Holding all the strings

Ian Gilmour

  • Macmillan. Vol. II: 1957-1986 by Alistair Horne
    Macmillan, 741 pp, £18.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 333 49621 3

Macmillan’s premiership started at near rock bottom, with his party in disarray following the Suez debacle – it was not at all certain that the Government would last more than a few weeks. It reached its peak with his towering victory in the 1959 General Election, and it stayed for a time on a fairly high plateau, until economic troubles and deflation, the sacking of a third of his Cabinet, the failure of Britain’s application to join the Common Market, and the Profumo case, sent his fortunes down almost to where they had been in 1957. And yet his stock was soon to rise again, and if it had not been for the resignation that resulted from a faulty prognosis – largely his own – concerning his health, it would probably have returned to its previous peak with the winning of the 1964 Election.

Alistair Horne quotes some recent press comment to the effect that Harold Macmillan was the father of British inflation. We all know about ‘lags’ in economics, but the degree of lag needed to justify that comment is surely excessive even if the contention were otherwise plausible. In fact, the Macmillan Government’s record on inflation, as well as on growth and unemployment, was better than any of its successors’. Certainly, in his conduct of the economy, Macmillan never forgot North-East England in the Thirties, and was determined to prevent a repetition of such a slump. But in view of the misery caused by the high unemployment of the Eighties it is difficult to think he was wrong.

Mr Horne manages to believe that ‘eight years of Thatcher monetarism have been the success story of its time.’ Indeed, he sometimes gives the impression that he would have been happier writing the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. He indulges in forays against Conservatives who do not match his exacting right-wing standards, But he does not appear to possess the factual knowledge to make his excursions, as Michelin would say, vaut le voyage. Ted Heath, he tells us, has never been ‘renowned as convivial company’. Has he ever dined with Mr Heath, one wonders? Francis Pym is criticised for ‘publishing a bitter book of self-justification’ immediately after being sacked as Foreign Secretary. That opinion would not survive even a cursory reading of The Politics of Consent. Yet Mr Horne is generally pretty fair, and he even sides with Macmillan over ‘the little local difficulty’ that occurred when his entire Treasury team resigned over the Cabinet’s refusal to cut public expenditure by another £50 million.

Harold Macmillan frequently complained of having to keep too many balls in the air at the same time. Inevitably his biographer had the same problem. Mr Horne has solved it by partly abandoning the chronological approach of his earlier volume for one that often keeps only one ball in the air at a time. Maybe that solution was hard to avoid, but it deprives his second volume of some of the grand narrative sweep of the first. It also bars the reader from a sense of the accumulation of difficulties felt by the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless Mr Horne’s second volume once again demonstrates his great strengths as a biographer: his grasp of foreign affairs, his sensitive treatment of Macmillan’s private life, and his superlative ability to tell a story. A too distant acquaintance with British politics remains his only weakness. He paints a large and vivid portrait of a man who after Churchill and Attlee was probably the best prime minister since the war, as well as being courageous, immensely intelligent, extraordinarily well-read, witty and humorous, often far-sighted, a man of broad social sympathies, but also vulnerable, inhibited, crafty and surprisingly insecure.

In the Middle East Macmillan never learned the lessons of Suez – his attitude remained blimpish and blinkered. But he learned them elsewhere. He saw the importance of repairing the Anglo-American alliance which Suez had nearly wrecked, being no less successful in establishing close collaboration with the young President Kennedy than with his old wartime friend Eisenhower. He was slower to see his way in Europe. Britain fiddled around with the European Free Trade Area – something to which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, some Conservatives still think they can return, this time not setting up an EFTA as a rival to the European Community but turning the Community itself into little more than a free trade area. Mr Horne is at his most accomplished in his account of Macmillan’s dealings with de Gaulle and the Brussels negotiations. Macmillan’s customary cynicism deserted him when he thought that his wartime help for de Gaulle against Roosevelt and Churchill would lead the General to look more kindly on Britain’s application to enter the EEC, and his anti-Germanism caused him to mishandle Adenauer, who might otherwise have influenced de Gaulle in Britain’s favour. But, as Mr Horne convincingly shows, probably nothing made any difference. Because of a bizarre overestimate of France’s strength, and the consequent fantasy that she could dominate Europe, de Gaulle was determined to keep les Anglo-Saxons out of the Community. Britain, the General believed, was insufficiently European and would be merely a stalking-horse for the United States. De Gaulle was wrong of course, though some of Britain’s subsequent behaviour has shown his view to have been not totally without substance.

Soon after Macmillan’s failure in Europe came the Profumo affair, one of the sleaziest episodes of post-war politics: not because of anything Mr Profumo said or did, but because of what the Labour Party said and did. Labour maintained that it was not concerned with morals – oh no, of course not – but solely with Britain’s security. Because Ivanov, an attaché at the Soviet Embassy, had also been involved with the lady in the case, ergo in Labour’s view Profumo was a security risk. Mr Profumo was inexcusably at fault in lying about his association with Christine Keeler. But of all the lies that have been told in the House of Commons, Jack Profumo’s denial of any ‘impropriety’ with Miss Keeler was surely the most trivial. Yet it had massive repercussions and did considerable damage to Harold Macmillan. In July 1963, in a brilliant article in the Spectator (which I then owned), Anthony West, after depicting Senator McCarthy’s activities in America and exposing the potentialities for nonsense (still with us) in the concept of security risks, showed that it was ‘this game’ that Harold Wilson, George Wigg (‘that industrious garbage collector’), Dick Crossman and Tom Driberg were now playing. Mr West added that both American Parties had refused to follow Senator McCarthy and that the United States, ‘in its occasional collapses into political squalor, had never exhibited anything so despicable as the spectacle of Mr Harold Wilson leading his entire following away from serious matters to shuffle and jostle round the dirty linen of Miss Christine Keeler’s various beds in the hope of finding some easy way to power’.

When I was shown the article in proof, it was entitled ‘Thoughts of a Stranger Passing Through’, which seemed too innocuous to me, so I suggested ‘McCarthy in Westminster’. At least initially, my intervention proved unfortunate. The ‘industrious garbage collector’ immediately issued a writ, his solicitor maintaining that it would be difficult to conceive a graver libel against a Member of Parliament. Nearly two years later, however, when the plaintiff and the defendants exchanged documents, Colonel Wigg – either from a sudden onrush of honesty or, much more probably, by mistake – disclosed two documents which destroyed his case. (If, as Mr Horne thinks, they had come into my hands in May 1963, they would also have destroyed the Labour Party’s whole stand on the Profumo affair.) The first document was not sensational. It was a memorandum from Wigg to Wilson – a boring blow-by-blow account of Wigg’s assiduous sniffing around: he fancied himself as a private detective. Labour sent that document on to 10 Downing Street.

The second key document, also a memorandum from Wigg, was the same as the first except for its introductory paragraph, which read: ‘In my opinion, Profumo was never at any time a security risk. The intelligence services were aware of his meetings with Ivanov and with [sic] his subsequent meetings with Christine Keeler. It is equally true to say that the intelligence services were aware of Ivanov’s friendship with Ward and his general activities.’ Needless to say, that document was not given to Harold Macmillan. Had it been, the Labour Party would have had to abandon their campaign. Instead, they carried on with their hypocritical claim that their only concern was the country’s security, and with their calumny that Profumo had been a security risk. In his speech in the crucial Commons debate, Wilson even stated no less than four times that we should never know if there had been an actual security leak. Yet Wigg, Wilson’s Smearmaster-General, had explicitly conceded right at the beginning that Profumo had never even been a security risk. Whatever the faults of today’s Labour Party, it is free of Wiggery, and I don’t think it would now behave as it did in the Sixties.

Macmillan survived the Profumo case. Away from Fleet Street and Westminster, most people adopted a fairly understanding attitude, and opinion soon swung some way back to the Government. As a result, Macmillan decided to stay in office and fight the next election, a decision which was thwarted by his prostate operation. Thinking himself much iller than he was, he decided to resign, and the battle for the succession began at the Party’s Annual Conference at Blackpool. Mr Horne’s account of the leadership struggle and Macmillan’s part in it is the least convincing part of his book. Surprisingly for such a skilled historian, he seems to treat Macmillan’s diary as an impartial record of events. Diaries are documents almost as tainted and self-serving as memoirs, and Macmillan in his diary was certainly not writing for himself alone but for future historians.

In the summer of 1963 Macmillan had sent Lord Hailsham to Moscow to negotiate the final stage of the treaty to ban nuclear tests. As Minister for Science, Hailsham had not been the obvious choice for such an assignment. But that same summer, when he expected to resign, Macmillan had told Hailsham that he wanted him to be his successor. That was still the position during the first act of the leadership contest, the Macmillan clan being open supporters of Hailsham. Before long, however, Macmillan switched horses and became a supporter of Lord Home without telling his original horse or, so far as I know, his own clan. Still more striking was Macmillan’s managing to control the entire procedure from his hospital bed – as Mr Horne puts it, Macmillan was going ‘to hold all the strings in his hand until the last minute’ – and the leadership contenders allowing him to do so. This was a serious misjudgment on the part of all of them – except, of course, Lord Home.

Under the procedure devised by Macmillan, the Chief Whip, Martin Redmayne, and his assistants, were to sound out MPs; Lord Dilhorne, the Lord Chancellor, was to sound out the Cabinet; and other dignitaries were to consult other segments of the Party. Macmillan’s diary has Redmayne as originally a Hoggite (i.e. a Hailshamite). That was certainly not the impression he gave when I inadvertently had breakfast with him at Blackpool: he made some rather heavy-handed pro-Home and anti-Hailsham remarks – he knew I was an out-and-out Hoggite. Furthermore, finding himself on the platform when Hailsham unexpectedly renounced his peerage, Redmayne looked thoroughly discomfited when he had to stand up and join in the applause.

Anyway, after much sounding out, Macmillan got, if not the candidate he had initially thought of, certainly the one he wanted: Redmayne and Dilhorne reported that there was a majority both in the Commons and in the Cabinet for Home. How much creative accountancy was required before Redmayne reached his conclusion is not exactly known: in my view, quite a lot. But the most fascinating part of Mr Horne’s narrative is the reproduction of Dilhorne’s either inventive or merely incompetent score-keeping. Dilhorne put Iain Macleod down as voting for Home. Yet when Alec Home became Prime Minister, Macleod refused to join his Cabinet. Mr Horne speculates that Macleod may have changed his mind and that Home was his original choice. Like Enoch Powell, I find that quite impossible.

Edward Boyle as well as Iain Macleod is included in Dilhorne’s list of those who voted for Home. Mr Horne does not seem to have noticed that this rules out Dilhorne as a reliable witness. Highly improbable though it is, Macleod might just conceivably have voted tactically for Home in order to keep out Hailsham: it is inconceivable that Boyle would have done so. In addition, if for whatever reason Macleod had voted for Home, it is not within the bounds of possibility that he would have refused to serve in Home’s government. Finally, in January 1964 Iain Macleod wrote an article in which, among other things, he attacked Dilhorne’s claim that a majority of the Cabinet had been for Home. On a famous occasion Disraeli told the House of Commons that he had never asked Peel for a favour: Peel was sitting on the front bench at the time with a begging letter from Disraeli in his pocket, but Disraeli was not exposed because Peel did not use it. Macleod had affinities with Disraeli, but Dilhorne had none at all with Peel, and it is inconceivable that Macleod would have been so stupid as to attack Dilhorne’s behaviour if he had thought that Dilhorne could blow him out of the water by revealing that not only had the majority of the Cabinet been for Home but Iain Macleod had been part of that majority. Dilhorne’s silence shows that he knew his figures to have been phoney.

Even so, Dilhorne’s legerdemain (and probably Redmayne’s too) was not so gross as it seems. There was no ballot paper: people were asked not only who they supported but who was their second choice and who they were prepared to tolerate. As a result, the contest was converted from an election for somebody into a black-balling exercise against the front runners, Butler and Hailsham. Home certainly had by far the fewest enemies, and it was therefore possible, I suppose, to argue that he was the most popular choice.

Perhaps the chief charge against Harold Macmillan is not that he switched his runners or manipulated the procedure, but that he did everything he could to stop Butler. Rab Butler, like Hailsham and Macmillan himself, was squarely in the One Nation tradition of Conservatism. Almost certainly either Butler or Hailsham would have won the 1964 Election: after all, even with the handicap of Powell’s and Macleod’s refusal to serve in his government Home only just lost it. If the Conservatives had won that election, we should have been spared the Wilson years. The party realignment that almost occurred in the Eighties or the modernisation of the Labour Party that seems to have happened at long last, would have been completed in the Sixties. Labour would not have subsequently moved to the left, nor the Conservatives to the right. British politics would not have taken the direction which Macmillan so deplored. The monetarism which he derided would have remained the obscure and eccentric dogma of a small Conservative sect instead of becoming, temporarily and disastrously, the creed of the established political church. Altogether, both Macmillan and the country paid a high price for his insistence on holding ‘all the strings in his hand until the last minute’.