The Unhappy Winner

Harold Macmillan: Vol. I, 1894-1956

by Alistair Horne
Viking, 535 pp., $24.95

Harold Macmillan was prime minister of England from 1957 to 1963, and died in 1986 at the age of ninety-two. But his British contemporaries were never exactly sure who he was. To his critics, he was little more than a second-rate actor, implausibly and cynically posturing in a variety of superficial and contradictory parts—the crofter’s grandson, middleclass publisher, ducal son-in-law, vulgar showman, world leader, stag at bay, elder statesman, and poor man’s Churchill. Not for nothing was Anthony Sampson’s interim biography acutely subtitled “A Study in Ambiguity.” But to his admirers, he was a rich man’s Disraeli, a virtuoso performer, who was brilliantly gifted in the arts of political management and party leadership, who recognized the essential importance of gesture and theatricality in playing (and winning) the great game, and who was a past master at saying one thing, while resolutely and effectively doing something completely different. In appearing to be an actor, he was only pretending to pretend, and the fact that his critics never noticed this merely demonstrated how completely—and how successfully—they had been beguiled and deceived.

To the end of his very long life, Macmillan’s reputation remained as protean as his personality was enigmatic. When he became prime minister of England in the aftermath of the Suez fiasco and Anthony Eden’s abrupt resignation, it was widely believed that his administration would only last a matter of weeks. In fact, it became one of the strongest and stablest peacetime governments in twentieth-century Britain, and most of the credit for this belonged to Macmillan himself. He restored the shattered morale of the Conservatives, and led them to a triumphant victory at the 1959 general election. He reestablished the Anglo-American “special relationship” with Eisenhower and Kennedy, paid much-publicized visits to Russia and South Africa, began to dismantle what remained of the British Empire, and played a major part in the negotiation of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And he presided over an unprecedented period of domestic prosperity and affluent consumerism, memorably associated with his famous—if usually misquoted—remark: “You’ve never had it so good.”

But halfway through his time as premier, “Supermac” seemed to have lost his touch, and his last two years in office were bedeviled by a series of misjudgments and misfortunes. The economy became overheated, incomes were rising too rapidly, there were recurrent balance of payments crises, and inflation threatened to get out of control. His prestige and authority were gravely weakened when his attempts to get Britain into the Common Market were brutally vetoed by General de Gaulle. And the sordid sensationalism of the Profumo scandal, combined with growing anxieties about national security, further undermined the government’s credibility. Compared to John F. Kennedy and Harold Wilson, Macmillan seemed an anachronistic, almost ridiculous figure, out of date and out of touch. In a desperate attempt to reestablish his position, he dismissed seven of his ministers in the “night of the long knives” of September 1962 …

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