Grand Old Man

Robert Blake on Harold Macmillan’s services and disservices

  • The Last Edwardian at No 10: An Impression of Harold Macmillan by George Hutchinson
    Quartet, 151 pp, £6.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2232 3

Biographies of living people seldom come off. There is much to be said for gathering information about a person while he is still alive, as Mr Alastair Horne is now doing in the case of Mr Macmillan. But to publish in the subject’s lifetime is difficult. There are things in some people’s careers which it is impossible even to mention while they are living and many more which it is hard to treat in proper perspective. To steer the course between defamation and flattery, while at the same time avoiding grey caution, is not always easy. In spite of these and other problems Mr George Hutchinson has been remarkably successful in this short and admirably written biography. It is a portrait which is recognisable and vivid, essentially sympathetic but not uncritical. A valuable by-product is the author’s decision to reprint Iain Macleod’s piece from the Spectator about the manoeuvres for the succession in 1963. Since it takes more than one-eighth of his total of 150 pages, this may seem disproportionate, but it ought to be available somewhere in book form. It is one of the most remarkable articles ever written by an ex-minister.

Macleod’s account raises another major problem for the contemporary biographer. There can be no doubt that Mr Macmillan, on his sick bed at King Edward’s Hospital for Officers and despite the aftermath of a major operation, was determined at almost all costs to prevent Mr R.A. Butler succeeding him. His illness would have given him every excuse to resign at once and proffer no advice to the Queen at all on such a matter. Constitutionally, he was not obliged to give it, and Bonar Law declined to do so in somewhat similar circumstances in 1923. Mr Macmillan must have had the strongest motives for acting as he did. Iain Macleod’s account, which has so far never been seriously disputed, shows vividly the lengths to which he was prepared to go.

Obviously, this antipathy between these two major figures is something that needs an explanation. It is not like that between Disraeli and Gladstone, or Pitt and Fox: they belonged to opposite parties. Nor does it resemble the hostility between Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan, or between Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, who represented conflicting attitudes within the same party. It is not obvious that Mr Macmillan and Mr Butler differed to any great extent on matters of policy. There were disagreements, but on style and details, not content. The reasons for Mr Macmillan’s determination to stop Mr Butler succeeding him have to be conjectured, but a contemporary biography by the nature of the genre cannot give us the whole story and it will be many years before we have it, if we ever do.

However this may be, it is pleasant to record that at various societies and gatherings the two great men still meet each other with the enigmatic courtesy and cryptic urbanity that one would expect, though does not invariably find, in the world of country houses, London clubs and Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The idea, spread by some, that Lord Butler (as he now is) was more ‘middle-class’, and therefore more acceptable to the rank and file of the Conservative Party, than Mr Macmillan with his alleged ‘grouse-moor image’ is rubbish. The difference between Marlborough and Eton means nothing in this context. Both men have been for most of their lives rich, confident and self-assured. Neither belongs to the aristocracy, though Mr Macmillan married into it. And what does ‘aristocracy’ really mean in a world of endless absorption and assimilation? All this chip-on-the-shoulder fussication about social class, exploited brilliantly by Harold Wilson in the early 1960s, seems strangely vieux jeu today. No one cares.

Yet it was effective in its day. Harold Macmillan had an ear for the rhetoric of opposition. He and Sir Harold Wilson have always been on cordial terms. They are, seen in relation to one aspect of politics, birds of a feather. They have something of the same capacity for wit, style and oratory. Mr Macmillan is better, for he knows when to stop, and he can listen. Nevertheless, both stem from the same tradition of British politics. They descend from Disraeli, just as Attlee descended from Campbell-Bannerman, Gaitskell from Gladstone, Mr Heath from Peel. Disraeli was the greatest leader of the opposition in all history. Harold Macmillan never had to play that part, but who can doubt how good he would have been if the task had fallen his way.

Mr Macmillan’s career, like that of everyone who gets to the top, was based on luck as well as on merit. In the 1930s, he was regarded as a bit of a bore. The writings that he contributed towards the reconstruction of the British economy are not calculated to set the Thames on fire – dull, ponderous, meritorious and yawn-producing. He resigned the Conservative Whip in 1936 when sanctions against the Italian conquest of Abyssinia were abandoned. Few people were startled when he accepted it again a year later, but this was because few noticed that he had ever resigned it. He became a part of the group against ‘appeasement’, but he was not an outstanding or very important figure. He received minor office in 1939 as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Supply under Lord Beaverbrook, who soon invited him to stay en garçon (though that would not have been Lord Beaverbrook’s expression) at Cherkeley, his château-styled abode in Surrey. He replied that he only went to stay at other people’s houses with his wife (Lady Dorothy, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire). Silence ensued. He never spent a night at Cherkeley, though he never quarrelled with Lord Beaverbrook.

The fascinating problem about the careers of those who get to the top in politics is the turning-point, the moment when they seem to be suddenly on their way up. Of course with some people there is no such moment. They rise by a sort of gradual inevitability. With Mr Macmillan there were two turning-points. The first came when Churchill in 1942 appointed him Minister Resident at Allied Headquarters in North-West Africa. It is not too much to say that the job ‘made’ him. It was essentially a position which depended on the influence its occupant could exert, not the power, which was negligible. Macmillan had an American mother and he spoke excellent French. As Churchill’s principal link with Eisenhower, he played a key part in the diplomacy of the Mediterranean theatre. He made a life-long friend of the American commander, but there was another important personage on the scene, and Mr Macmillan had to convey some disagreeable decisions to him. He could hardly have guessed how strangely, even balefully, his career was to be entwined with that of General de Gaulle twenty years later.

If his wartime service put him into the front rank of post-war Conservative politicians, it still remained unlikely that he would get to the very top. When Churchill bowed out – much later than anyone expected – it was obvious that Anthony Eden would succeed him and Eden was three years younger than Mr Macmillan. Moreover, few people would have put him even as high as being the runner-up to Eden. Mr Butler, who was younger than either of them, would have been tipped by most for the succession. When both Churchill and Eden were ill in the summer of 1953, it was he, not Mr Macmillan, who was regarded as the most likely next prime minister. In the event, both recovered and the question did not arise.

The second turning-point in Mr Macmillan’s career was Suez, and his role in those still mysterious events is one of the most controversial in his career. It is doubtful whether the full truth about Suez will ever be known. The Cabinet minutes conceal it, for they have been drafted for that very purpose, and the horde of researchers who will home in on the Public Record Office in 1987 are likely to be much disappointed. It may be that some member of the Cabinet will one day give us a candid account. Kilmuir has not done so, nor have Eden, Mr Macmillan, Lord Butler or Lord Home. The nearest to the knuckle has been Selwyn Lloyd, but even he leaves many unanswered questions, though he does at least say what anyone could guess: that the object of the exercise was not to ‘part the combatants’ or extinguish a ‘forest fire’ but to bring down Nasser.

It is widely believed that Harold Macmillan was one of the foremost exponents of the strong line against the Egyptian dictator. He says in his memoirs that he takes full responsibility for the Cabinet’s policy, and he was certainly a member of the Prime Minister’s committee dealing with the day-to-day decisions which culminated in one of the worst fiascos of modern British history. Yet it is also alleged – and has never been contradicted – that Mr Macmillan was one of the first to cry halt, just when the Anglo-French force, having taken Suez, was heading unresisted towards Port Tewfik and within a few hours could have controlled the Canal. American financial pressure is supposed to have been the reason. But was this unpredictable? Did the Americans ever show anything but deep disapproval of the use of force against Egypt? And did not Mr Macmillan hold the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer – of all offices, the one that should have been best informed about finance? Mr Hutchinson does not touch on this delicate question, which the posthumous biographer of Mr Macmillan will have to face and answer. However, these stories of what occurred in Cabinet did not circulate at once – and time was crucial. Mr Butler, who had never concealed his scepticism about Suez, was the loser despite the fact that he was right – or perhaps because of it. Most Conservatives knew that the Government had made a hash of things but they did not want to be led by the man who had said so all along, although he had not made it a resignation issue. And Mr Butler was never the man to be discreet. This is one of the many qualities which makes his company so enjoyable: the world of London’s social and dining clubs and the salons of fashionable hostesses could hardly fail to be aware of his views, and at this juncture they were fatal to his chances.

There can be no doubt that for the immediate crisis the Conservatives chose – or rather found chosen for them – the right man. It is difficult to think of anyone else who could have rallied their fortunes, then at their nadir, to such an extent that, less than three years after the Suez debacle, the Party won its third consecutive election by an increased majority. It is most unlikely that Mr Butler or any other potential runner would have brought off such a startling coup. Mr Macmillan’s methods are a striking indictment of the folly of those fashionable socio-political scientists, aped of course by trendy journalists, who said then and still say that Parliament has become a meaningless charade and that the House of Commons has no relevance to the great issues of the day. Mr Macmillan knew that prestige and confidence radiate outwards. The public does not read Hansard, as it is supposed to have done – though I do not believe it – in the 19th century, but the man – or woman – who dominates the House does in some mysterious unanalysable way make an imprint on the country. It is not easy to say just how this is done, but the process occurs, and Mr Macmillan, one of the greatest Parliamentarians since the days of his own hero, Disraeli, soon acquired a mastery in the House which rippled centrifugally over the whole electorate. Not that he neglected the direct approach. He was and still is of all our political figures one of the finest performers on television – urbane, witty, eloquent, moving.

What did he actually do with the power which came to him almost by accident and which he confirmed with such brilliance in 1959? Here again we face the problems of the contemporary biographer and the recent historian. Although it is well over twenty years since he became Prime Minister and more than sixteen since he left office, judgments on his record are anything but agreed. Nor is this surprising if one looks back into the history of historiography. How much sense would most judgments about Lloyd George have made in 1938, or about Balfour in 1922, or about Disraeli in 1896? No doubt there were some which would now seem prescient, but many more that were wrong-headed, perverse, inadequate or downright silly.

Mr Macmillan can be seen from one point of view as an enlightened Whig determined to avoid the unemployment which had horrified him at Stockton in the 1920s, softening the acerbities of class conflict by emollient measures, bowing to liberal aspirations for colonial autonomy, encouraging the spread of higher education, resisting Treasury austerity. But he can also be seen as the prisoner of a past in which unemployment mattered far more than in 1960, as a man who betrayed white minorities all over Africa, replacing them by regimes which found gardens and turned them into deserts, as the creator of a dozen or more second-rate universities, and, above all, as the man who missed the chance to halt inflation. The resignation of the entire Treasury team, Peter Thorneycroft, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, in 1958, dismissed as a little local difficulty, has come to symbolise, especially in the monetarist mood of today, a fatal turning-point towards the downward path into stagflation and excessive public expenditure – all the tendencies which Margaret Thatcher is trying to reverse, although it is nice to know that personally she gets on admirably with the Grand Old Man. But who can say how all this will appear to people ten or twenty years hence? For that matter, who can guess what will be thought, even in five years’ time, of the EEC which Mr Macmillan, vetoed by De Gaulle, failed to enter but made into a prime objective of the Conservative Party?

What is reasonably certain is that Mr Macmillan, however one may judge his motives, inflicted a grave injury on the Conservative cause during his last hours in office. The next general election was crucial. If the Conservatives had gained a fourth successive victory, even with a reduced majority, surely Labour would have had to rethink its whole position and face the dilemma of either moving into a centrist role, like that of the Democrats in America, or degenerating into a doctrinaire rump doomed to perpetual opposition. Conservatism would have benefited from each of these alternatives. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, with all the disadvantages (at that time) of his 14th earldom and his alleged sponsorship by a ‘magic circle’, only barely lost in 1964. Who can seriously doubt that Mr Butler would have won? Here Mr Macmillan did a lasting disservice to his party. The Labour leaders in office no longer needed to think. They merely needed to manouevre. The course of recent history might have been very different if the verdict had gone the other way. Whether Mr Butler would have made a good prime minister is another question.