accident. What was that?
HENNESSY:Yeah. Well, I toyed with the idea of journalism just before I graduated, but I'd gone into scholarship a bit, I'd gone to do research at the London School of Economics, and I needed to go to Harvard particularly, or to get a good scholarship to do some research. I was looking at the origins of the cold war. I needed a good university, good library, and I thought (?) has a wonderful library, as you know, and enough money to travel to the presidential libraries as well as the library of congress, and I needed to get a Kennedy scholarship, and mercifully I got one, very proud to get one, you see. And, in those days, they still, they threw a farewell party for the Kennedy scholars, because you were sort of semi ambassadorial, I mean your Rhode's scholars, without wearing jock straps, if I can be crude about it, you see. The other way. And there was a farewell party in 1971, and a man called Brian McArthur(?) came to it. He was about to start the London Times higher education supplement, and I'd had too much to drink, I was a drinking man then, and he asked me how you got these scholarships, so I told him the truth, how you had to play the selection panel like a Stradivarius(?), you see. And he obviously thought I had the makings of a hack, and even with my alcoholic haze, I remember him asking me to send him copy from Harvard, and I did so, and he liked it, and so I had a fortnightly column in which I would do Allistair(?) Cooke impressions, you see, about the American universities. Wonderful stuff to write about, in the early 70s. The best one I did was about Tom Lehrer(?), who was a near neighbor of mine, you see, sent him back, half a column on Tom Lehrer(?). I'll never forget, I'll never forget ringing up there and this is when I realized that journalism could be fun. I remember the afternoon, and I said "Mr. Lehrer(?)?" And he said, "Yes?" And I said, "I'm a near neighbor of yours and I work for the London Times higher education supplement...", the usual stuff, and he said, "Oh yeah?" And I said, "I want to come and talk to you, I want to portray you as Harvard's greatest contribution to western civilization in this century." A slight silence, "Do I detect a note of flattery in your voice?" ha...And I went on from there. So that was the accident and when I came back, I put the research on one side for a while, though I never lost the love of going through the archives. I became an education reporter first, then shifted on to Whitehall, you see. That's how it happened. It was accidental, it was having drunk too much one night at Lancaster House with the good and the great in attendance.
LAMB: If you hadn't had that experience, what would you be doing today?
HENNESSY:I'd be in a British university, trying on the get a crust, enjoying it, but I wouldn't be quite the free ranging, multipurpose hack that I now am, and I think I'm rather glad I'm the multipurpose hack.
LAMB: What would you have, I won't take this any further, what would you do if you weren't teaching and you weren't writing, any, any other possible profession that would have, would have interested you over the years?
HENNESSY:Not politics.
LAMB: That's what I was getting at.
HENNESSY:Not the civil service.
LAMB: Running for office?
HENNESSY:The trouble is, in this country you have to be, pretend to be, to get chosen, you have to pretend to have a set of beliefs which nobody in their right mind would have. You have to believe in all the elements of the party manifesto. And for the duration of the selection procedure, you either have to believe that or pretend you believe that, and I can't do that. Nor could I vote under the tight voting system we have here, where you can't break party ranks except with a great deal of difficulty. I'm just not built that way. I'm interested in politics, I think it's absolutely crucial we have clean and decent people who go through elections, but I couldn't do it, I have too much difficulty in sticking to any line for more than five minutes on anything. And you've got to be self aware, and I couldn't be a civil servant either because, quite apart from those reasons a journalist should be separate, is I would find it very hard to actually take seriously some of the ministers we get. They matter, but I think as a civil servant, you have to be capable of institutionalized schizophrenia. You have to pretend the man or woman you're working with is really clever, decent and well-motivated all the time, when you know very well that most of the time they're not. It doesn't apply to all politicians, but you have to be capable of blotting out reality day in and day out and I can't do that.
LAMB: Have you studied the American politician at all?
HENNESSY:A little. I'm more familiar with the Truman era because of my research, than I am with this one. Truman was one of my great heroes. Went so far as to rename the family cat after him.
LAMB: The reason I asked that is because we've had a couple of years where a lot of attention has been given to the ethics...
HENNESSY:Oh yeah.
LAMB: ...question. And I, this may sound unfair to our own politicians, do you think our politicians are more or less corrupt than yours?
HENNESSY:The whole system ....
LAMB: Or corrupt at all?
HENNESSY:Well, the whole system, your system, lends itself to more money factors than it does here because we have very tight rules about what you can spend in an election, and the amount of money is minor, it is derisory. There is no way you can buy office in this country, no way at all. And it's because in the 19th century, as the political concomitant to those civil service reforms we were talking about, they put in anti-corruption laws and electoral expenses laws, which mean that, as an individual anyway, you can spend very little. The parties can buy a certain amount of advertising and the main news media have fixed periods where they give them free party political broadcasts, but is inconceivable in this country that millionaires can buy influence politically, in the sense of getting themselves elected. It just doesn't happen like that, so I think inherently we're cleaner because of that. And long may that remain.
LAMB: Can industries buy votes in the commons?
HENNESSY:No. Well, I, they buy influence in the sense they hire good public relations people as far as there are any, lobbyists. I'm very skeptical about these people, as most journalists are.
LAMB: Can they wine and dine them?
HENNESSY:They can wine and dine, but in the end it's very difficult to buy them, and they all have to declare their interest, as in, register of members' interests. They have to say who they're on the payroll of, they don't have to declare having dinner with people, but by and large the system is kept clean and decent. Also, if you want to swing a piece of technical legislation in one way or another, back bench MPs aren't much use. It's much better to make a reasoned case to the senior civil service, who are drafting the law, a reasoned technical case. The very clever lobbyists do it that way, and they do it on a public interest basis. It may not be their real reason..
LAMB: Can the civil servants be bought?
HENNESSY:I don't think so.
LAMB: Can they be wined and dined?
HENNESSY:They can be wined and dined, but the rules say you musn't do it too often.
LAMB: What does that mean?
HENNESSY:Ha, ha, never wonder, I've often wondered about that. If it became known that you were too close a friend to somebody who was getting procurement contracts, and dined with them too regularly, words would be spoken. They watch that very carefully. It may happen, but I think it's very doubtful.
LAMB: This picture caught my eye, for some reason or other, I want you to..
HENNESSY:It's a skater.
LAMB: I want you to tell me who it is and....
HENNESSY:The man skating, the man skating, came top of the civil service examination in 1902, a clever Scottish scholarship boy, and he had the most extraordinary career of the 20th century, because he was a dry as dust civil servant, he worked in the home office, the equivalent of the justice ministry for you, and he planned how to break a general strike if the unions actually should do that, and he gave the administers the instrument. He then became a colonel governor and put down riots with great success, and he was asked to come back from India to prepare civil defense in case World War II came, and he did. He was brilliant. He was the nearest we've ever had to a true desiccated calculating machine. In the war, he became a politician, chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary, and he is often regarded as the first surviving heart donor in medical history. I mean people do not want him, even his memory, but he was hyper efficient. For example, when Churchill said to Attlee(?), his deputy in the war cabinet in 1944, "Next week both of us are out of the country for the first time." Attlee(?) worried if this was a good idea, they normally boxed and (?), one would go and one would stay, you see, in case he was shot down, "Don't worry," said Churchill, "We'll put the country onto automatic pilot, we'll get John Anderson to take over." And he did. And he, after the war, became, the British establishment is a funny thing, but royal commissions committees of inquiry, they get men like John Anderson to chair them, you see, high-minded, about the fray, and he was number one on what we know as the list of the good and the great, of these royal commissions, and he's not known about.
LAMB: One of the chapters you have here is on the Thatcher ah, era, it's chapter, or Thatcher effect, chapter 15. I really wanted to show this because on, at the front of every chapter, you have all these quotes, and I'll read one in a moment, but was, what, that was a device you used all through..
HENNESSY:Oh yeah. It's a straight crib from my hero, Anthony(?) Sampson, because the "Anatomies of Britain", which had that great influence on me, in the autumn or fall of 1965, all start off with these great quotes, you see, and I think you can ease the reader into another thing, at the beginning of a chapter, if you have a cascade of them.
LAMB: Let me read one.
HENNESSY:Go! By all means.
LAMB: Because we're running out of time, but I want to read one. "I think, you have, I think I have become a bit of an institution, you know, the sort of thing people expect to see around the place", Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, 1987. Why did you choose that?
HENNESSY:Well, I knew at some point, it would seem to be very funny indeed, because everybody's mortal, and poor woman, she's had a bad autumn, hasn't see? She's lost a chancellor of the exchequer. That's known as hubris in the trade, isn't it? And I always find it quite touching. Mind you, the trouble is there was some truth in it, because the labor party has been committing suicide on the television for ten years, she's had no opposition. She looked like a fixture, but I know it wouldn't last, and I knew that not long after the book was published, that would bring a slight smile, a bit of harmless pleasure, to the political nation to read that.
LAMB: You've got another quote from her, "Never let anyone say I'm laissez faire, we are a very strong government, we are strong to do with those things which government must do, and only government can do." Also in 1987.
HENNESSY:That's right. Well, she's very funny. She doesn't believe in state intervention unless she decides it's necessary, then she wields this formidable handbag and bashes the institution concerned. All politicians are like that. They can be big state or little state, but when it suits them, they can hover around in between. They have no self irony, do they? That's the problem.
LAMB: Is she going to make it in the next election, and is not, why not?
HENNESSY:I'm terribly bad at calling elections. I'm sure, unless cataclysm hits her, or her husband dies or something like depressing and awful like that, she will stick it out. It's very hard to get rid of a prime minister, when they have a majority of 100, very hard indeed. I suspect she'll stick it out. Whether she'll win it now or not, is at least an open question. Labor have got a chance, provided they don't start killing themselves, in another civil war. The problem Mrs. Thatcher faces it that she's been overestimated throughout the 1980s. People have taken at face value, including the media, where they should know better, her constant claim to have changed everything. Once she's gone, people will see the old ways and they'll say, "She didn't change that much." They'll underestimate her. Justice won't be done to Margaret Thatcher in books like theirs or in history books generally, until the year 2020, and it may even take a few American scholars to do it.
LAMB: In the last couple minutes, does the American way of doing government business have any influence over here, I mean do they, do the British watch at all, how we are doing
HENNESSY:Yeah.
LAMB: .our governmental business?
HENNESSY:Those in the business only watch it and use it as a horror story of how not to do it, but there are some of us who think it might be a nice idea to have something approaching the freedom of information act. Might be an idea to have something good and something approaching a congressional committee, for reasons of public accountability. Some of us would go even so far as to think we could learn from the ethics in government act of 1974, at least by way of having a code of practice for it here. But, by and large, the people who come to the top in a system, the ministers and civil servants at the top today, don't want to question the system that had the wisdom to make them number one, do they? It's always people from outside that tend to think you may learn from abroad. I am quite keen to learn from abroad and there's a great deal we can learn from the United States, in terms of the good things to do as well as the bad things not to do.
LAMB: Where do people here think we do badly?
HENNESSY:They think you change over badly. You take too long about changing presidents. They think it's wrong probably to bring in so many place men and place women at the top of your public service. They think that the rows within the bureaucracy do get out of hand, that there is something in that. You can have institutionalized warfare in Washington. They sometimes think too it's very difficult for a president to do what has to be done, because congress is too powerful, but the problem here is our vices are all the other way. You're at one pole and we're at the other, and I think the virtuous cycle, the virtuous system, is somewhere in between. But for me, the one thing that always impresses me most about the United States, and this is what I really envy, is if you have a trauma like Watergate, you have it out in public, no holds barred. You tell everybody everything, the place is cleansed. The impulse to cover up may exist in Washington, I'm sure it does, people are only human, but it's very, very hard to get away with it in Washington, and it's very easy here. And my admiration for the United States' system and the American people is never higher than when you're washing your dirty linen in public, and you should do that with pride almost, rather than feeling upset or apologetic about it.
LAMB: Peter Hennessy, you've written for the Times of London, the Financial Times, the Economist, and now what?
HENNESSY:The Independent, which is a new newspaper making use of the new technology at the top end of the market, as I like to think.
LAMB: And how often do you write and do you still write about Whitehall?
HENNESSY:Yeah, once a week, a column called "Whitehall Watch", and it's behind the scenes in the bureaucracy. I reckon sometimes, it I was really honest, I'm hooked on it.
LAMB: Do you have another book in you?
HENNESSY:I'm doing a small one to follow this one up, on prime ministers, called "Premiership", on the office of the prime minister, but my big enterprise between now and the end of the century is a three volume history of Britain since the war. That's what I really love doing, spend most of my time on.
LAMB: Peter Hennessy, thank you for joining us.


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