The Macmillans: The Story of a Dynasty 
by Richard Davenport-Hines.
Heinemann, 370 pp., £18.50, April 1992, 0 434 17502 1
Show More
Show More

On 10 January 1957 the momentous news reached the family publishing house in St Martin’s Lane. ‘Mr Macmillan has just been made prime minister,’ his elder brother Daniel was told by an excited secretary. ‘No, “Mr Macmillan” has not been made prime minister,’ the chairman corrected her. ‘ “Mr Harold” has.’ Here, in a nutshell, is the theme of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book. Its early chapters form a heroic chronicle of upward social mobility. We first encounter an earlier Daniel Macmillan as a mid 18th-century crofter, scratching a living from the desolate but sublime landscape of the Isle of Arran. Next comes his only son, Malcolm, born on the bonny banks of Lochranza, the beauty of which inspired Sir Walter Scott to the curmudgeonly reflection that ‘wake where’er he may, man wakes to care and toil.’ So it proved with the Macmillans. Malcolm prospered though hard work on his poor land, becoming a tacks man, a kulak among crofters, who served as an elder of the Church of Scotland. His son Duncan, claimed by the revivalist preaching of the Baptists, was also a hard-working man who, according to his own son, ‘cared for nothing but his family – that is, did not care what toil he endured for their sakes.’ This was just as well, for he and his wife Katherine had no fewer than 12 children, though four of their daughters died tragically young in an epidemic which finally induced the family to forsake Arran. Their two younger sons deservedly get chapters to themselves in The Macmillans.

Mr Daniel and Mr Alexander were the founders of the family firm. They made their way to London via Cambridge, that bookish city, and into publishing via bookselling. At the age of 20, Daniel was diagnosed as a victim of tuberculosis, which Victorians knew well enough as graveyard cough. ‘Of course I must die,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘and if I die with my sins unpardoned, I shall sink lower than the grave.’ Under sentence of death, he laboured on for thirty years, building up his business from nothing, and becoming the friend of Kingsley and Tennyson. On his deathbed Daniel told his wife: ‘You will see so much of me come out in the children, dear.’ The dynasty was consolidated under Mr Alexander, whose broad Scottish accent and egalitarian leanings did not prevent him from hobnobbing with ‘the best in the land’, as he proudly told a friend. ‘I was at the club the other night, where were Tennyson, Browning, Anthony Trollope, Lord Houghton, Lord Stanley, Tom Taylor, Fitzjames Stephen ... with all of whom I had a pleasant gossip.’ With all of them? But even on such a loquacious evening he still spared a thought for ‘how much better worthy of such company dear Daniel would have been.’ His own receptions, held over the shop in Covent Garden, drew four hundred people at a time, each of them risking the sort of heavy banter – ‘De’il take it mon; I shall have ta forgie ye, for ye’re sach a gude bay’ – which makes encounters with Scottish literary exiles such an egregious joy at London literary parties.

It was under Alexander’s stern guidance that the Macmillan family fortunes fructified. ‘I have frequently sent back what I felt to be beautiful and touching in verse, simply because I knew it would not pay,’ he told one author. ‘That is my business, to calculate what will commercially pay.’ Daniel’s orphaned sons, Frederick and Maurice, had been brought up by Alexander alongside his own son George. Born within four years of each other, not simply cousins but three siblings in a double family, Mr Frederick, Mr Maurice and Mr George were to work together for over half a century. By 1914 they had made Macmillans ‘as safe as the Bank of England’, as one of their authors put it. In a changed post-war world where the Bank had been knocked off the Gold Standard, they were to die in 1936 within months of each other. Frederick was the last to go, anticipating his own death so keenly that, on his admission to the London Clinic, he mistook it for heaven. Or so his nephew Harold, who had visited him, liked to tell the story.

With the entrance of Harold Macmillan, the first prime minister in the family and the first Earl of Stockton, Davenport-Hines’s agreeable dynastic chronicle changes in character, as he explicitly warns us at the beginning of Chapter Six. The early part of the book, which works well enough as a morality tale or a comedy of manners, hints at The Forsyte Saga. The later part is a psychodrama set against a world-historical backdrop, rather in the manner of Citizen Kane. It is here, in more senses than one, that the author’s problems begin. The Macmillan family apparently took against the book that he was writing and has withheld or withdrawn permission for him to quote from copyright material over which it has control. The present Earl of Stockton is quoted as calling the author’s technique ‘psycho-history’, which Davenport-Hines repudiates as ‘a mistaken epithet’ on the grounds that ‘there is little if any jargon in the book.’

Yet the noble Earl’s mistake, if not his effort at suppression, is surely excusable. For not only is the key to Harold’s behaviour presented as his childhood frustration in coping with a possessive mother, but this is explained in terms which are, to say the least, peculiar. Thus Nellie Macmillan stifled the True Self which she might have allowed her son to develop, and provoked him to construct a False Self as a protective mechanism. The compliance he showed her, as the price for her reciprocal semblance of love, ‘was the earliest stage of the False Self, a defensive mask assumed by emotionally isolated men and women who adapt or imitate or steal other people’s style or mannerisms’. Jargon schmargon.

This wealth of psychological insight, freely accessible to the author, more than compensates for any parsimony in the archival evidence available to him. For example, in 1945 Sir John Colville recorded in his diary, since published and now firmly in the public domain: ‘I don’t like the would-be ingratiating way in which Macmillan bares his teeth.’ Davenport-Hines digresses at some length, starting from the observation that ‘animals bare their teeth to show hostility,’ on what this reveals about Macmillan. ‘When he fawned to someone,’ he concludes, ‘it was his False Self at work; what he really wished to do was crush them. Yet he betrayed himself, for when he tried to be ingratiating he bared his teeth.’ The trouble with Davenport-Hines is that he never knows when to stop. He cannot make his point with a hint when there is a chance for a homily instead. Sometimes his interpretation seems over-determined, at other times simply over the top. It is not enough for him to unmask Macmillan’s False Self as the key to his premiership: there is also the disclosure that two of his predecessors in the office, MacDonald and Baldwin, were ‘consummate politicians who offered to the public the quintessence of False Selves’. To any reader who begins to wonder how much falsity is around in politics, the author has an overwhelming reply. ‘All political epochs are based on chimera and imposture; politicians not only habitually tell lies, but generally need to live lies,’ he assures us. ‘Nobody believes anybody, everyone is in the know,’ he writes of Parliament, that clearinghouse of lies, that menagerie of False Selves.

The paradoxical result of this cumulative rhetorical overkill is to provide a perverse extenuation for its ostensible victim. ‘He was bogus, but so are most great Parliamentarians,’ the book concludes. ‘In a relaxed moment in old age he once described himself as “a shit”, and everybody who aspires to be prime minister has a element of shittiness.’ This seems a rather banal verdict. It was the great Daniel Macmillan, already stricken, who wrote in his journal: ‘But death is not all, after death the judgment. A serious matter that.’ Much the same could now be said of his grandson’s political reputation. Harold Macmillan enjoyed a magnificent old age, which he put to excellent use in paying off the old scores of a long lifetime. As his infirmities increased, so did his ability to make them work for him. At 90 he could hold the House of Lords in the palm of his palsied hand. His penchant for nostalgia cast an indulgent glow over his own career.

Yet that career, as Davenport-Hines shows, was troubled and perplexing. He is surely right to devote a chapter to the influence on Macmillan of each of the two dominant women in his life. His American mother had endured a succession of bereavements which left her, the only surviving child of a deceased mother, a widow at 18. She responded with india-rubber resilence and cast-iron fortitude. Nellie Hill walked right out of Spencer, Indiana, went to Paris, France, married Maurice Macmillan, and moved into a fine house in London, England. She not only settled in England but settled for it, thoroughly Anglicising both herself and her ambitions for her new family. But it was still the old formula – rubber and iron – which governed the upbringing of her three sons. When Harold married a duke’s daughter after the First World War, Nellie’s social aspirations were fulfilled. Birch Grove, the Macmillan country house, was made available to the happy couple, rather than to Harold’s elder brothers, with mother in constant attendance as her daughter-in-law’s helpmeet. What could be more idyllic?

Quite a lot, it seems. Lady Dorothy, being a Cavendish, made no secret of her loathing for the old lady or of her fast-diminishing marital passion. ‘Harold was not enthusiastic about the grapplings and gropings of the bed,’ Davenport-Hines assures us. Maybe not: but Harold’s friend and colleague Bob Boothby made up for this deficiency. This has now become widely known, and it was never very well covered up at the time in the circles in which the Macmillans moved. Caught between his martinet mother and his wayward wife, Harold assuaged his despair and his hurt pride in his chosen profession of politics. Here was a game which he played for high stakes, with ruthless calculation, with persistent ambition, yet with a sense of final futility about the outcome. It makes sense to compare Macmillan with the great Lord Salisbury, not least because ‘they both professed a deep Christianity but were regarded as incorrigible cynics’, as Davenport-Hines concludes in one of his few references to Macmillan’s unexpectedly strong Anglo-Catholic commitment. As much as any of his ancestors, he turned to religion for a comfort that the world would not give.

Davenport-Hines offers a brisk and readable account of Macmillan’s rise to power in his chapter, ‘The Servant of Fame’, before moving to an appraisal of his premiership. It is not a flattering picture, but the relentlessly misanthropic tone of the treatment provides a sort of alibi for a politician who was, on this showing, no more of a shit and a liar than the rest. Yet they thought he was. There is an extraordinary wealth of testimony to the mistrust which Macmillan inspired among those who had to work closely with him. His sincerity was impugned, almost as a matter of course, even by colleagues who had no partisan reason to cast aspersions upon him. His loyalty was doubted by those to whom he most extravagantly professed it.

Davenport-Hines makes the interesting point that, after the Second World War, the Churchillians still did not like or trust Macmillan, whose opposition to appeasement receives no mention in the first volume of Churchill’s memoirs, The Gathering Storm. When Churchill appointed Macmillan as his Minister of Housing in 1951 he may not have been handing him a poisoned chalice but he certainly was not handing him the succession on a silver salver. If the Tories had failed to build the 300,000 houses a year which they had recklessly promised, Macmillan’s name would have been mud. No excuses would have washed, any more than they had done for the infamous groundnuts scheme, another public investment decision of the period which became a political totem. But as it turned out there was no problem about building the houses, because resources were channelled Macmillan’s way, at the expense of industrial investment, in order to maintain the Government’s credibility. This was the shape of things to come. For Macmillan’s political coup in the Fifties was to identify himself with the politics of affluence, which in practice meant manipulating successive consumer booms on a time-scale no longer than that of the electoral cycle.

Not only did Macmillan fail to inspire trust, he failed to display vision He toyed with the idea of Europe in the Forties, like his hero Churchill, but was not prepared to face up to the hard choices this implied for Britain’s world role. ‘The Empire must always have first preference,’ he still proclaimed: ‘Europe must come second.’ Later, when he became prime minister, it was the illusion of a special relationship with the USA which was to hobble his European policy. His rotund phrases about the British as Greeks in a new Roman Empire suggested that this empire might purport to be governed from Washington but that the timeless wisdom of Downing Street would be constantly available on the hotline. But who was kidding whom?

It is no surprise that the Suez crisis revealed Macmillan simultaneously at his worst and his best. First the bad news, which was for his country. His judgment of Britain’s interest and strategy in response to the Egyptian seizure of the canal was deeply suspect. He placed the whole drama within the framework of a defence of the British Empire and invested Nasser with a sub-Hitlerian role. As the member of Eden’s Cabinet who had known Eisenhower best, going back to their wartime days in North Africa, Macmillan radiated confidence about his old friend’s intentions: ‘I know Ike, Ike will lie doggo.’ This proved to be a culpably crass misreading of the American position. Belatedly, Macmillan discovered his mistake. As Chancellor he faced the task of explaining to his Cabinet colleagues that there was a disabling run on sterling, which he had failed to foresee, which he could not staunch, and which made a nonsense of the unilateral military expedition he had noisily promoted.

Next the good news on Suez, which was uniquely for himself. Macmillan not only disclosed the run on sterling: he exaggerated it, and persuaded the Cabinet to retreat. Buoyantly, he bluffed the whole thing out, emerging as the champion of the Tory Right, while Eden buckled under the stress and poor Butler, his putative successor, who had never thought much of this wild plan in the first place, became the repository for the recriminations over its failure. And so, as Nellie had always intended, Mr Harold became prime minister, apparently reconciled with Lady Dorothy, whose lover promptly asked for a post in the new Cabinet, but who had to make do with a peerage. Macmillan, with his fondness for Victorian novels, must often have dreamt that he was prime minister in a novel by Trollope. One day he woke up and found that he was.

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