Macmillan 1894-1956 
by Alistair Horne.
Macmillan, 537 pp., £16.95, October 1988, 0 333 27691 4
Show More
Show More

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 Until quite late in life Macmillan appeared out-of-date – when he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Muggeridge said he always had around him a faint whiff of mothballs.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.

Harold Macmillan was alone in the Conservative ranks in consistently and forcefully speaking out both against the inter-war governments’ tolerance of high unemployment and their policies towards the dictators. Yet the account given here of Macmillan’s pre-war life as a backbencher occupies only some thirty pages, which, if adjustments are made for the shorter length of their books, is less than half the space given by Macmillan’s previous biographers Nigel Fisher and Anthony Sampson. A revealing parenthesis supplies a possible clue to the cause of Mr Horne’s relative lack of interest in Macmillan’s backbench activities: Macmillan’s ‘endeavours were heavily tinted with the principles of the Macmillan house economist, John Maynard Keynes, on deficit budgeting, spending one’s way out of recession (i.e. inflation), and the pursuit of a middle course between egalitarian socialism and a collapsing laissez-faire capitalism’. Spending one’s way out of recession may, depending on the circumstances, lead to inflation, but the idea that it necessarily does so or would have done so in the Thirties is merely the dogma of the recent orthodoxy that has already fallen apart. If Mr Horne’s second volume is written from the standpoint of 1980s right-wing monetarism, it will very soon seem dated.

Mr Horne is dismissive of Macmillan’s maiden speech, and politely disparages most of his backbench rebelliousness, though, as Rob Shepherd reminds us,* it was certainly not half-hearted. Macmillan went to the length of resigning the Conservative Party Whip, opposing the Conservative candidate in the Oxford by-election and accusing the government of treating the House of Commons ‘as a kind of Reichstag to meet only to hear the orations and register the decrees of the government of the day’. The author’s laudable determination to remain objective, in which he fully succeeds, rather than argue for the defence, sometimes has the unfortunate result of making him sound like, if not counsel for the prosecution, at least a hostile judge summing up for a conviction. In any case, Macmillan’s period as a seemingly permanent backbencher was one of the most estimable parts of his political career and, since it freed him from any taint of ‘appeasement’, did as much as anything save Suez to carry him to the premiership. Consequently, the telescoping of those years damages the proportions of the book – particularly as it ends in January 1957 – and serves to cast his part in the Suez fiasco into even higher relief.

The coming of war and the entry of Churchill into Chamberlain’s Government left Macmillan still marooned on the backbenches. Like most people at the time, he was generous but wrong over the Russo-Finnish war. Elsewhere his judgment was sound: ‘Speaking to his constituents at about this time,’ his biographer writes,

he warned them of the dangers ahead, forecasting that Germany would inevitably attack Holland and Belgium. On 17 January 1940, he was exhorting the House not to swallow government propaganda and delude itself that Germany was in a desperate economic plight: ‘They have made very long, careful and exact preparations during the years in which we have been living in a fool’s paradise, making barely any preparations for war ... ’ On 1 February, he was pleading for a War Cabinet that would operate as ‘a corporate body’ under a strong personality, and making reference to Churchill and the battle he had waged ‘alone for ten years’. On 8 February, he was hammering home to the House that ‘the purpose of economic planning is ... to use to the full the human and material resources of the nation’ ... Meanwhile, he was also contributing an article for Picture Post in which he outlined a possible organisation for a United Europe that might emerge as a result of the war.

So here we have Macmillan correctly forecasting the future military course of the war, correctly stating that Germany would not lose because of economic weakness, that Britain had wasted much of the breathing space she had been given, that the war could not properly be run by peacetime machinery and that a War Cabinet with a commanding personality at its centre was imperative, that the whole of the nation’s resources had to be mobilised if the war was to be won, and, to cap it all, looking forward to a United Europe in the future days of peace. Short of forecasting the actual date of D Day, Macmillan could hardly have displayed a more hard-headed realism – or more visionary foresight. Even an avowedly inimical biographer might have found himself applauding. Not so Mr Horne. ‘In the context of the Phoney War,’ he admonishes, ‘none of this was notably heady stuff ... ’

Macmillan at last entered the Government, when Churchill succeeded Chamberlain, as Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Supply and then at the Colonial Office. But he only came into his own, as does his biographer, when appointed British Minister Resident to represent the Government at Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers. Though one may cavil again at Mr Horne’s proportions – he devotes twice as much space to Macmillan’s two and a half years in the Mediterranean as he does to his five years in three Cabinet posts between 1951 and the beginning of the Suez crisis – he gives a masterly account of Macmillan’s successful building of a close relationship with General Eisenhower, his shielding of General de Gaulle from an almost continually exasperated Roosevelt and Churchill, his courage in an air crash which inflicted serious burns, his growing friction with Eden, and the fatal delay over negotiating an Italian armistice – not Harold Macmillan’s fault.

In September 1944 Macmillan was given the additional post of Chief Commissioner of the Allied Control Commission. This gave him executive power in Italy, enabling him to improve the conditions under which the Italians were living, and made his personal assistant’s conferment of the title ‘Viceroy of the Mediterranean by stealth’ a passably accurate description of his role. Ignoring American and also British left-wing opposition, Macmillan played, after Churchill, the most significant part in forcing a settlement in Greece which prevented that country from sliding into civil war and Communism – the culmination of his outstandingly successful assignment in the Mediterranean. When he returned home at the end of the war, he was for the first time in the political front rank.

There was, however, to be one blot on his record, though it did not appear till many years later. That was the ‘repatriation’, through a misunderstanding of the Yalta agreement, of thousands of White Russians who were not Soviet citizens and who should not have been sent to their certain death at the hands of Stalin. Even worse was the handing-over to the Yugoslav victors of thousands of anti-Communist Chetniks, who had at least initially fought the Nazis, and other Yugoslav nationals to a similar fate at the hands of Tito. Nobody comes well out of these tragic events, though the soldiers were more humane than the politicians or the diplomats, and Macmillan must bear his share of the blame. But Mr Horne convincingly clears him of Count Tolstoy’s accusation that he was part of some conspiracy to deceive General Alexander and others. The only people who were deceived were the poor wretches who were handed over, and even a Peter Wright would have difficulty in seeing Harold Macmillan as a tool of the KGB.

Mr Horne thinks ‘it is easy now to forget just how radical, indeed revolutionary, were the politics – and language – of the 1945 Socialists.’ Macmillan would have found that difficult to remember. While he fiercely opposed the Labour Government, he did more than anybody else except Butler to see that the Conservative Party set a new course away from the pre-war economic policies that he had derided: he even sought an alliance with the Liberals and contemplated changing his party’s name to the ‘New Democratic Party’. On the Conservatives’ return to power, he became Minister of Housing, building the promised 300,000 houses a year with resolute competence and a fanfare of trumpets. When Churchill retired, Eden gave Macmillan the Foreign Office, only to move him after six months to the Treasury. Had he remained at the Foreign Office, the Suez crisis might have followed a very different course.

Mr Horne wisely does not attempt to defend Suez, which Macmillan himself eventually conceded was ‘a very bad episode’ in his life, yet he manages to make an exciting story of it, a remarkable achievement when the ground has been so often trampled on. Unfortunately, though, he does not set it in context and he has for once restricted his sources, neglecting valuable Israeli as well as other material. By making no mention of Israel’s Gaza raid in February 1955, which killed 39 Egyptians and ‘shocked’ even the Israeli Prime Minister, the book makes President Nasser’s arms deal with the Soviet bloc seem mere mutual mischief-making instead of a last-ditch attempt by Nasser to redress his chronic military inferiority, brought home to him by the Gaza raid. Mr Horne similarly suggests a picture of a peace-seeking Israel, nervous of her security and agonising over the nightmare of a concerted Arab attack. As the British Government was not even at the time taken in by that air of injured innocence, it is odd to find Macmillan’s biographer falling for it thirty years later.

Eden’s Guildhall speech, made in November 1955 when Macmillan was Foreign Secretary, in which Eden put forward compromise proposals for an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, is also ignored. The speech was welcomed by Cairo and denounced by Tel Aviv. It was Ben Gurion, not Nasser, who continually destroyed any chance of peace in the Middle East. Had Mr Horne consulted the diary of Moshe Sharett, who was at the relevant times either Foreign or Prime Minister of Israel, he would have seen why. Israel wanted territory not peace. The Israeli Chief of Staff, General Dayan, had made it quite clear to his government that in reality the country was in no danger from the Arabs. That was the reason why Israel did not want a security pact with the USA or any other security precautions on her borders. Any such measures, said Dayan, ‘would put handcuffs on our military freedom of action’. Meanwhile Israel pursued a policy of raids on Egypt, Jordan and Syria which Sharett described as ‘massacres’, and Dayan thought ‘vital’ because they made it possible for the Government ‘to maintain a high level of tension’ in Israel.

Macmillan’s inglorious role at Suez – epitomised by Harold Wilson’s best remark, ‘First in, first out’ – is graphically and unsparingly described, but not explained. The clear-sighted backbencher of the inter-war years or the reflective elder statesman would surely not have succumbed to the collective hysteria that afflicted much of the political establishment when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company. After all, Butler, Mountbatten and Monckton remained immune. Yet in 1956 Macmillan entirely lost his head. Every bit as bellicose as Eden, he wearisomely reiterated that if we lost ‘the oil’ we were finished. Therefore force had to be used and Nasser removed. Just what Macmillan expected the Arabs or Nasser to do with the oil he never made clear. As Arab commentators have often pointed out, they could not have drunk it. In any case Nasser’s action had not in any way affected British or European oil supplies. He had not nationalised the Suez Canal but the Suez Canal Company – an important distinction which has eluded Mr Horne. The canal itself had always been under Egyptian control; indeed Israeli ships were excluded from the canal while the Suez Canal Company was still controlled by its Anglo-French directors and shareholders. Apart from boosting Nasser’s popularity, all that nationalisation of the company did was to give the Egyptians added incentive to increase the use of the canal by tankers from whose tolls they would now benefit.

Macmillan and Eden were oblivious of all this. Macmillan’s far-sighted attitude to Africa in the Sixties is in striking contrast to his utter incomprehension of the Middle East in the Fifties. He seems to have thought that Arab nationalism was some unnatural phenomenon whipped up by Nasser to annoy the British, and that without him the Arabs would have remained gratefully contented with British hegemony. He even talked of ‘loyal Arabs’, much as Victorian proconsuls assumed the automatic support of docile natives in suppressing the childish trouble-making of insurgent fuzzy-wuzzies. His belief in ‘loyal Arabs’ made his early eagerness to use Israel against the Egyptians – when he first suggested it, Eden was profoundly shocked – all the more ill-judged; Anglo-French collusive action with the Israelis against an Arab state was the surest possible way of undermining them.

Macmillan bore a special responsibility for the debacle because his wartime relationship had brought him closer than other British leaders to President Eisenhower. Yet he misled himself and the Government about the President’s likely attitude to an Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, even though Eisenhower had left no room for doubt as to what that attitude would be. So the squalid deception went ahead. Egyptian civilians were bombarded in Port Said, the canal which was said to be our lifeline was blocked as a result of our actions, ‘the oil’ was threatened, our ‘loyal Arabs’ were fatally weakened, and Britain’s position in the Middle East was wrecked.

Macmillan’s conduct over Suez was so astonishingly inept that it has sometimes been explained as a plot to destroy and replace Eden. Mr Horne easily disposes of that canard. Macmillan was an acute sufferer from the collective hysteria, not a subtle conspirator coldly using it to promote his own prospects. Much more doubtful, though, is the claim that before Suez Macmillan had never ‘seriously regarded himself as a rival for the crown to the younger Butler’. When, in December 1955, Macmillan against his will was transferred from the Foreign Office to the Treasury, he insisted that after Eden’s his should be the leading voice on the ‘Home Front’ and that Butler should be denied the title of Deputy Prime Minister. That does not look like the conduct of a man who was ready to give Butler a free run to No 10.

Before the war Macmillan pursued causes: the curbing or civilising of laissez-faire capitalism and the containment or defeat of the dictators. He gave his own political advancement a much lower priority, a division of aim which had stultified his career without bringing success to his causes. He never made that mistake again. Probably from Algiers onwards, his causes were pursued through his career. To learn how both fared when he became Prime Minister, we must await Mr Horne’s second volume.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989

Why does Ian Gilmour (LRB, 24 November 1988) think that ‘thousands of White Russians’ were sent to their ‘certain death’ at the hands of Stalin? The figure of two to three thousand émigrés usually cited (out of about 45,000 handed over) is pure conjecture. More to the point, there are eye-witness accounts that the Cossack officers were given sentences of up to 25 years in the Gulag. Brutal perhaps, but still not ‘certain death’, much less a massacre.

Robert Knight
Canterbury, Kent

Ian Gilmour writes: Apologies. Mr Knight is correct. ‘Uncertain death’ would perhaps have been better. Mr Horne’s account runs: ‘Some of those repatriated committed suicide; some were summarily executed; most were despatched to labour camps, where many did not survive the abominable conditions. Krasnov, Shkuro and some of the other old émigrés were eventually executed after a period of imprisonment.’ Unfortunately I can’t find Tolstoy’s book at present.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences