Holding all the strings
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
I enjoyed Ian Gilmour’s review (LRB, 27 July) of the second volume of Alistair Horne’s Macmillan, and his revelation that George Wigg told Wilson before the famous House of Commons debate that the security services were fully aware of the Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations. But he can’t be serious in suggesting that this constituted ‘hypocrisy’ on Wilson’s part. Exploiting affairs of this kind in Parliament is the routine duty of the Leader of the Opposition in our political system. If Wilson had eschewed the security issue and banged on about morality (a more genuine concern to his unreconstructed Nonconformist conscience), he would still have been accused of humbug and hypocrisy. Over the Profumo affair, as so often in his political career, Wilson’s instincts were right but his story just marginally wrong. The real scandal of the affair, which the recent film underplays but as Honeytrap by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril makes clear, was the intervention of the security services thoughout, and their complicity (along with that of certain members of Macmillan’s civil service and judiciary) in the show trial and death of Dr Stephen Ward.
Ian Gilmour goes on, strangely, to blame Macmillan for Thatcher. By blocking Butler as his (soft centre) successor, as the Gilmour thesis has it, he prepared the way for the ‘small Conservative sect’ under which we all have suffered this past decade. I would have thought that a more plausibe political explanation for the advent to power of the present prime minister is to be found in the whole gamut of books on the security services over recent years and the campaigns of lies and disinformation which both MI5 and MI6 have mounted against any politician of the left or centre, whether Labour or Conservative, who disagrees with this ‘small Conservative sect’. Paul Foot’s Who framed Colin Wallace? is one of the most instructive. There may not be many more such books, since the latest Official Secrets Act was designed to stem their flow. The disinformation and the lies, however, will continue and will be as difficult as ever to nail.
Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989
Ian Gilmour (LRB, 27 July) goes to great lengths to vilify Wilson & Co over Profumo. His hatred of Wilson appears to have warped his judgment. I venture to think that if a Labour government had found itself in such a mess the Conservatives and the media would really have made a meal of it. The implication that only the Sixties Labour Party would have stooped so low is ludicrous. To dismiss security risk as nonsense is to deny the existence of ‘pillow talk’: all security forces would be happy to profit by such a liaison. The way that Ward was subsequently treated shows the depth of Establishment savagery.
Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989
The complaint of Christopher Price (Letters, 17 August) about the ‘disinformation which both M15 and M16 have mounted against any politician of the left or centre, whether Labour or Conservative’ would command more attention if he himself had a greater care for the facts. In the review of the second volume of Alistair Horne’s Macmillan (LRB, 27 July), Ian Gilmour records the view of George Wigg in the memorandum he delivered to Harold Wilson before the Commons Profumo debate: ‘In my opinion, Profumo was never at any time a security risk.’ Yet, in the debate, Wigg opined: ‘the idea that at that stage Ivanov and Profumo were not security risks in the sense that they had not laid themselves open to blackmail is nonsense.’ Wilson made 27 references in the debate to the belief that Profumo, in one way or another, was a security risk: ‘For political reasons he [the PM] was gambling with national security.’ That this, to Price, is acceptable, even knockabout stuff, is indicated by his description of Profumo’s infatuation with Keeler as ‘the Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations’, which, as Honeytrap shows, was a press invention.
Gilmour, in his review, rightly queries Horne’s assessment of the soundings of Cabinet and Commons which were taken by the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip in October 1963, and from which Lord Home emerged as successor to Harold Macmillan. D.R. Thorpe, in his biography Selwyn Lloyd, has put it succinctly: ‘by Friday 11 October the Chief Whip, the Lord Chancellor and the Party’s senior backbencher were all playing for Home.’ Neither the PM’s medical advisers nor those at the Palace appear to have transmitted to Macmillan the crucial uraemic fact attendant upon his condition: that he would be in much better health after a successful operation than he had been for many months prior to it – rendering foolish a resignation while he was ill and in pain; his doctor’s memorandum of 14 October and the advice proffered by chance to Lord Aldington cannot have stressed the point sufficiently.
Horne’s second volume of his official biography is magnificent but intermittently flawed. It is to be hoped that, before the book’s second printing, the errors in it will be corrected. Amongst those not already mentioned in the press are the following: nc fair-minded person who attended Lord Hailsham’s Party Conference speech at Blackpool could corroborate either Horne’s statement, ‘at times Hailsham seemed almost incoherent,’ or his description of Hailsham’s disclamation of his peerage, which was published next day in the press; his account of the Bay of Pigs invasion is a travesty of the facts, as a reading of Theodore Draper’s Castroism and Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs will show; the Times was the only newspaper not to publish or quote from President Kennedy’s congratulatory letter to Macmillan of 8 October 1963, a fact emphasised in Randolph Churchill’s The Fight for the Tory Leadership and reflecting the mutual dislike felt between Macmillan and ‘Halier-than-Thou’, the paper’s editor.
Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989
Oh dear me! What a solemn fellow (the letter has a male feel to it) M.R. Meadmore is (Letters, 28 September), chiding me for writing ‘knockabout stuff’ on Gilmour, Macmillan and the Profumo affair. The truth is that it was a knockabout affair at the time, a sort of sexfest of the early Sixties – engaged in with a gross and voluptuous enthusiasm by the popular press and their readers and with varying degrees of hypocrisy by the Times, Lord Hailsham, George Wigg and Harold Wilson. What struck me as unacceptable was an accusation of hypocrisy against Wilson from an MP (albeit the nicest one imaginable) who still belongs to a party which used its allies in the press and the security services to launch every conceivable hypocritical trick in the trade to blacken Wilson’s name. ‘Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations’ on my part was a convenient shorthand. It was not intended to be either prurient or flippant. Though Honeytrap plays down the press version of the security risk, it confirms the intense (and on both their parts extremely serious) involvement in the affair of both M15 and the KGB.
Two other points. If I learnt anything from 13 fascinating years in the place, it was that the House of Commons is the knockabout mixture of a boxing ring, with very few Queensberry rules, and pure theatre, with each participant MP called upon from time to time to be an actor (or hypocrites) in the original Greek sense. I made the point when on trial for contempt in front of the Committee of Privileges over the ‘Colonel B’ affair in 1978, and was pleased to have Norman St John-Stevas support me. I also recognise that ardent Butlerites like Ian Gilmour – and M.R. Meadmore? – still seriously mourn what they see as the political consequences of the Profumo affair. I don’t, because I have never felt Ian’s affection for either the Conservative Party or the ‘centre’ in British politics.
Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989
On the evidence of three instances in his letter (Letters, 26 October), one might be excused for thinking that history is a subject of not much importance at the polytechnic of which Christopher Price is director. He includes Lord Hailsham amongst those who engaged in ‘varying degrees of hypocrisy’ during the Profumo affair: has he, one wonders, read the transcript of his television interview of 13 June 1963 and the chapter, ‘Morality and Hypocrisy in Public Life’, in his book of 1975? By exaggerating ‘the political consequences of the Profumo affair’, Price allies himself to the sales publicity for the film Scandal: by August 1963 Labour had a negligible lead over the Conservatives. The pressures on Harold Wilson of which Price complains stemmed less from what Price describes as Tory and security service hypocrisy than from the extreme thesis of a KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsin, regarding Gaitskell’s sudden demise and Wilson’s being ‘a Soviet asset’ (Wilderness of Mirrors, David Martin, 1980). Perhaps more interesting than why Butler was (or allowed himself to be) blocked from the Tory leadership is why Hailsham was. In Alistair Horne’s biography of Harold Macmillan, Macmillan’s letter of September 1965 is quoted, in which he says that Hailsham was ‘far the best’ of the candidates for the succession.