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An Unlikely Demon

Harold Macmillan: Volume II, 1957–1986

by Alistair Horne
Viking, 739 pp., $24.95

Harold Macmillan’s period as prime minister, which stretched from 1957 to 1963, divides the Churchillian from the Thatcherite world. Macmillan was the last representative of the prewar generation—he had served in World War I, entered Parliament in the 1920s, and lived through the time when Britain could still claim major international influence—to control the Conservative party and run the country. Equally, he was the prime begetter of what followed. Much of the future was a reaction against him. The two most significant prime ministers of the next quarter-century, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, saw their mission, with some exactitude, as being to efface if not destroy the values Macmillan stood for and the world he was thought to have preserved. He survived, as it happens, for almost that entire period, an elder revered for his stylish jokes and rehabilitated as a repository of undoctrinaire wisdom that could be used against the Thatcherite ideologists. But it was as a totemic demon that he had his main influence on modern times.

The formation of his views and character in the Churchillian world was described in Mr. Horne’s majestic first volume, reviewed in these pages by David Cannadine.* To read the second without reading the first will be a puzzling and in some ways stultifying experience. More than most multivolume biographies—Martin Gilbert’s life of Churchill being a salient example—this one needs to be seen as a single work, both in order to enjoy it and to understand a mind that was deemed by one of Macmillan’s adversaries to be “the most complicated I have encountered in political life.”

The author of this sentiment, Sir Roy Welensky, a one-time prize fighter who rose to be prime minister of the Central African Federation, was not perhaps the most refined of judges. And he had known fewer intellects with which to compare Macmillan’s, with whom he argued over the speed of African decolonization, than did De Gaulle or Kennedy or the other large figures with whom the British prime minister then familiarly consorted. But Welensky was right. Macmillan was a complex man, and many of the sources of his complexity lie in the earlier period. Nobody can easily understand his condescending attitude toward the Conservative party, for example, without reflecting on the remarkable fact that he sat in Parliament for sixteen years, most of them under Conservative prime ministers, before being offered a ministerial post. In the image he liked to cultivate, of a dangerously adventurous outsider, such persistent rejection had a valuable part.

Again, as Mr. Horne persuasively suggests, the manner of his public downfall could be attributed in part to the most decisive episode in his private life, decades earlier. One of the few things many English people remember about Macmillan is that his war minister, John Profumo, had an affair with a tart and subsequently lied about it to the House of Commons, with Macmillan preferring not to know and delegating the matter, disastrously, to subordinates. One of the things hardly any English people knew, until Mr. Horne chronicled it in Volume I, was that Macmillan’s wife took a lover, Robert Boothby, who probably fathered the last of her children and whose ardor persisted for the rest of her life. Macmillan was extraordinarily civil about it. He even nominated Boothby for an early peerage. But it made sex a taboo subject forever, and Boothby therefore an unconvicted accessory to the Profumo disaster.

To many who came of political age in the early Sixties, that disaster in fact seemed well deserved. It symbolized the most important truth about this Edwardian relic, that he was out of touch with the times over which he was supposed to be presiding. Looming on to the television screen, he appeared to embody everything that was wrong with Britain. The drooping mustache, the foppish manner, the patronizing voice, the hesitant self-effacement that was so palpably bogus: every aspect of the visible Macmillan persona belonged to a different era. Nor was his private performance any different. “I am always hearing about the Middle Classes,” Horne records him writing to the head of the party’s research department in 1957. “What is it they really want? Can you put it down on a sheet of notepaper, and I will see whether we can give it to them?”

This was typical Macmillanry, the bemused Edwardian gentleman seeking guidance on developments he delighted to pretend he did not understand. His friends invariably cite such behavior as the amusing pose of the brilliant performer. And he certainly found out enough about the middle classes to secure a sweeping victory in the 1959 election, only three years after the Suez debacle. But it wasn’t all an act. Macmillan was a snob as well as a poseur. He kept a fastidious distance from the life of the masses, which was one reason why Harold Wilson won the 1964 election. Macmillan had left office by then, but the identity of his successor, the Earl of Home, scarcely disqualified that contest from being a referendum on Macmillan’s generation. When Wilson promised to mobilize, in one of his more famous phrases, “the white heat of the technological revolution,” he summoned up a new world of which these anachronistic Conservatives could plainly have no comprehension.

Wilson’s, therefore, was the first career to be built on the ruins of Macmillan’s. But Wilson, despite winning four of the five general elections he fought, left socialism unreformed and the country considerably worse off than he had found it, and thereby prepared the way for the second assault on the Macmillan inheritance, this time from the right. It is hard to exaggerate Macmillan’s importance in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s icono-clasm. This is usually concealed by the reverent bromides with which Conservative leaders are expected to coat the reputations of their predecessors. There is a famous photograph, included here, of Mrs. Thatcher literally sitting at the feet of the Grand Old Man on his eighty-fifth birthday and gazing soppily into his face. Mr. Horne, on the whole, goes along with this picture, and thereby underestimates the creative force of an essentially antagonistic relationship.

Socially, Macmillan represented the Whiggish caste whose members Mrs. Thatcher abominates. Politically he believed in a paternalistic government that would use Keynesian economic policies within a corporatist system capable of resisting the power of the market. These three nostrums, paternalism, Keynesianism, and corporatism, define the consensus wisdom which, in Mrs. Thatcher’s opinion, was at the root of Britain’s postwar failure. Nobody who witnessed her parliamentary oration on the occasion of Macmillan’s death in 1986 could have failed to be struck by its perfunctory insincerity. Her dutiful words, swiftly mumbled, were eloquent testimony, among other things, to her inability to dissemble. Toward the end of his life, Macmillan, after years of relative silence, theatrically attacked her doctrinaire extremism from the benches of the House of Lords. She marked his death with contempt.

The Harold Macmillan whom Mr. Horne displays at the peak of his career falls into two almost segregated parts. We are presented with a split personality, one at home and one abroad. This is a surprising discovery, because Macmillan’s earliest celebrity came as a domestic politician adopting a cause unfashionable among Conservatives, the condition of the unemployed in the 1930s. He was MP for Stockton-on-Tees in the deprived northeast of England, and his book, The Middle Way, published in 1938, broke new ground for a Tory by arguing for economic policies that addressed the need for growth and social justice. It was partly as a dangerous social reformer that he was excluded from the higher reaches of the party for so long. Yet twenty years later we find a leader whose main interests were quite different. According to Horne, Macmillan’s copious private diaries, which are a principal source for his book, contain hardly any references to social reform. According to the subject’s later reminiscences, taped by the author and again plentifully deployed on his pages: “I left that side all to Rab [Butler, Home Secretary, 1957–1962] and Henry Brooke [Home Secretary, 1962–1963].” An extraordinary confession but one that freed the prime minister to devote himself to what, by then, he really cared about, which was foreign affairs.

It is as a diplomat and a geo-politician that history, I believe, will judge Macmillan to have been a remarkable performer—very likely the last such prime minister Britain will have. His successors, of course, have struggled with the European problem, and the ineluctable need to integrate the off-shore island into the continental economy. But, beyond that, horizons have narrowed to fit the straitened condition of Britain’s economy and post-colonial geography. Bloody-minded nationalism, of which Mrs. Thatcher is a supreme exponent, is what Britain now has to offer by way of global vision. It would have been anathema to Macmillan the strategist. It is also when dealing with that side of his activities that Alistair Horne is most authoritative, the master of complicated material.

Macmillan always made much of his experiences in the trenches in the First World War. The loss of half his gilded generation at the Somme scarred him for life. In the sweep of his career as a whole, however, it was World War II that was decisive. As a prominent Churchillian and anti-appeaser, he established credentials the Conservative party did not forget when the leadership fell to a choice between him and Butler—“the most cringing of Munichites,” Macmillan recollected to Mr. Horne. During the war itself, he had a rare diplomatic apprenticeship, as British minister resident in North Africa, and later in Italy and Greece. In effect, he was the political chief alongside the generals, notably Eisenhower and Alexander, and his efforts were crucial in establishing De Gaulle as undisputed leader of the free French, in settling the fate of Greece, and in much of the rough justice meted out in the Balkans. This was not without a bitter residue. Late in his life, a most painful controversy arose concerning Macmillan’s part in the forced repatriation of non-Communist Russians to their almost certain death, an episode that Mr. Horne’s first volume covers with conspicuous evenhandedness. But, as a preparation for what mattered most in his tenure as prime minister, his daily engagement with the high politics of war, requiring strategic imagination and low cunning in roughly equal measure, could not have been more influential.

When he got to the top, he applied these qualities to three problems in particular. The first, in some ways the most remarkable, was Africa. Roy Welensky was not the only white leader to be discountenanced by Macmillan’s sinuous clarity of purpose. As a decolonizer he was decades ahead of his time. During a brief period at the Colonial Office in 1942, he favored nationalizing the white farms in Kenya and running them under multiracial management, on the grounds—a full ten years before the emergence of Mau Mau terrorism—that this would be “less expensive than a civil war.” In the 1950s, his attitude toward black Africa was that of a governor-general of Nigeria, who once gave him an instructive lesson. After attending a meeting of the Nigerian council of elders, Macmillan asked the governor, “Are these people ready for self-government?” Of course not, said the governor. “When will they be ready?” Macmillan inquired. The governor said, “Twenty years. Twenty-five years.” “What do you recommend me to do?” Macmillan asked. “I recommend you to give it to them at once,” said the governor. Otherwise, he said, all the intelligent natives would become rebels, and the country would inevitably descend into violent conflict and repression.

Macmillan clung to that philosophy through all the vagaries of African nationalism, and against the vicious opposition of the traditionalist wing of the Tory party. Africa owes him a lot, and he saved Britain the trouble of military confrontations that would have been futile. He more than anyone else was responsible for many relatively bloodless transitions from white to black rule. His visionary efforts reached a climax, memorable if not wholly successful, when he journeyed to Cape Town in 1958 to give the Boers a history lesson. Ever since the breakup of the Roman Empire one of the constant facts of political life in Europe has been the “emergence of independent nations,” he told the South African parliament. Africa was no different. “The wind of change is blowing through the continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Mr. Horne justly calls this Macmillan’s most famous speech. It was also immensely courageous. Even though South Africa has been resisting its implications for another thirty years, elsewhere in Africa it became an influential text.

As a European, Macmillan was less successful. This was his second theater of international activity, and the scene of his greatest failure. He saw, again for sooner than most, that Britain’s future lay in the European Economic Community, and he devoted the major energy of his prime ministership to achieving the integration with the Common Market that would have accorded him a unique place in history. His hope that he could parlay his and Britain’s wartime backing for General de Gaulle into a fruitful relationship with President de Gaulle was destroyed by the Frenchman’s obsession, more mystic than rational, with his “idea” of France, and the impossibility of reconciling this with Britain’s relationship with the US.

Alistair Horne, an expert on France, is at his best in picking his way through this story, trying painfully to be fair to both sides. It is true that Macmillan made mistakes. In particular he failed, at the crucial moment, to lead. He was not, in that public sense, a confident leader, with a capacity to rouse an uncertain nation caught between sentimentality about the Commonwealth and insular dislike of Europeans anyway. He had a vision, but it never emerged from behind that insufferably weary and disengaged manner. On the other hand, it must be doubted whether the inspirational fervor of a Pericles or even the dramatic flair of Macmillan’s friend, John F. Kennedy, would have converted the nation sufficiently to shift De Gaulle’s adamantine hostility.

Kennedy represented the third of Macmillan’s key liaisons, his determination to maintain Britain’s special relationship with Washington. In some ways this may be counted the most consequential of his diplomatic efforts. Again it harked back to the age when war had imparted a certain equality to relations between Britain and America. The Macmillan-Eisenhower connection, grounded in the intimacies of wartime North Africa, was notably close, and prompted considerable trepidation in the aging prime minister as he contemplated its replacement in 1961.

Things did not start auspiciously with Kennedy. Macmillan conceived it his duty to educate the young president by composing a “Grand Design” for the future of the world, in preparation for his first visit to Kennedy’s Washington. When he arrived, a portent seemed to appear with the discovery that this great paper, which he had spent weeks preparing, was missing: it was eventually found among the toys in the White House nursery. Did this put Britain in its new place? It turned out not to. The two men became trusting allies. Mr. Horne, it seems to me, is a little too entranced by this, and cites some glutinous letters written to Macmillan by Jacqueline Kennedy after the President’s assassination, testifying to a warmth that surpasses all credibility.

But it was through great persistence, not least in working on Kennedy, that Macmillan pulled off his most important contribution to the peace of the world in the self-appointed role of executive mid-wife to the nuclear test ban treaty in 1963. Although he fought hard to secure and update Britain’s “independent” nuclear deterrent, he was throughout his life a deep and thoughtful skeptic about the arms race and its futile contribution to deterrence. Again, therefore, one encounters here a mind unchained by fashion or dogma, constructively in search of new approaches.

The contrast with his domestic performance could hardly be more striking. This is not to be found in economic facts so much as in the swift ebbing of political mastery. In the demonology of modern Thatcherites it is Macmillan’s record as an “inflationist” that appears first on the charge sheet. And it is true enough that he disposed of three Chancellors of the Exchequer essentially because they were too cautious for his taste. His experience representing Stockton-on-Tees, as distinct from the sentimental affection in which he purported to hold a class of people he had nothing in common with, led him to loathe every unnecessary particle of economic recession. He would take almost any risk in the name of economic growth, and seems never to have had a second thought about the detailed interventions in economic affairs that Keynesian demand-management and the accompanying need for wage controls required a prime minister to undertake. Cruising back from Cape Town and the wind of change speech, he used the ship’s telex to authorize another 1 percent pay rise to satisfy the demands of rail workers. This is the kind of detailed intervention by government that modern Conservatives affect to ridicule. Yet it has to be said that the record of this inflationist prime minister, whether measured by growth, unemployment, or inflation itself, is better than any of his successor’s; and not least Mrs. Thatcher’s.

Notwithstanding, Macmillan’s period of domination was remarkably short. Mr. Horne dates the beginning of his decline from 1960—a mere three years after he reached power. After the Conservatives’ electoral landslide of 1959, Supermac began to get buried by events. His diary reveals a man degenerating into a state of almost permanent exhaustion. He seems to have been ill surprisingly often. The Boothby humiliation continued to fester, other family crises encroached; he himself slipped into an emotionally reclusive existence, pondering the map of the world but unable to deal with the social shifts of swinging London in the Sixties. He began to lose his grip on the party.

Mr. Horne is less at ease with the minutiae of domestic politics than he is in the international field. And his biography is not overcritical. Writer and subject got pretty close as they talked over the years. But the man who emerges is nonetheless a somewhat pathetic spectacle. Having seized the topmost office, he comes to sound as though it is all too much for him. Beset by the Profumo case and other security crises, and a decline in the opinion polls, he ventures an ill-considered cabinet reshuffle, and then finally, afflicted with a prostate condition which he self-diagnoses as cancer, he bungles the management of the succession, leaving Britain in the hands of Alec Douglas-Home, the most decent but least competent prime minister of the century. Mr. Horne suggests that, if Macmillan had acted more thoughtfully, and had a doctor to tell him he was wrong about the cancer, he need not have quit. He also records some moments in the 1980s when the old man thought he might need to return. Such speculations strike one as merely embarrassing. Some time before the end, Harold Macmillan was a burned-out case.

He had important qualities that modern British politicians lack. His internationalism was instinctive and deep, and he possessed the all-round culture of a well-educated publisher. Throughout his life he read and reread the classics, and his table talk covered a range that would be incomprehensible to the philistine salesmen and grubby publicists who predominate at Westminster today. He could discourse with erudition on the merits of Hardy and Kipling as novelists, decadence in Hellenistic literature, the scandals of the Avignon popes, the suffering of the Anglo-Saxons under the Normans, or the anopheles mosquito in sixth-century Italy. He also believed in cabinet government, by which the assembled top ministers could actually shape decisions, now something of a museum piece in the British constitution. After ten years of a governmental style increasingly dominated by collective sycophancy placed at the disposal of autocratic prejudice, it comes as a shock to read that Macmillan’s cabinet in January 1958 was permitted to spend four hours discussing economic policy. But this kind of government-by-dialogue, which is now quite unheard of, is a fitting symbol of how little he left behind. He was, decidedly, the end of something, not the beginning. To discover in retrospect that one was not wrong at the time about that limp mustache and the social lethargy it stood for is an only mildly reassuring experience. A political leader surely hopes to leave a more worthwhile domestic legacy than the enmity of his successors.

  1. *

    The New York Review, April 27, 1989.

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