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Outmoded elegance

Harold Macmillan, by Charles Williams

10 June 2009

12:00 AM

10 June 2009

12:00 AM

Harold Macmillan Charles Williams

Weidenfeld, pp.548, 25

Harold Macmillan seemed well prepared when he succeeded a sick and humiliated Anthony Eden as prime minister after the disaster of Suez in 1957. An intellectual who knew about economics, a tough debater, an advocate of closer relations with Europe, Macmillan had been a ministerial success at Housing, the Foreign Office and the Treasury. He was also a puritanical hard worker, determined and self-contained. His wife, Lady Dorothy, the cheerful and dowdy daughter of a Duke, pleased a still deferential Tory party; he even had an American mother when Anglo-American relations needed reviving. No wonder Eden’s cabinet, with only two exceptions, thought Macmillan the best candidate, far ahead of his rival, Butler.

It is the shadows behind this that make him particularly intriguing. Macmillan had also been closely involved in the dishonest attempts to seize the Suez Canal back from Nasser, the Egyptian dictator who had nationalised it. He had, partly because of his party’s doubts, prevaricated over Europe. Many of the houses built during his time as Housing Minister were architectural disasters. For years Lady Dorothy Macmillan had been having an affair with Bob Boothby, a bisexual intimate of gangsters and rent boys. One can see why biographers return often to Macmillan’s supposed ambiguity and deviousness, to his enjoyment of irony.

I must declare an interest. My father worked for Harold Macmillan and, although young enough to be his son, knew him for years, first as his private secretary, then as a confidant and friend. Macmillan was my godfather, someone whom I found fascinating, endearing, funny, wise and kind. When, some 30 years ago, I was writing a biography of Arthur Balfour, he gave me an astonishingly clear psychological analysis of this earlier intellectual prime minister. I will never forget the (for someone in his eighties) remarkably modern performance. Near the end, Macmillan asked if I had read a recent novel by Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22.

Did talk with him show ambiguity? Yes, because Macmillan appreciated the ambiguity within the human condition: the double-sidedness that allows us to exist within ourselves yet be different with others, to conceal what we really are. Did I see deviousness? No — but there was performance and irony. His conversation was sometimes self-conscious, also a mix of fantasy and realism in its probing and listening, its humour and eloquence, its sharp assessments. Yet no politician that I have met could listen like Macmillan — or had such an intense curiosity, even in his ninth decade.

In this new biography, Charles Williams, formerly a Labour spokesman in the House of Lords, tells a familiar story. How could it be otherwise when the archives have long been open and others have gone before? Again we read of the shy, intellectually precocious son of a Scottish publisher — descended from crofters on the west coast of Scotland — and pushy American mother; sentimental friendships at Eton and Oxford (an excuse for dragging out unproved rumours of homosexuality); wounds and courage on the Somme; Tory paternalism coming partly from this, partly from experience in a northern working-class constituency during the slump.

There is the old charge of delight in aristocratic life, in country-house parties and his wife’s family at Chatsworth. No doubt it is true, but this was romanticism more than social snobbery; Macmillan appreciated beauty and history. This book also makes clear that he loved the ruthless, philistine Dorothy Cavendish, even after she wanted to divorce him and had a daughter by Boothby.

Many thought that the young Macmillan was a pompous bore. Scorned by Dorothy’s grand relations — although her parents came round to him — he made at first only quiet progress, a crescendo coming with opposition to appeasement and then, at last, success and self-confidence as what has been called ‘Viceroy of the Mediterranean’ in north Africa and Italy during the second world war. Williams covers this well: the achievements with the Americans and the French in Algiers but also the tragedy of sending back Yugoslav and Cossack prisoners to be murdered by Tito and Stalin in 1945 that haunted Macmillan until his death.

The narrative of the years as prime minister is harder going, partly because British history became less interesting; but one also senses Williams’s growing dislike for the ageing figure with an outmoded moustache. Again the territory is familiar: nimble- footedness after Suez, inflationary economic policies, too much time spent as the international statesman, the increasingly old-fashioned style (the so-called ‘grouse- moor image’) and unrealistic idea of British influence. Fixing for Lord Home, a hereditary peer, to succeed him seems to be another error — until one remembers that Home nearly won the election of 1964. Also the fey and eccentric Butler, a more obvious successor and, like Home, an appeaser in the 1930s, might not, as Macmillan feared, have been tough enough for the job.

This book can be too detailed and, occasionally, crass in style. Do we need to know the history of the Munich clinic where Macmillan went in the 1930s after a breakdown? Also it may be true that the second world war was ‘a momentous event’; that first steps can be taken on ladders; that sands shift and matters of importance should be ‘high on agendas’, yet we don’t have to be reminded. Perhaps such language is a subtle comment on Macmillan’s outmoded elegance. But why say that he was ignorant of Europe because he could only read English, French, Latin and Greek and did not like Mediterranean food? Were other British politicians more widely read or gastronomically sophisticated? Could Edward Heath spout Goethe or Dante? Was Harold Wilson a familiar figure in the trattorias of Umbria?

In 1957, when Macmillan became prime minister, many of the post-war illusions were still intact: that we could keep much of our empire and remain apart from Europe, that the United States needed and wanted us, that we could afford, on our own, to be a great power. Attempting first to accommodate and then to change these, he renewed the damaged American relationship and accelerated a comparatively peaceful end to most of the old empire. In the face of domestic opposition, an intransigent de Gaulle, imperial nostalgia and our need for America, he tried to take us into Europe. The prosperity brought by Macmillan’s government may have been inflationary and the result of a too conciliatory industrial policy. But this new comfort and ease was appreciated (and surely deserved) by those who had lived through the grey post-war decade. These were considerable achievements or near achievements.

What proved fatal for Macmillan was the huge cultural change that happened in Britain, unlike in continental Europe, without an obvious revolution or defeat. By 1962 — the year of the Profumo scandal, satire and crumbling deference — the deceptive façade of the Edwardian gentleman, useful in the post-war Tory party, resembled a figure from a costume drama. Only after he had left office did Macmillan seem useful again, stylishly expansive and, in a last irony, more self-confident as Britain declined. Now, in a series of mellifluous television appearances, his final service was to give a diminished country a glimpse of the mythical elegance of a vanished world.

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