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.

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