I read every page, every line of this very long book with sustained interest and pleasure. It is a collective biography of four Grenadier Guards officers — Harold Macmillan, Lord Salisbury, Oliver Lyttelton and Harry Crookshank — who, after becoming friends at Eton, and serving together gallantly and bloodily in the trenches of the first world war, went on to play prominent roles on the stage of British politics for the rest of the century, usually as allies in the Conservative party cause but sometimes as rivals or even, towards the end, as enemies.
But as well as being a collective biography it is also a comparative biography, since the four subjects — although they all started at Eton in the same year, 1906 —came from different social backgrounds, Salisbury and Lyttelton from the hereditary aristocracy and Macmillan and Crookshank from the professional middle class. In today’s England it may appear that they were all grandees, but that is not how they saw themselves at the time. Indeed part of the fascination of the book is to note how even the formidably close regimental bonds forged in battle were not strong enough to prevent subtle class distinctions driving them apart, at least initially. While the hereditary aristocrats, Salisbury and Lyttelton, gained immediate preferment in the Conservative party, Macmillan and Crookshank, as they were quick to notice, had a far harder struggle. Even so, the shared memory of the trenches was never entirely extinguished and one of the many achievements of this book is the way the author delicately plays on this note without ever pressing too hard upon the pedal.
Only once — and quite justifiably — does the author put his foot down with a bang. This happens after he has recounted a lunch at the Turf Club in the middle of the second world war from which Harry Crookshank, then a Tory MP, is summoned to take a telephone call. Mr Churchill is on the line asking him to become Minister of Works, an unglamorous job which nobody wanted. Crookshank turned it down, and in order to tempt him to accept Churchill offers him a hereditary peerage — an act of crass insensitivity because Crookshank, as was by then well known in high Tory circles, had had his balls blown off in the trenches. ‘Of what possible use could a hereditary peerage be to a castrato?’ asks Mr Ball.
Essentially, however, this is a book about a race for power and glory, in which four thoroughbred horses come to the starting point at the same time; a race in which two, Salisbury and Lyttelton, take the lead early on but in which Macmillan, a slow and stumbling starter, ends up streaking ahead to become prime minister, leaving Salisbury and Crookshank, in various degrees of discomfiture, very far behind. Only Oliver Lyttelton is relatively unfazed, having already won first prize in the corporate rat-race stakes. Although in the main a collective and comparative biography, this book is also revealing about the great issues of the period — interwar unemployment, appeasement, the conduct of the second world war, the Cold War, Suez etc; revealing because readers get to see these issues from a fresh angle: that of four highly intelligent, highly ambitious and — at least initially — highly idealistic politicians trying to grapple with them in a way which satisfied the demands of both friendship and public duty. It is a grand theme which Ball tells with enormous sureness of touch, doing justice to the complexity both of the issues and of the men.
But most important of all is the picture that emerges of the winner, Harold Macmillan, who by the end has not only won the race for the power and glory but also for social grandeur, becoming the first Earl of Stockton in his own right. But there is more to it than that. For to begin with, in the days of SuperMac, he managed to give hereditary aristocracy a new lease of life. Under his aegis a whole new generation of middle-class politicians, like Ian Macleod and Reginald Maudling, were only too happy to become part of the old order serving alongside the Duke of Devonshire, Macmillan’s nephew by marriage. It was the Disraeli touch all over again, and the nation loved it. Then Macmillan, struck down by what he thought was prostate cancer, made the fatal mistake of going a step too far by engineering the succession of the 14th Earl of Home, which was rather as if the Conservative old guard in 1940 had succeeded in putting the Earl of Halifax into Downing Street instead of Mr Churchill. It was a blunder — for which the new men, provoked beyond endurance by jealousy, never forgave him — leading indirectly to the disaster of Thatcherite bourgeois triumphalism.
Towards the end of his life Macmillan despaired of friendship in politics. Once at the top, he said, there are ‘only clients’. In his case, however, this was not quite true. For when Harry Crookshank, a lonely and unhappy old man, lay dying, Macmillan, then prime minister, spent many hours at his bedside holding his old friend’s hand. ‘Looking down at his emaciated form,’ Ball writes, ‘the image that kept forming in Macmillan’s mind was of a chubby eight-year-old he had known first at Summer Fields’, the pre-Eton preparatory school where the two had first met. Ball is very fair. Although the nastiness of politics is not ignored, neither is the sentimentality or even the gallantry.
The Guardsmen is a magnificent achievement and if the judges of the next Duff Cooper prize have any sense — a big if — they will look on it with favour. A product of superb scholarship and profound insight and written in a style both incisive and flowing, this is a book for every taste and for the politically minded of every age group. I cannot recommend it too highly.