Roscoe Lecture Series - Liverpool John Moores University

Roscoe Lecture: Professor the Lord Peter Hennessy

Watching Prime Ministers

Former Whitehall correspondent, author and historian, Lord Peter Hennessy, talked of his experiences with former Prime Ministers during one of LJMU’s popular Roscoe Lectures.

During ‘Watching Prime Ministers’ Lord Hennessy drew on his vast knowledge about past residents of 10 Downing Street and began by describing the job of a PM as a 'wonderful, terrible thing'. He commented that it was not a role he would like to have and gave unique insights into the lives of past PMs, highlighting how many of them, including John Major, had said they wished they had had more time to think, and how the majority of them loathe the weekly PM’s Question Time.

He emphasised how there is no job description for a Prime Minister but explained how the role had changed over time to encompass more and more responsibilities. To demonstrate this, he compared a functional analysis of the position in 1947, the mid-1990s and today. During those years the functions had escalated from 12 to 33 and then to 47 functions. He explained that the most recent increase, from 33 to 47, was in part related to the formation of a coalition government.

On the subject of the forthcoming election, Lord Hennessy commented that he is in two minds about the televised ministerial debates. He said:

"To shine you need the gifts of a plausible tart which is about 2% of being a PM!"

He added:

"The debates will see MPs choosing their party leaders with these debates in mind and it really worries me that there may be people who are very good but who never get to become leader because of that."

Another fascinating section of Lord Hennessy’s talk focused on the PM’s 'Letter of Last Resort’' which is held on HMS Vanguard - one of four identical Royal Navy submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles. The letter is written by the PM of the United Kingdom to the commanding officer of the missile submarine and contains orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government and has killed or incapacitated both the Prime Minister and the "second person" (normally a high-ranking member of the Cabinet) whom the Prime Minister has designated to make a decision on how to act in the event of his or hers death. In the event that the orders were to be carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of Her Majesty's Government. The letter is destroyed unopened after a Prime Minister leaves office, so its content remains known to only them. Lord Hennessy said on interviewing David Cameron recently he had said to the PM: "You must have realised that this is one of the big moments of being a PM," and Cameron had agreed.

Peter Hennessy (Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield) has enjoyed an illustrious career in journalism and broadcasting spanning two decades, having worked for The Economist, The Times, The Financial Times, and the Times Higher Education Supplement. At the BBC, he was a regular presenter of 'Analysis' and in 2013 presented Radio Four’s 'Reflections', featuring the lives of prominent politicians.

His academic specialism is the history of government and he has been Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary College, University of London, since 1992. He is also a founder of the Institute of Contemporary History and Director of Mile End Institute for Contemporary British Government, Intelligence and Society. He studied at the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded a doctorate, and at Harvard University, where he was a Kennedy Memorial Scholar. He was also Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

Lord Hennessy’s books include ‘Cabinet,’ ‘Whitehall,’ ‘The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War,’ ‘The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution,’ ‘Never Again: Britain 1945-1951,’ and ‘Having it so good: Britain in the 1950s,’ which charted the rise of Harold Macmillan and won the Orwell Prize for political writing.

Lord Alton of Liverpool, Director of LJMU’s Foundation for Citizenship comments:

"Peter Hennessy has been watching Prime Ministers all his life. He has written some of the best books on Britain’s constitutional arrangements, security and intelligence regime, and post war Prime Ministers. Peter understands the DNA of the ‘Establishment’ but has not been wholly absorbed by it. A fully paid up member of the human race, he has a real personal warmth and an unfailing interest in others. When you want to know how this country works, and where the real power lies, he’s the man to ask."

You can download and listen to his lecture here.