Too Obviously Cleverer

Ferdinand Mount

  • Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R. Thorpe
    Pimlico, 887 pp, £16.99, September 2011, ISBN 978 1 84413 541 7
  • The Macmillan Diaries Vol. II: Prime Minister and After 1957-66 edited by Peter Catterall
    Macmillan, 758 pp, £40.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 4050 4721 0

The first thing about Harold Macmillan was his bravery, and it was the last thing too. In the Great War he was wounded five times, at the Battle of Loos and at the Somme. At Delville Wood he was hit in the thigh and pelvis and rolled down into a large shell-hole, where he lay for the next ten hours, alternately dosing himself with morphine and reading Aeschylus. He wrote home on 13 September 1916 that ‘the stench from the dead bodies which lie in heaps around is awful.’ Only a fortnight earlier he had told his mother: ‘do not worry about me. I am very happy; it is a great experience, psychologically so interesting as to fill one’s thoughts.’ In North Africa during the Second World War his plane crashed on take-off at Algiers and burst into flames. Macmillan scrambled through the emergency exit, then went back into the burning plane to rescue a French flag lieutenant – a fact he doesn’t mention in his account of the incident in his memoirs or even in his diary. John McCloy, FDR’s assistant secretary of war, described it as ‘the most gallant thing I’ve ever seen’.

Macmillan wasn’t one of those not infrequent war heroes who in peacetime are mild and eager to please. He remained dauntless and daunting in politics. He despised Rab Butler for not having fought (he had a withered hand after a riding accident as a child), he sneered at Hugh Gaitskell for not having any medals to wear on Remembrance Day and he loathed Herbert Morrison, his first boss in the wartime coalition, for having been a conscientious objector in the First World War, calling him ‘a dirty little cockney guttersnipe’. Macmillan’s diary is spattered with abuse of other public figures, often tinged with anti-semitism. He never hesitated to tell his colleagues or his superiors when he thought they were wrong. He was the only minister who dared to tell Churchill it was time to go, although it had been Churchill who brought him back from the political wilderness in 1940.

He was implacable and proud of it. When his son, Maurice, wondered why his own career had fallen so far short of his father’s, Macmillan said: ‘Because you weren’t ruthless enough.’ When Eden offered him the Exchequer, Macmillan did a Gordon Brown: insisting that ‘as chancellor, I must be undisputed head of the home front, under you’ and that there could be no question of his predecessor, Butler, being accorded the title of deputy prime minister. Barely a year later, after the Suez debacle, he was promising the American ambassador that, in return for ‘a fig leaf to cover our nakedness’, he would arrange not only the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt but also the replacement of Eden. When he sacked a third of his Cabinet in 1962 after a run of terrible by-election results, this was entirely typical of his undeviating self-interest, although in that Night of the Long Knives it turned out he had been so sharp he cut himself, fatally.

Not surprisingly, throughout his life he was disliked by many and hated by quite a few. At Eton, he received 13 blackballs in the election for the debating society. The following term, he received 11. ‘He is his own worst enemy: he is too self-centred, too obviously cleverer than the rest of us,’ his fellow new MP from the North-East in 1924, Cuthbert Headlam, noted after a dinner with Macmillan. ‘He never will let the other man have his say, and he invariably knows everything better than the other man.’ This inability to listen gained him a reputation in clubland as a bore and banger-on, despite his undoubted wit and languid charm. In politics, the results of his not listening were frequently calamitous.

Not that he much minded being unpopular. For most of his life he essentially lived alone. His two brothers were years older, his father was away building the great publishing house. His mother, the bossy and possessive Nellie Belles from Indiana, took him away from Eton when he was only 15, fearing he was being exposed to ‘unnatural practices’. J.B.S. Haldane, who was there at the same time, claimed that Macmillan had been expelled for homosexuality; but Nellie seems to have thought it was the school that was out of order, not her son. Being a strict Nonconformist, she was no better pleased when he formed a close affection for one of his tutors, Ronald Knox, who came within an inch of converting Macmillan to Catholicism. The war saved him from taking this step, which would almost certainly have prevented him from becoming prime minister. In his last letter to Knox before leaving for France, he wrote: ‘I’m going to be rather odd. I’m not going to “pope” until after the war (if I’m alive).’

Volunteering for the war meant that at Oxford, as at Eton, he stayed only half the course, being ‘sent down by the Kaiser’ as he liked to put it. It seems peculiar in retrospect that he should have retained such obsessive loyalties to two institutions he spent so little time in. Nothing gave him more pleasure than being elected chancellor of Oxford, and he was disappointed not to become provost of Eton in 1965 after he ceased to be prime minister. He continually referred to the Fourth of June, often to people who had no idea that this was the school’s great festival, or to those who pretended not to, like the Harrovian Field Marshal Alexander.

There was something strangely fake about his snobbish carry-on, almost as though he was trying to convince himself that he belonged. Some of his smoking-room metaphors were merely mystifying: for example, when pondering whether Cyprus should be granted full Commonwealth status after independence; should the island ‘be the RAC or Boodles’? When Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, exulted to Macmillan that they had arrested the spy John Vassall, the prime minister complained that this was the wrong approach: ‘When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room; he buries it out of sight.’ To which Hollis might legitimately have replied that some gamekeepers had the sense to hang the vermin they had shot on the nearest fence to warn off other predators.

This clubman’s chatter dates from his marriage to the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter Dorothy in 1920: a giant leg-up socially but ultimately a disaster. They were both gawky virgins and for nearly a decade were happy, until Dorothy fell in love with Macmillan’s fellow MP Bob Boothby and demanded a divorce, claiming that her youngest daughter, Sarah, was Boothby’s child. From being regarded as a jolly sort, keen on golf and a dab hand at opening fêtes, Dorothy suddenly revealed unsuspected Wagnerian depths of passion, saying to Boothby: ‘Why did you ever wake me? I never want to see any of my family again.’ She had four young children at the time. Years later, Boothby described her as ‘on the whole, the most selfish and possessive woman I have ever known’.

She did not get what she wanted. Macmillan’s solicitor Philip Frere pointed out that divorce would be fatal for his political career and recommended a ‘west wing-east wing’ solution, traditional among the estranged upper classes who had houses large enough for the purpose. Until she died in 1966 – suddenly, of a heart attack as she was putting on her boots to go out to a point-to-point – if they were both at Birch Grove, Macmillan’s house in Sussex, they would meet for dinner and then go their separate ways.

Macmillan remained haunted by the affair. In 1975, he went to see Boothby at his flat and asked, for the sake of his peace of mind, to know the truth one way or another about Sarah. In the unbearably painful conversation that followed, Boothby assured him that Sarah was not his daughter because he was always scrupulously careful in his affairs. What Macmillan did not know was that Boothby had just been presented with a tape recorder by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of which he’d been chairman for many years. Before Macmillan’s arrival, he had been taping a Tchaikovsky symphony from the radio. He had turned off the radio but unwittingly left the tape recorder running on the floor behind a sofa. And so all the agony that Macmillan had poured out to him was on tape, and Boothby played it back to his new wife, Wanda, when she came in, with tears running down his face.

This is how D.R. Thorpe tells the story, eloquently and elegantly, as he does everything in this exemplary biography, which complements if it does not entirely supplant Alistair Horne’s two-volume official Life; Horne is better on the military, Thorpe on the political and personal. At every juncture Thorpe presents the evidence in a scrupulous and equable style. He is charitable, just as he was in his earlier biographies of Selwyn Lloyd and Eden, both of whom had reasons to be resentful of Macmillan’s behaviour. By not taking sides, Thorpe leaves readers room to come to their own judgment.

And if you want my guess here, I don’t think that Boothby, that insatiable seducer of both sexes, left the tape recorder on by accident. I don’t mean that he had it in for Macmillan exactly, although it is always hard to forgive those you have wronged, especially when you have been wronging them for years. It is more that Boothby, himself the ripest of old hams, would have been unable to resist the dramatic potential of the scene: the aged ex-prime minister with tears running down his face, and then a few hours later Boothby, the man of feeling, recalling the recalling with tears running down his face.

Thorpe tells us that Macmillan never looked at another woman. He dismisses the claim of Sean O’Casey’s widow (O’Casey was a Macmillan author) to have had an affair with Harold at the time Dorothy first fell for Boothby. Quite out of character, Thorpe argues: Macmillan was straitlaced and not much interested in sex anyway. He was lost for words when JFK turned to him during a break in their discussions on nuclear arms at Key West and inquired: ‘I wonder how it is with you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get a terrible headache.’ What is certain is that Macmillan was deeply lonely. He took refuge in West End clubs to an almost pathological extent: Pratt’s, Athenaeum, Buck’s, Guards, the Beefsteak, the Turf, the Carlton – he was in and out of them every day. A member of Pratt’s calling in there one evening in the 1960s inquired whether there was anyone in that night. ‘Nobody at all, sir, only the prime minister.’

His health, always fragile, gave way during his wife’s affair. In the summer of 1931 he had a serious breakdown. There were rumours that he had attempted suicide. He was secretly admitted to the Kuranstalt Neuwittelsbach outside Munich. He recovered but had another bad collapse in October 1943, during an unexpected visit to London from his post in North Africa. He remained an intensely nervous figure, inclined to vomit before big speeches, which was why he always lunched alone before Prime Minister’s Questions. The unflappable façade was an amazing effort of the will.

He had become MP for Stockton-on-Tees in 1924, and held the seat almost continuously until 1945 and, in old age, took his title from it. Stockton was (and in its centre still is) a handsome old market town, transformed when it became the birthplace of the railways and the centre of the iron and steel industry. By the time Macmillan appeared there, unemployment was more than 20 per cent and rising (what trade there was had shifted to neighbouring Middlesbrough). His principal loathing was not for the Labour Party, which he periodically thought of joining, but for the hard-faced men on his own benches, the industrialists who had done well out of the war – the Forty Thieves as they were known to Macmillan and his friends. They were mocked in return as ‘the YMCA’. All his life, Macmillan retained a distrust of the City and ‘the banksters’. He claimed in 1936 that ‘Toryism has always been a form of paternal socialism’.

The family firm had published Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace and The General Theory and done very well with them. If Macmillan never looked at another woman after Dorothy, he never looked at another economist after Maynard. Following Keynes’s death in 1946, he relied exclusively on the advice of Roy Harrod, the great man’s biographer and disciple. The single thought Macmillan took from The General Theory was: reflate at all costs. He got rid of not one but two chancellors – Peter Thorneycroft and Selwyn Lloyd – for refusing to expand demand fast enough. Not long after Lloyd’s restrictive 1961 budget, Macmillan was urging him to prepare a reflationary budget for 1962; two days after his 1962 effort, Macmillan was already egging him on to let the brakes off in 1963. Lloyd’s successor, Reginald Maudling, was bombarded with memos urging him to go for ‘the big stuff – the national plan, the new approach, to expand or die’. Industrial production rose by 11 per cent in the year after the pliable Heathcoat Amory’s 1959 election budget – a completely unsustainable gallop.

Macmillan’s obsession with expansion and his utter neglect of inflation were of course a reaction to the bitter experience of the North of England in the 1930s. But badgering chancellors to flood the economy with cash was no substitute for a carefully targeted policy to revive the decayed industrial estuaries of the Tyne, the Tees, the Mersey and the Clyde; sending Lord Hailsham up to the North-East in a cloth cap was an embarrassing afterthought, which only drew attention to the threadbare nature of Macmillan’s economic policy. The Middle Way (1938), his most substantial and influential political tract, was, as Thorpe says, not so much a revolutionary piece of work as ‘a confirmation of the new orthodoxy’, and when after the war it was identified as the origin of the Tories’ Industrial Charter, it was because the charter came to terms with the Attlee settlement in precisely the way Macmillan envisaged: nationalisation, state planning, the leading role of the trade unions – all these things were to be accepted, because, to misappropriate a later mantra, There Is No Alternative.

For an undeniably clever man, Macmillan left remarkably little evidence of strategic thought in his voluminous diaries. The latest volume covering his years as prime minister does little to improve one’s earlier impression of an agile but not very original mind struggling to survive from day to day. The enormous length of the diaries remains a problem. In his introduction, Peter Catterall tells us that ‘omissions have, of course, had to occur to reduce the original text to less than half its length. It has been possible to achieve some of that by cutting out repetitions. To a much greater extent than in the first volume [covering Macmillan’s cabinet years, from 1950 to 57], however, it has also been necessary to omit Macmillan’s reading, social activities and family life.’ This strikes me as precisely the wrong way to go about editing this particular diary, perhaps any diary. The spattering of dots that mark the omitted passages give the text an unsatisfying, wispy feel. Besides, large chunks of the political stuff have, as Catterall himself points out, already been published in the six volumes of Macmillan’s memoirs. Indeed, long stretches of those memoirs consist of little but diary extracts. The value of having the diaries in their entirety must be to give us a rounded portrait of this strange, lonely, rather wonderful but also decidedly unpleasant man. Pepys without Mrs Pepys, the delicious Deb Willet or the visits to the play would be a far poorer thing.

The diary also contains gaps. Macmillan admits several times that during a real crisis such as Suez or Profumo his diary-keeping breaks down. Nor does he seem fully alert to his own memorable moments. All he says of his speech at Bedford in July 1957 is that it ‘was well reported in the Sunday press, and I think helped to steady things,’ omitting to record that it was in this speech that he uttered the immortal phrase about most of us never having had it so good. His Wind of Change speech he does not mention at all in a skimpy retrospect of his African tour of February 1960. Quite a few entries read like a summary of events drawn up by someone else. Not often do you get the feeling of being there yourself or of learning something new about how it went, as you do on almost every page of the Crossman diaries. Only the odd languid wisecrack convinces you that this is the real Mac. I liked his musing during the Cuban Missile Crisis on ‘the frightful desire to do something, with the knowledge that not to do anything … was prob. the right answer’.

What strikes the reader, above all, is Macmillan’s obsessive preoccupation with foreign affairs to the near exclusion of the domestic and economic; a good 80 per cent of the diary entries, perhaps more, are concerned with overseas affairs. Pages are filled with the fruitless efforts to save the Central African Federation. Weeks are consumed with overseas visits to prepare the way for a summit, until, as Macmillan wearily concludes, ‘everyone else has visited everyone.’ The summit then collapses and ‘all our plans are in ruins.’ By contrast, it is not until March 1963 – after he has been prime minister for six years – that he publicly launches a campaign for ‘the modernisation of Britain’.

When we see Macmillan at his best is undoubtedly during the war years, which were covered in a volume published separately back in 1984 (War Diaries: Politics and War in the Mediterranean, January 1943-May 1945). Those diaries were published pretty much entire and contain fine descriptions of North Africa as well as sharp pen portraits and nippy asides. And besides, they describe an extremely delicate and fascinating mission, told as deftly as it was executed. As ministerial representative at Allied Forces HQ, Macmillan had to devise his own peculiar role. The generals like Eisenhower who at first wondered exactly what he was doing there came to respect his panache, energy and ingenuity. His management of the political chaos in Italy and then of the warring factions in Greece was nothing short of masterly. Richard Crossman, then assistant chief of psychological warfare at AFHQ, concluded in a shrewd single sentence: ‘I suspect it was in Algiers, where he could do all the thinking and take all the decisions while Ike took all the credit, that Harold Macmillan first realised his own capacity for supreme leadership and developed that streak of intellectual recklessness which was to be the cause both of his success and of his failure when he finally reached No. 10.’

It is thus a pity and an irony that of all Macmillan’s service in that war the only bit that is much remembered is the tragic finale: the handing over of Cossacks and White Russians and Croats at Klagenfurt in May 1945. The appalling consequences of this decision – thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered by Stalin and Tito – remain a black and unforgettable chapter. The accusations against Macmillan personally became progressively more pointed in Nikolai Tolstoy’s three polemics: Victims of Yalta (1977), Stalin’s Secret War (1981) and The Minister and the Massacres (1986), which fingered Macmillan as part of ‘the Klagenfurt conspiracy’ and an accessory to mass murder. After Macmillan’s death in 1986 an independent investigation led and largely paid for by Anthony Cowgill concluded unequivocally that, in the words of one of his team, Christopher Booker (who had originally believed that Macmillan was culpable), ‘Macmillan’s part in the story was (a) marginal at best, and (b) that he actually knew very little about the Cossacks in Austria, apart from what he was told at the briefing at Klagenfurt airfield.’ In The Repatriations from Austria in 1945 Cowgill concluded that Macmillan had nothing at all to do with the decision to send back the dissident Yugoslavs against their will. The general decision to repatriate to the Soviet authorities arose from cabinet decisions dating back to June 1944; it then became part of a quid pro quo agreed with Stalin at Yalta in February 1945. The operational decisions on handover were taken, he argued, not at Macmillan’s meeting with General Keightley in a hut by the grass landing strip in Klagenfurt on 13 May, but at a military conference in Udine on 26/27 May, by which time Macmillan was back in England. Those who criticise the orders fail to take account of the chaotic and menacing circumstances of the moment. Tito’s forces were threatening to overrun Carinthia and Venezia Giulia. The whole war could have reignited in the region.

This is the new consensus on the subject; and Thorpe subscribes to it. Yet, fair-minded as ever, he offers several pieces of evidence to support those who still believe that Macmillan was, at best, guilty of ‘over-compliance’. In his diary for 13 May, Macmillan wrote: ‘Among the surrendered Germans are about 40,000 Cossacks and “White” Russians, with their wives and children. To hand them over to the Russians is condemning them to slavery, torture and probably death. To refuse, is deeply to offend the Russians, and incidentally break the Yalta agreement. We have decided to hand them over.’ The next day, 14 May, Keightley telegraphed Alexander, the commander-in-chief: ‘On advice Macmillan I have today suggested to Soviet General on Tolbukhin’s HQ that Cossacks should be returned to SOVIETS at once.’ As for there being no final authorisation for handing over either the Cossacks/White Russians to Stalin or the Croats to Tito until the conference at Udine on the 26th, Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Rose Price wrote in his diary on 19 May: ‘Order of most sinister duplicity received i.e. to send Croats to their foes, i.e. Tits to Yugoslavia under the impression they were to go to Italy.’ Thorpe does not quote the even more sinister sentence that follows in Rose Price’s diary: ‘Tit guards on trains hidden in guards van.’ It is not unreasonable then to suppose that the essential decisions were taken, not at Udine, which looks more like a rubber-stamping, but during the two hours Macmillan spent on the airstrip at Klagenfurt. Whether other orders could have been given in the circumstances of the time remains debatable, but ‘marginal’ isn’t quite the right word to describe Macmillan’s role.

What he cannot be acquitted of is callousness. Which is shown by a curious coda to the miserable story. Macmillan’s diaries break off (not to resume until 1950) when he flies home on 26 May to become air minister in Churchill’s caretaker government. Thorpe, like previous biographers, assumes that this was his final farewell to the mountains and lakes of Austria. But William Dugdale, in his recently published memoir, Settling the Bill, describes being deputed to organise a Fourth of June dinner in an orchard by the banks of the Wörthersee.[*] Sixty or seventy Old Etonian guards officers were invited to sing Floreat Etona and toast the Old Coll in slivovitz, along with the army commander, General McCreery, Field Marshal Alexander (who as an outsider made his excuses and left early) and Harold Macmillan. Nothing, it seems, would have deterred him from flying halfway across the ravaged continent to celebrate the two institutions he loved best, Eton and the Grenadiers. At the end of dinner, Macmillan was accosted by Rose Price, aflame with drink and an almost Homeric rage, and lambasted for ordering his battalion to send the Cossacks to their death. Dugdale records beautifully how Macmillan, a cigarette drooping from his lips, turned his strangely flappy hands (weakened by war wounds) outwards in that gesture we came to know so well and replied: ‘How else are we to demonstrate our loyalty to Stalin and the Russians?’ Thus, long before the controversy reawakened in the 1980s, Macmillan was made forcibly aware of the repugnance the orders aroused among the soldiers who had to carry them out. What is so striking is that he had no hesitation in returning to the scene of the crime only nine days later.

Again and again, one notices the callous insouciance, which, as Crossman spotted, was both his strength and his weakness, leading him to overcome, seemingly without effort, ‘little local difficulties’ that might have unhorsed more careful operators, but also drawing him into wildly optimistic miscalculations which generated terrible outcomes. Certainly the part he played at Suez seems to fit that description. As chancellor, he was desperately keen to establish that the Americans would back Britain in the use of force. He hammered home as forcefully as he could to Bob Murphy, his wartime comrade who had come to London on Eisenhower’s behalf, that the government had decided to drive Nasser out of Egypt and that Parliament and people were behind them. He told John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, the same thing. ‘We are committed to a peaceful settlement of this dispute, nothing else,’ Eisenhower said at a press conference on 5 September. But Macmillan refused to believe this or to grasp the fairly obvious fact that all Ike cared about was being re-elected in November. In Washington at the end of September, Macmillan saw Eisenhower, Dulles and George Humphrey, the US treasury secretary. Yet he still could not grasp that, in Humphrey’s words after the invasion, ‘You’ll not get a dime out of the US government until you’ve gotten out of Suez.’ Roger Makins, Macmillan’s private secretary, who took notes at the meeting with Eisenhower, was amazed by the rambling, unfocused nature of the conversation and thought Macmillan was wholly unwarranted in his subsequent optimism about American support. Ike was rambling on purpose in his typically devious way. Macmillan just failed to listen.

Macmillan’s diaries break off again on 4 October 1956, to resume only in February 1957, which is when Catterall’s second volume begins. In the introduction to the first volume, the editor tells us that another diary covered the missing months, but that Macmillan destroyed it ‘at the request of Anthony Eden’. In his introduction to this volume, Catterall says merely that it ‘appears to have been destroyed’. It seems more likely that, if it contained material embarrassing to Macmillan, he destroyed it himself. But in any case, his fatal contribution to the fiasco had already been made, in Washington in September.

Thorpe acquits Macmillan of the charges usually laid against him: that he was ‘first in, first out’, that he pushed Eden into a disastrous venture which he knew would fail, that he exaggerated the ensuing economic crisis and that he poured his energies into outmanoeuvring Butler for the succession. Fair enough, but Thorpe also makes light, much too light, of the secret collusion with the Israelis. Contrary to the long prevailing misconception, he tells us, the cabinet was informed of Lloyd’s meeting at Sèvres with the French and the Israelis – which serves only to implicate the lot of them. Then he wheels on the historians Robert Blake and Andrew Roberts to argue that secret diplomacy and suppressio veri are necessary to the successful prosecution of war: in Blake’s words, ‘no one of sense will regard such falsehoods in a particularly serious light.’

This sort of unabashed realpolitik is undermined if not exploded by the final Suez dispatch from the supreme military commander, General Keightley, last seen in Klagenfurt: ‘The one overriding lesson of the Suez operation is that world opinion is now an absolute principle of war.’ Where military action is undertaken for moral reasons, to right a wrong or to turf out a tyrant, any hint of deceit is fatal (see Iraq passim). The gravamen of the charge against Macmillan is different: namely, that he was the only British minister to talk to all the top Americans and that he completely and disastrously misread their intentions.

Which is much what he did again, as prime minister, in gauging whether de Gaulle was ready to let Britain into the Common Market. As late as their meeting at Rambouillet in December 1962, Macmillan still had high hopes that de Gaulle would yield to his suasions. They went for a walk in the woods, accompanied only by Philip de Zulueta, one of Macmillan’s private secretaries. Macmillan insisted on talking in French and returned from the walk believing that the conversation had gone well. Again, the private secretary was not so sure. The next morning, de Gaulle explained, as bluntly as he could, that though he was in favour of Britain’s eventual membership the time was not yet right. Macmillan was shocked and dismayed. Yet anyone with his head screwed on could have seen it coming. Reginald Maudling, then president of the board of trade, had forecast exactly this outcome 18 months earlier, after the failure of the free trade negotiations in Paris. And Macmillan himself had had repeated meetings with the general over the previous two years at which de Gaulle had made plain his ingrained resistance.

If Macmillan’s political vision was impaired, his eye for the main chance was undimmed. He was, quite simply, a magnificent intriguer, opaque when he had to be, brutally swift to jump through any window of opportunity, smashing the glass where necessary. Enoch Powell described the way Macmillan destroyed Butler’s chances of succeeding Eden when they both appeared before the 1922 Committee after Eden had flown off to Jamaica as ‘one of the most horrible things that I remember in politics’ (and he ought to know). Macmillan saw off Butler again, just as effortlessly, in the race to succeed himself in 1963. In his usual charitable way, Thorpe acquits Macmillan of organising Alec Douglas-Home’s startling triumph. As in 1957, he argues, the parliamentary party would not have Rab Butler at any price, and Home was the candidate that fewest people objected to and so the one best qualified to keep the party united. Yet once again Thorpe provides us with the materials to come to a rather different conclusion.

Compared to his dithering over the preceding months about whether he should resign, Macmillan moved with great rapidity once his prostate trouble was diagnosed. Contrary to previous misconception, he was told by his consultant urologist Alec Badenoch before he resigned that he didn’t have cancer. The reality was that he was desperately tired and was glad of the medical excuse to pack it in. He told Badenoch that the illness ‘came as manna from heaven – an act of God’.

But he was by no means done for. Consider the calendar. The lord chancellor, Lord Dilhorne, had asked all the cabinet ministers at the beginning of September whether they wanted Macmillan to carry on and, if he decided not to, who should succeed him; all but three wanted him to carry on, nobody mentioned Home as a successor. October 4: Macmillan discusses possible successors with his son Maurice; again no mention of Home. On the night of 7/8 October he is taken ill. On the afternoon of the 8th he is diagnosed and in the evening taken to hospital. The next morning, the 9th, he talks to Home about the announcement of his resignation and raises, for the first time, the possibility that Home might make himself available. At the same time, Selwyn Lloyd sets about spreading Home’s claims. By the 11th, Lloyd has converted Dilhorne and Martin Redmayne, the chief whip, and is walking along the prom at Blackpool with them, plotting what to do next. It is these two men who are to be responsible for canvassing opinion: Dilhorne doing the cabinet (for the second time), and Redmayne the Tory MPs. By Tuesday the 15th, it is agreed that these soundings should include three questions: who’s your first choice, who’s your second and who would you oppose? Then, after Lord Hailsham makes a fool of himself at Blackpool, a fourth is added: what do you think of Lord Home as leader? That same day, before the soundings are actually taken, Supermac composes what becomes known as ‘the Tuesday memorandum’ for the queen. It is a dithyramb for Sir Alec, comparing him to the heroic Grenadiers of 1914 and lauding his qualities of judgment and selflessness. He also makes a note in his diary after another meeting with Maurice and the party chairman, Lord Poole: ‘the basic situation was the same – the party in the country wants Hogg; the Parliamentary Party wants Maudling or Butler; the Cabinet wants Butler.’ But what they all got, only three days later, was Home.

Almost at the end of his book, Thorpe tells us, though without giving a source, that ‘Macmillan and Home both came in time to think that it might have been better if Rab Butler had become prime minister in 1963.’ I would go a lot further. It might have been better if Butler had succeeded Eden in 1957, or even Churchill in 1955. The country would undoubtedly have been better governed. There would have been no Suez, no inflationary stampede, no botched attempt to join the EEC but rather a careful development of a European Free Trade Area. Social reform and economic modernisation would have been pursued in a more serious and systematic fashion. It would have been a soberer time, without the showmanship with which Macmillan delighted some and repelled others. We would not have been told we had never had it so good; but we might have been better off.

Alas, the qualities required for being prime minister are not the same as those required for becoming one. Butler had all the charisma of an old flannel. Supermac in his heyday was a class act. In his later years the satirists got at him, and to the young he was a somewhat moth-eaten comic figure. Thorpe tells us at the end that ‘Macmillan was a great prime minister for much of his time in Downing Street.’ There is a certain desperation about those italics. What was his legacy, after all? Premium Bonds and the Beeching Report. Macmillan said of Eden, quite rightly, that he had been trained to win the Derby of 1938 but had not been let out of the stalls until 1955. If you change the dates slightly, you could say much the same of Macmillan. His best years were already behind him when he reached the top at the age of 62. And somewhere at the back of his mind, I think he knew it.

[*] Endeavour, 304 pp., £20, May, 978 1 90827 106 8.