Supermac’s Apprenticeship

Ian Gilmour

  • Macmillan 1894-1956 by Alistair Horne
    Macmillan, 537 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 333 27691 4

Harold Macmillan reversed the normal progression. Few young men are pompous; that comes later. Pomposity overtook Macmillan when he was still young; long before he was old he had shed all traces of it. The young are seldom boring; as a young man Harold Macmillan was a bore, and in time he became supremely entertaining. In manner and style people usually change little after early middle age, and then seem increasingly old-fashioned. Until quite late in life Macmillan appeared out-of-date – when he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Muggeridge said he always had around him a faint whiff of mothballs. It was only after he had retired that his manner seemed entirely to suit both him and the times. He became an ever better speaker, even in his eighties.

Macmillan’s political reputation has followed a more normal course, and with the revival of attitudes and conditions to which he was all his life opposed it has for some time been in decline – a process which the appearance of his official biography would normally be expected to halt, if not reverse. In a graceful preface Alistair Horne says that he at first refused the invitation to be Macmillan’s biographer. Having never before attempted a biography, he was uneasy about his qualifications, though as an outstanding military historian with a rare gift for narrative and a fine eye for character, his doubts had no basis save modesty. Mr Horne also thought, however, that he knew too little about British party politics, and he told Macmillan that he was not even sure that he was ‘a very good Tory’. When Macmillan characteristically replied, ‘Nor was I, dear boy,’ the ice was broken and Mr Horne has now produced a superbly readable biography of rare narrative power compiled from an impressive array of sources. Nevertheless the phrase ‘not a very good Tory’ clearly meant different things to biographer and subject. Macmillan’s rival, Rab Butler, chose a biographer from outside his own party, but his and Anthony Howard’s political outlooks may have been closer to each other than Mr Horne’s and Macmillan’s ‘not very good’ Toryisms.

After an undistinguished three years at Eton, a first in Mods at Oxford, a flirtation with Rome together with Ronnie Knox, a commission in the Grenadier Guards and a courageous war – the guardsmen coined the expression ‘nearly as brave as Mr Macmillan’ – in which he was wounded four times, the last time very seriously, but surprisingly remained undecorated, a spell in Canada as ADC to the Governor-General and marriage to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, Macmillan became MP for Stockton in 1924. The high unemployment in the North-East between the wars, with its attendant misery, affected Macmillan all his life. He tried hard at the time to improve conditions there and resolved that they should never be permitted to return. Together with the 1914-18 war, Stockton was the strongest formative influence upon him.

For a future prime minister, Macmillan’s backbench career was unusual both in its length – except for his two years out of Parliament after his defeat in 1929, it lasted from 1924 until 1940 – and in its distinction. Those years also saw the beginning of Lady Dorothy Macmillan’s long-lasting love affair with Boothby, which Horne treats with a sensitive candour that could not be bettered. Indeed his study of Macmillan’s character and personal life is a tour de force; it is only his handling of the politics which arouses occasional misgivings.

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[*] A Class Divided by Robert Shepherd. Macmillan, 323 pp., £16.95, 30 September, 0 333 46080 4.