'The Secret State' is a book that will appeal, because of the intrinsically fascinating nature of its subject matter, to academics and non-experts alike. And it will be enjoyed by academics and non-experts alike, because Hennessy caters excellently for both readers: he is both academically rigorous in his investigation of sources and eminently proficient at the presentation of the fruits of his investigation in a compelling and engaging narrative form.
Hennessy explores Whitehall's involvement in the Cold War on different levels, looking at the politics behind 'being nuclear' in the first place, at the ongoing need for Britain to keep up with nuclear technologies as world circumstances changed and evolved (the V-bombers, for example, became obsolete, practically, when Russian air defence improved), and finally (in perhaps the most interesting chapters of the book) at the planning involved in protection of the population and government in the event of nuclear attacks. Hennessy visited the bunker, now abandoned, that would have housed the Prime Minister and two hundred others if a strike were to occur, and it is here that the stark reality of it all comes home. And in addition to the horrifying details of the potential destructive power of thermonuclear weapons, there are also lighter, more humorous moments. Hennessy relates (with relish) how the civil service, needing to find a way for the Prime Minister to always be instantly reachable, even when travelling, in case of a 'five-minute' warning of a nuclear attack, adapted the Prime Minister's car to communicate on the AA (the British 'Automobile Association') radio network; and this system had, on one occasion, the amusing side-effect of relaying to the Prime Minister's car, while he was in transit, a call to the AA from a lady whose Ford Zephyr had broken down in the middle of the road...
It is, however, the sombre, grim, frightening reality of the Cold War threat that is most vividly evoked throughout 'The Secret State'. One particularly chilling piece of information related by Hennessy concerns how each Prime Minister is required to write an order for all four of the Polaris nuclear submarines to be opened only in the event of the loss of British government, and lines of communication, to a 'bolt-from-the-blue' nuclear attack. This order from beyond the grave could be anything from "take out Moscow" to "use your own judgement." It is a frightening thought, and one which casts a new light on Blair, and all other post-WW2 Prime Ministers.
'The Secret State' is an essential book, its stories and anecdotes and analysis in turns comic, ironic, sinister, and sombre; it is a cogently told narrative history of a period and sector of the recent British past that while still largely secret, is open enough for us to be able to look back and see just how close to the brink we came.