Since the main purpose on earth of the Conservative party was, and still should be, to keep Britain’s ancient and well-proven social and political hierarchy in power — give or take a few necessary upward mobility adjustments — Harold Macmillan must rank very high in the scale of successful Conservative prime ministers; just below Benjamin Disraeli, whose skill in sugaring the pill of inequality and humanising the face of privilege is never likely to be bettered. Earlier biographies of Macmillan, blinded by the egalitarian zeitgeist, have never done justice to this particular dimension of his genius, preferring to see his successful manoeuvring to pass the torch on to a 14th earl as an anachronistic blunder rather than a masterstroke.
To his credit, D. R. Thorpe tells the story in its true blue colours. As he conclusively demonstrates, by the end of Macmillan’s period of grandee government, incredibly enough, all ranks of the Tory party — plebs as well as toffs — wanted a 14th earl as their next Conservative leader.
Contrary to the propaganda, Rab Butler never had a chance. In other words, the 14th earl was quite as much the democratic choice as the aristocratic, and had not Iain Macleod, out of selfish pique, written his deceitfully misleading ‘magic circle’ article in The Spectator suggesting the opposite, and Enoch Powell, out of perversity, been equally regardless of the truth, the Tories under Sir Alec Douglas Home, as he had by then become, could well have gone on to win the next general election.
This would have spared us both the Thatcher interlude, which put power into the greedy hands of what Macmillan called ‘the banksters’, and then the Blair/Brown years, which entrusted it to the equally grasping and disreputable New Labour cabal, which purported to be a meritocracy. But it is beginning to look as if a promising reaction has set in — not too late one hopes — and although David Cameron is not exactly a 14th earl, he is the next best thing; so Uncle Harold must be cheering in his grave. And not only about this, but about much else besides. For Thorpe’s beautifully written biography conclusively clears Macmillan of pretty well all the charges that have been levelled against him.
Let us start with the truly monstrous calumny that the Cavendish family, at least in the early years, found him ‘a bore’. Except for his understandable aversion to gossip, this simply cannot be true. For although the young Macmillan was shy and serious, he was part of a brilliant circle, including Father Ronald Knox (who went on to write the classic satire Let Dons Delight) and Maynard Keynes — a lover, incidently, of Daniel Macmillan, Harold’s publisher elder brother — not to mention a bevy of young political contemporaries who were to become shining stars in the political firmament.
In any case this biography is festooned with Macmillan’s stimulating and original aperçus, enlightening historical parallels and memorable aphorisms. Here are two of the latter I enjoyed: ‘A foreign secretary is for ever poised between a cliché and an indiscretion’ and ‘Socialism is only workable in Heaven, where it is not needed, but not in Hell, where they have it already’.
As it happens, my mother, as a young woman, got to know him on a yacht in the 1920s and said he was the only interesting member of the party. It seems that right from the start Macmillan was that rare combination: a top-notch intellectual, steeped in history and literature, and also a man of the world who in his conversation could cast spells. Not since Arthur Balfour had there been such a brilliant mind in Downing Street, and compared to him our present lot are very small beer indeed.
On the serious charges the biography is equally dismissive. Macmillan was not responsible for sending the Cossacks back since, as well as the Cossacks, he too was caught up in the gale of the world. Neither did he play any Machiavellian role designed to promote his chances of becoming prime minister during the Suez affair. He genuinely thought that force should be used to begin with, but, on learning from Eisenhower the likely economic consequences, he concluded that Britain had no choice but to withdraw. As to his treatment of Rab Butler, that too is presented, with good reason, as well within the rules of the political game.
Most welcome of all, on the personal level, is the confirmation that Lady Dorothy’s lover, the bounder Robert Boothby MP, was not the father of Sarah, one of Macmillan’s daughters. How do we know? Because Boothby had apparently tried to go to bed with Sarah, which, it has to be assumed, even a bounder would not have done if he had thought she might be his daughter. (Given the sexual sophistication of today, such certainty might seem a bit optimistic.)
All his life, in my view, Macmillan was on the side of the angels, particularly when, as a five-times-wounded captain in the Grenadier Guards, whose name became a byword for courage, he preferred to relax in the trenches by playing chess with his batman rather than carousing with his fellow officers; likewise, as an aspiring young Conservative politician in 1926, his heart bled for the Jarrow marchers.
On the international front he was also often right from the beginning. He was right, for example, to have signed up early under Churchill’s anti-appeasement flag, steering clear of Oswald Mosley. And, as Churchill’s wartime ‘Viceroy in the Mediterranean’, right to have argued the Americans into accepting De Gaulle as the postwar leader of France. He was right to have made himself the main political champion of his old friend Keynes and his economics; right as Prime Minister — although I didn’t think so at the time — to despise the Kenyan white settlers for their depravity, and their Rhodesian counterparts for their stubborn stupidity. And he was right to have played down the danger of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Finally, looking back, he was right as a young man not to have been persuaded by his friend Father Ronald Knox, whose Masses he used to serve, to convert to Catholicism. For, if he had, Britain would have lost a first-class, in every sense, prime minister: wise, cunning and fearless.
Nor, according to Thorpe, was it true, as it is so often claimed, that his prime- ministership came to a squalid end because of his mishandling of the Profumo scandal. Sexual innocence, such as he displayed, was rightly not to be judged a hanging offence. In any case, public memories are short, and by the time Macmillan fell ill his administration was, once again, back on course. It is important that the record should be put right on this score. For although a mis- diagnosed prostate problem was not a very glorious way to go, it was much less squalid than the Profumo alternative.
The last years of retirement followed, in the course of which — comforted until her death by Lady Dorothy wholeheartedly at his side — he became a bit of a parody of his former self. What this book shows, however, is that he was almost certainly the last prime minister worthy of our history as a great imperial power.