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 …

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