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Forensic: Lord Cormack reviews Peter Hennessy’s 'Land of Shame and Glory'

Downing Street, September 2022: Liz Truss and husband mourn the passing of the Queen

4 min read

Wise and even prophetic, Lord Hennessy’s examination of the UK’s recent political upheavals will both impress and depress you

One of the highlights of my week is my Sunday morning call with Peter Hennessy, one of the finest of our contemporary historians, and a peer whose contributions enlivened many a debate until about three years ago when ill health intervened. The wonders of modern science have allowed him to continue as a virtual regular member of our Constitution Committee and he has remained, prolific author that he is, perhaps the most trenchant observer of the political turmoil that has threatened the very fabric of our constitution in recent years. Last year in A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid he gave us his thoughts on our National Health Service as we emerged from the pandemic.

Now he turns again to the subject on which we have no greater expert: the British constitution. In Land of Shame of Glory: Britain 2021-2022, Hennessy looks with forensic detail at what may be the most momentous of all post-war years – the period between September 2021 and September 2022. The theme of the book is perhaps best summarised in one of the many quotations from the diary he keeps every day. Writing of yet another apparent step on what sometimes seems like the road to constitutional oblivion, in February 2022, he remarks “meanwhile, the shaming of Britain continues. What a behavioural chasm separates our head of state and our head of government”.

That really is the theme of this book, beginning, as it does, with the ever-quickening descent into chaos and obloquy of Boris Johnson and ending with the death, after the longest reign in our history, of perhaps the best-loved monarch our country has ever had.

You may not want to have a dry January but, if you want a sober one, read this book

Over several decades, Hennessy has not only analysed and explained the constitution with compelling lucidity, he has almost venerated it as a system that has enabled the United Kingdom to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances without in any way jeopardising our national integrity. This book is a graphic mourning of the disintegration of that integrity, largely at the hands of a charlatan prime minister for whom truth was not only stranger than fiction but actually became fiction. Hennessy quotes John Major, when he was appearing before the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in July of 2022: “The danger with breaking conventions is very real… It devalues public life; it destroys the trust of the public in Parliament, which is a loss that is very serious, if it becomes sustained; it damages public faith; it undermines Parliament; it unsettles the constitution.”

Shame & GloryRunning throughout the book is a deep appreciation of the contribution to her country of Her Majesty the late Queen and towards the end of the book he quotes from his diary: “The bands fell silent… The Queen was at rest in the family vault inside St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Briefly there was silence – a silence swiftly broken by the whiny voice and the dreary prejudices of Britain’s new prime minister”. He does not continue to include Liz Truss’ justified fall from office, and the installation of Rishi Sunak, but the title of his last chapter “There may be trouble ahead” we now know to have been prophetic. You may not want to have a dry January but, if you want a sober one, read this book. Its wisdom will impress you, but it will depress you too. 

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and life president of The House magazine

Land of Shame and Glory: Britain 2021-22
By: Peter Hennessy
Publisher: Haus Publishing

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