Peter Hennessy

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Person.png Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(Historian, academic)
Peter Hennessy.jpg
BornPeter John Hennessy
28 March 1947
Edmonton, London
Alma materSt John's College (Cambridge)
Member ofDitchley/Governors, Ditchley/UK
English establishment historian and academic specialising in the history of government.

Peter Hennessy, Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, is an English historian and academic specialising in the history of government.

He has been Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary College, University of London since 2001.[1]

Early life

Peter Hennessy was born in Edmonton, the youngest child of William G. Hennessy by his marriage to Edith (Wood-Johnson) Hennessy.[2] He comes from a large Catholic family of Irish provenance and was brought up in large houses, requisitioned by the council, first in Allandale Avenue and then in Lyndhurst Gardens, Finchley, north London. He attended the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, and on Sundays he went to St Mary Magdalene church, where he was an altar boy. He was a subject of the first episode of the BBC Radio 4 series The House I Grew Up In, first broadcast on 6 August 2007, in which he talked about his childhood.[3]

Hennessy was educated at St Benedict's School, an independent school in Ealing, West London. When his father's job led the family to move to the Cotswolds, he attended Marling School, a grammar school in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He went on to study at St John's College (Cambridge), where he was awarded a BA in 1969 and a PhD in 1990. Hennessy was a Kennedy Memorial Scholar at Harvard University from 1971 to 1972.



Hennessy was a journalist for the Times Higher Education Supplement from 1972–74. He wrote leaders for The Times from 1974–82, for which he was also the Whitehall correspondent. He was The Financial Times' lobby correspondent at Westminster in 1976. In June 1977, Hennessy accused Donald Beves of being the "fourth man" in the affair of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean, but Geoffrey Grigson and others quickly leapt to the defence of Beves, considering him uninterested in politics.[4]

Hennessy wrote for The Economist in 1982. He was a regular presenter of Analysis on BBC Radio 4 from 1987 to 1992. On 17 November 2005, he made a trenchant appearance alongside Richard Wilson, Lord Wilson of Dinton before the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee on the publication of political memoirs.

In July–August 2013, he interviewed four leading politicians Shirley Williams, Jack Straw, Norman Tebbit and Neil Kinnock in the first series of BBC Radio 4's Reflections with Peter Hennessy.[5] On 16 August 2016, in the fourth series of the programme, Lord Hennessy asked Dame Margaret Hodge why she had taken against Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party.[6] She replied:

"I'm not going to allow my party to be taken over as a plaything for a whole load of Trots."[7]

Academic career

He co-founded the Institute of Contemporary British History in 1986. From 1992 to 2000, he was professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. From 1994 to 1997, he gave public lectures as Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London. From 2001, he has been Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary.

His analysis of post-war Britain, Never Again: Britain 1945–1951, won the Duff Cooper Prize in 1992 and the NCR Book Award in 1993.

His study of Britain in the 1950s and the rise of Harold Macmillan, Having It So Good: Britain in the 1950s, won the 2007 Orwell Prize for political writing.[8]

Elevation to the peerage

On 5 October 2010 the House of Lords Appointments Commission nominated Hennessy as a non-political crossbench peer and he was ennobled on 8 November 2010 as Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield in the County of Gloucestershire.[9] He was introduced to the House of Lords on 25 November 2010.[10]

"I'm terribly pleased and honoured," Hennessy said at hearing the news. "I hope I can help the House of Lords a bit on constitutional matters. I'll certainly give it my best shot."[11] In August 2014, Lord Hennessy was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scotland's independence in the run-up to September's Scottish independence referendum.[12]


Hennessy is the author of the following:

  • Cabinet (1986) ISBN 0-631-14968-6
  • Whitehall (1989) ISBN 0-02-914441-8
  • Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992) ISBN 0-679-43363-5
  • The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution (1995) ISBN 0-575-06176-6
  • The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (2000) ISBN 0-312-29313-5
  • The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (2002) ISBN 0-7139-9626-9
    Republished and extended as The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945 – 2010 (2010) ISBN 978-0-14-104469-9 Penguin
  • Having it so good : Britain in the fifties (2006) ISBN 978-0-7139-9571-8
  • Cabinets and the Bomb (2007) ISBN 978-0-19-726422-5 Oxford University Press
  • The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 (2010) ISBN 978-0-1410-4469-9 Penguin
  • Establishment and Meritocracy (2014) ISBN 9781908323774 Haus Publishing
  • Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum (2015) ISBN 9781910376065 Haus Publishing
  • Reflections: Conversations with Politicians (2016) ISBN 9781910376485 Haus Publishing


A Document by Peter Hennessy

TitleDocument typePublication dateSubject(s)Description
Document:Margaret Hodge reflects on Jeremy Corbyninterview16 August 2016Jeremy Corbyn
John McDonnell
Ken Livingstone
Margaret Hodge
Tom Watson
John McTernan
I know John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone. And I've known Jeremy Corbyn for 35 years when he first became the MP for Islington North and I was leader of Islington Council in local government. I know what they're about: they want the party to be a movement.
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