Lotus and Seed Corn

Austin Mitchell

  • Downing Street Diary: The Macmillan Years 1957-1963 by Harold Evans
    Hodder, 318 pp, £9.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 340 25897 7

The Macmillan years were the phoney years. In our pawky way we’d never had it so good – or been reminded so often. Beneath, it was all going wrong. We opted for consumption, not investment. Others moved ahead. We began that stagger from go to stop and back which has now become reverse gear – permanently. Perhaps we were tired after our historic effort to make the world safe for Austin-Morris cars to break down in, but living on our diet of lotus and seed corn we complacently ignored the warning chorus of Schonfields, Shankses and Croslands. BSA profits supported Lady Docker. ‘British Achievements Speak for Britain,’ said the hoardings, with pictures of Shipbuilding, Steel, Nuclear Power, Cars, Aircraft and everything else that was soon to go so wrong, so disastrously. Together we walked backwards into decline.

Who better to preside over such post-imperial tristesse than the Last Edwardian? Posturing on the world stage, he reassured us about ‘little local difficulties’ before shuttling off to Russia, America, Africa or New Zealand. Premiers and Popes who can’t face reality travel. Macmillan had the highest MPG rating of all. And who better to chronicle this Entertainer, last of the Actor Managers, than the stage director who worried about the reviews, the spotlights and the camera while the lead sulked or strutted, the cast squabbled, the boards rotted and the audience munched contentedly on its candy floss. Don’t munch too loud. This is an old building.

Macmillan’s bloated biographical memorial to his own ego has embalmed the era. The more prosaic Evans tells it like it was: the manipulations, the strategies, the fussing over the facade, while Macmillan stayed in bed reading the papers, and down in the basement – alternating between sulkiness and silkiness – Rab Butler kept the antiquated boiler going. ‘Diary’ is a misnomer for the trite intermittent jottings of a trite, intermittently self-satisfied bureaucrat, which really deal only with the period after the 1959 election. A civil servant to the last. Evans has remained far too discreet for far too long. So his account of articles and interviews long dead now looks as jaded as the era. SuperMac; Mac the Knife; after the Preston Bypass, ‘Tar Mac’; the Honest Broker – none more honest, none broker; life is better under the Conservatives (after Profumo). The jokes, like the book, centre on Macmillan. They look as stale.

Yet, though well disguised, the book has its importance. Evans and his master were a new breed: the first real news manager, the first television prime minister. They stumbled on their roles. Prime ministers from Lloyd George to Baldwin had already shown an obsessive concern for image, as well as a tendency to attack the mirror. Evans was the first to hold it up for so long or to do it so well. Attlee had been too cryptic, Churchill too senile, Eden too nervy, but Macmillan, despite his claim that he ‘lacked a flamboyant personality’, was perfect material: an actor who stood for nothing but was desperate to look as though he did. From studio unto studio his alter ego did he lead. Evans was civil servant enough to take his master seriously, to accept the trite philosophising as statesmanship, but too blinkered to see the few moments of greatness – the wind-of-change speech, for instance – as anything more than evanescent.

The job was easy. Today, a servile press competes to be ‘loyaller than thou’ and backs every folly of Thatcherism. Then, Evans was perpetually worried by a tendency to bite the hand that fed it as columnists became bored with a premier who had been around too long. Yet the club traditions of the lobby, and dependence on the crumbs from the table of the great, made the press manageable. Just how managed they were is clear from the occasional lapses: ‘Fairlie cheated. His interview was sought and he submitted quotations he proposed to use. The interview was given secondary treatment, however, with extensive quotations which had not been submitted.’ Because he was so good at his job Evans was so bad for us. PR is lies. The better its presentation, the more we are in the dark.

It was the subject himself, rather than the media, which produced the problems. The chameleon changed constantly. The floor manager was never sure whether his presenter would sit out the programme:

September 1960 I start by saying I assume he will go and he bridles a little but then looks at me and a twinkle comes to his eye. ‘That’s not at all to be assumed,’ he says.

October 1960 He went on to say that he had told the Queen that he might have to resign (apparently she did not react with the consternation he had expected).

November 1961 He is feeling more than ever lonely.

February 1963 ‘I shan’t chuck my hand in, you know ... Anyhow it wouldn’t do any good if I did. Of course if it would help that would be different.’

Television became the ultimate court of appeal. No crisis was so bad, no difficulty so great, that things couldn’t be improved by trundling Mac onto the telly.

So Macmillan was the first British prime minister to use television. Like going over the top in the 14-18 war, he said. Yet he enjoyed it, and like the actor he was, was good at it. His style rapidly dated but he left others to make the real mistakes: Wilson followed his example and over-used television, living by the medium and dying by it. Heath was murdered by it, and we ended up with the Central School of Speech and Drama in power: an actress brilliant at each part she prates: St Francis, Boadicea, Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale. As the farce turns to tragedy, changes of role will grow more frequent, sincerity and conviction deepen: ‘Count not her broken promises as a crime. She meant them how she meant them at the time’ – a trap into which Macmillan was too sophisticated to fall. Macmillan and Evans pioneered a debasement of politics: the condescending approach of putting what they didn’t quite understand into the language of people not themselves. ‘How local is local – well, I know my own local,’ said Macmillan, who probably never went near it: it was a short step to Thatcher’s translation of national economics into corner-grocerese, though, unlike her predecessors, the present prime minister has the excuse of actually thinking in those terms.

The image conceals, of course, a less attractive reality.

March 1960 Is the PM becoming too godlike? The last PM was ruined by failure. It would be ironical if this one was ruined by success. In the early days he did not interfere with his colleagues ... but now he interferes a good deal.

June 1961 What does worry some of us is evidence of a slowing down. He seems unable to sustain the same intensity of concentration and effort over prolonged periods.

The actor manager was improvising. Selwyn Lloyd was allowed to stay on far too long, then dumped in a purge which looked like, and was, panic. Entry to the Common Market was suddenly taken up because it looked like purpose, despite clear indications from De Gaulle that Britain would not be acceptable. The sales force reflected: ‘he seems obsessed by gimmick answers, knowing there can be no solutions. He expresses little with precision; all is safely generalised ... Then he does have moments when he is visibly weary and depressed.’

The captain ruminated, Britain drifted. Dean Acheson said we had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Macmillan and Evans attacked him. He was right. Two alternative paths offered. The first was to build ourselves up economically and industrially, becoming a Japan with welfare by concentrating on our own interests. The second was to try and keep that place on the world stage to which our leaders, though not our people, were addicted. Since it was clear to Macmillan, if not to the Daily Express, that we no longer had the power to do this on our own, he sought to keep the act going as part of a Common Market which, he blithely assumed, would form our supporting cast. Macmillan chose plastic greatness. This precluded economic strength. The obligations of world role, defence burden, sterling area, over-valued pound, and ultimately and most painfully of all, the economic burden of the Market, were all inimical to growth and industry. Such was Macmillan’s choice. He then bungled it by failing to get into the EEC. This deadlock brought disintegration.

Neither Macmillan’s government nor the Conservative Party any longer stood for anything. Imperialism, inherited from Salisbury, meant nothing when the Empire was being unscrambled and the Union Jack on election tables disguised the rush into Europe. The Chamberlainite role of building up British industry was eclipsed by burdens put on the productive economy, and the increasing ascendency of finance over industry. Even Macmillanite Whiggery, doling out the crumbs of affluence to the masses, was ruled out as the cake stopped growing and the affluent society turned into the zero sum society. There only remained a last desperate attempt to buy votes with a quick spray of aerosol Keynes in the Maudling boom – a trick which later failed for Heath too.

Thatcherism sprang from the reaction against Macmillanite Whiggery. As the Entertainer held things together, an unhappy muttering grew in boardrooms, small businesses (particularly groceries) and Conservative Associations. It came from people who believed not in ‘one nation’ but in two – with the lower, inconsiderately, doing too well, and the deserving upper not well enough. Dark resentments were gathering. ‘The PM thought it represented a conjunction of a spiritual vacuum and a vague feeling in the middle classes that all they had striven for was turning to Dead Sea fruit. They were becoming aware that power was passing to organised labour and that the period since 1832 in which the middle classes had dominated government and politics was disappearing. Even their material wealth was not bringing them the rewards for which they had hoped.’ What Macmillan did not see was that this transformed the dominant ethos of Toryism from a set of principles to a collection of prejudices: anti-union, anti-worker, anti-welfare, anti-state, anti-affluence. Macmillan’s Whiggery failed. So did Heathian Technocracy. Only the prejudices, exacerbated by a galloping national inferiority complex, remained. In May 1979, Retribution put on its skirts and went abroad in the land. Thatcher saw herself as an economic Churchill to Macmillan’s Chamberlain. She knew that economics was not political appeasement but a branch of morality dedicated to visiting on the multitude who labour (or, increasingly, don’t) the sins of the forefathers who had been spoiled by Macmillan. If the gentle Ealing comedy of those days has given way to Hammer House of Horror, the fault lies less with Mrs Thatcher than with the man whose failure made her possible.