Really Very Exhilarating

R.W. Johnson

  • The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends and the World They Made by Simon Ball
    HarperCollins, 456 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 00 257110 2

Harold Macmillan, Harry Crookshank, Oliver Lyttelton and Bobbety Cranborne all arrived at Eton in 1906, the first two from the affluent middle class and the other two from aristocratic families. Lyttelton went on to Cambridge and the others to Oxford, but they all served in the Grenadier Guards in 1914-18, and all four entered Churchill’s cabinet during the Second World War.

Macmillan broke down as soon as he got to Eton and had to be withdrawn by his mother – J.B.S. Haldane later spread a rumour that he’d been expelled for homosexuality. He was then privately educated by the redoubtable Ronald Knox, and at Oxford, still under Knox’s spell, devoted himself to religion with such seriousness that he was generally expected to become a Catholic. Crookshank, meanwhile, became an ardent freemason. They both worked hard: Macmillan got a First in Mods and Crookshank ‘only just missed’.

Life was very different for the other two. Lyttelton’s uncle was, uncomfortably for him, headmaster of Eton while Lyttelton was there; his father was a cabinet minister and before that had been second only to W.G. Grace in the England cricket team as well as a soccer international. At Cambridge, Lyttelton became, as he put it, an ‘educated flâneur’, and ran up large gambling debts. His idyll was brought to a thunderous halt by his father’s death, struck down by a cricket ball. Cranborne, for his part, was a Cecil. His grandfather, Lord Salisbury, had, while prime minister, made his son Jim (Cranborne’s father) a minister – a piece of nepotism no other family would have contemplated. Cranborne was a lazy, hopeless student at Eton and Christ Church, where his set consisted exclusively of royalty and other aristocrats; his sole distinction at Oxford was to get arrested for disturbing the peace in the early hours of the morning while playing a drunken game of bicycle polo with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. He insisted that behaving this way was his birthright and that he had merely been entertaining those he had woken up.

What made all the difference was war and the Guards. All four joined up, keen to do their duty but also to see action; the horror of what they were undertaking became apparent only once they had reached the front line. Crookshank and Macmillan fought on despite receiving wound after wound. Macmillan was shot in the head and the hand at the battle of Loos in September 1915; around the same time, Crookshank was buried alive in the trenches near Givenchy, then shot in the leg outside Loos. Returning to the front in 1916, both men received their final injuries of the war on the Somme, as part of the same advance on the morning of 15 September. Macmillan was shot in the knee and the back; he was lucky to survive, and his right arm and left leg never worked properly again. Crookshank was castrated in an explosion; he wore a surgical truss for the rest of his life. Both men were shattered, emotionally as well as physically crippled. Crookshank retired, embittered, into his family; Macmillan became utterly dependent on his mother, and for the next twenty-five years was regarded by friend and enemy alike as just too damaged – charmless, pompous and self-obsessed – ever to play a useful role again.

The same day – 15 September – had made Lyttelton a hero: fighting a few hundred yards away from Macmillan and Crookshank, he won the DSO, although the VC might have been appropriate. He fought on until April 1918, when he was spattered with mustard gas, which badly burned his scrotum, penis and thighs, damaged his lungs and blinded him. He made a complete recovery, however, and emerged from the war with a self-confidence that came from finally having done things his father hadn’t. Lyttelton’s feats were all the more impressive for the fact that, once the scale of the butchery became apparent, the aristocracy had for the most part sought to withdraw its sons from harm’s way. Early on Lyttelton had been given a cushy posting in which there was ‘nothing very much to do but fuss about horses and motor cars’. He could have stayed there, but he was determined to distinguish himself. Cranborne was quite the opposite. By May 1915 he had developed ringing noises in one ear which saw him invalided home. While Crookshank and Macmillan, who had both been seriously injured, were being passed ready to return to the front line, Cranborne was passed fit only for ‘light duties’, which meant staying in England, getting married, having a son and putting out feelers for a career in politics and the City. He returned to France for a few months in 1918 in a job far from danger, but even then got sick and was, according to Simon Ball, ‘forced’ back to London.

Unsurprisingly, what counted for the men of this generation was how a person had behaved in the war. Macmillan, taxed in 1961 for his ‘unflappability’, replied: ‘I learned that in early youth under fire on the battlefield. Unfortunately, for reasons which I wholly understand, this experience was not vouchsafed to Mr Gaitskell, Mr Wilson, Mr Brown, Mr Jay and the other leading members of the Labour front bench.’ This probably made little impact on Gaitskell and Co, but for Macmillan’s generation the fact that the entire Labour front bench had avoided active service was something to be taken into account. ‘Poor Mr Gaitskell,’ Macmillan wrote in his diary after Armistice Day in 1960, ‘always seems a little conscious on these occasions that he has no medals. However, he supported the war, from Dr Dalton’s side, in the Ministry of Economic Warfare.’ Similarly, the determination of the guardsmen to block Rab Butler from becoming prime minister can only be understood in the context of their response to appeasement – Butler had even sought a separate peace in 1940.

Crookshank had been accepted by the Foreign Office in 1919 while Cranborne failed the exam. It hardly mattered: within three weeks he had taken the plummiest diplomatic posting conceivable, becoming an assistant to his uncle, Robert Cecil, at the Paris Peace Conference. Thereafter Cranborne pursued a career in the City. He was quite hopeless but, of course, became the director of a bank. Lyttelton, on the other hand, showed great business acumen and rose rapidly on his merits. Both Macmillan and Crookshank managed to scramble into Parliament as Tory MPs in 1924. Cranborne had been offered any number of winnable seats and by 1928 had found the perfect safe seat, South Dorset, conveniently close to his country house, and so went into politics, the only career in which his singular lack of talent would be no handicap.

Macmillan and Crookshank made little progress; indeed, both were figures of fun. Robert Boothby publicly cuckolded Macmillan, virtually living with his wife, Dorothy, for five years while she taunted her husband that their child was Boothby’s. Since Dorothy was the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, divorce was out of the question. Instead, Macmillan spent much of the 1930s having a drawn-out nervous breakdown, and became so marginal in the Tory Party that when he supported the anti-appeasement candidate against the Tory in the famous 1938 Oxford by-election, the whips felt it beneath them to discipline him. Macmillan had come to hate Chamberlain and appeasement. ‘They could always appease lions by throwing Christians to them, but the Christians had another word for it,’ he declared. Crookshank was less rebellious but, like Macmillan, his personal unhappiness seems to have made him more willing to oppose the party leadership.

Cranborne, meanwhile, was doing well. He had become Anthony Eden’s indispensable deputy at the Foreign Office, effectively running Eden and providing him with what little backbone he had. In 1935 they went to Moscow together. While Eden vapoured on about Stalin’s ‘quality of mind’, Cranborne wrote of ‘the pall of horror and suspicion which hangs over Moscow . . . it is a grim place, and it gives one an indescribable feeling of horror and squalor.’ There is something comic about the way Cranborne swanned around Europe trying to make policy on the basis of his well-bred prejudices, but he sometimes hit the nail on the head. He described Mussolini as a buffoon and ‘quite, quite mad’. In Paris in 1936, Eden got on like a house on fire with Léon Blum, while Cranborne sought out his old friend Jean de Ribes, like him an aristocratic diplomat. All that de Ribes could talk about was the Popular Front’s taxation of the rich: ‘A man could not even afford now to keep a mistress.’ De Ribes ‘had had a charming little opera girl’: how, he asked in indignation, could his son afford that? Cranborne concluded that the French would never make reliable allies.

Macmillan, Crookshank and Cranborne were known to have become hostile to appeasement by the late 1930s, but the three MPs shared a golf-club anti-semitism. When Cranborne went to Versailles in 1919, Macmillan had written to him that ‘our nasty little prime minister is not really popular any more, except with the International Jew.’ All three delighted in calling the Jewish minister Leslie Hore-Belisha ‘Horeb’, claiming as a witticism that he had changed his name from Elisha by deed poll. Cranborne, meanwhile, was dealing with entreaties from Lewis Namier that German Jews be let into Britain. Cranborne thought him ‘a most tiresome person . . . he is not to be trusted. We cannot say enough to Jews of this type that people do not become refugees until they leave.’

Lyttelton, on the other hand, was in Frankfurt during Kristallnacht and saw scenes ‘which can never be effaced from my memory’: organised attacks on synagogues, on Jewish shopkeepers, on the weak and defenceless. He was changed for ever. He arranged for three Jewish friends to be smuggled out and helped them settle safely in England. He described his hatred of anti-semitism as ‘obsessional’. In 1951 he put up Isaiah Berlin for membership of his club, the St James’s. Berlin was blackballed as a Jew, and clubland lost its appeal for Lyttelton.

The other three lived in the hope that Eden would topple Chamberlain, but Eden proved a broken reed. When Churchill took over they all got junior government jobs. Lyttelton muscled in, successfully insisting that his British Metal Corporation take control of the entire supply of non-ferrous metals for the war effort. He was always on excellent terms with Churchill, and ended up a Tory MP, minister resident in Cairo and president of the Board of Trade. Crookshank and Macmillan also advanced, the latter becoming minister resident in North Africa at a supremely complicated time. This was the true world of Casablanca, of ‘rounding up the usual suspects’ and nothing being quite what it seemed. Macmillan adored it. ‘The purely Balkan politics we have here are more to my liking,’ he wrote. ‘If you don’t like a chap, you don’t deprive him of the whip or turn him out of the party. You just say he is a monarchist or has plotted to kill Murphy’ – Macmillan’s American counterpart – ‘and you shoot him off to prison or a Saharan concentration camp. Then, a week or two later, you let him out and make him minister for something or other. It’s really very exhilarating.’

Ball’s picture of Macmillan in particular is likely to alter the way he is remembered. The turning point was a near fatal air accident in 1943. Trapped in a burning plane, he again suffered terrible wounds, hallucinated, cried out for his mother and thought he was back in 1916. As he was recovering he thought about his life, and changed. He had been self-obsessed, unpopular. Now he became more self-confident, independent – and far more of an actor.

Cranborne, meanwhile, had met his match in Churchill. Now leader of the Lords and colonial secretary, he was handicapped by his own certainty that his inevitable succession as marquess of Salisbury made him far more important than any prime minister. His willingness to make it plain to Churchill that the prime minister was merely an equal with a temporary advantage, and his corresponding unwillingness to assume that Churchill knew better about anything naturally enraged the prime minister; while his continual attempts to use Eden, whom he could easily dominate, as his stalking-horse – he proposed, for example, that Eden and Churchill become co-rulers – made certain that Churchill kept Eden slapped down. The result was that by the end of the Second World War, Macmillan, Lyttelton and Crookshank had all narrowed the gap behind Cranborne as major figures in the Tory Party.

The postwar story is more familiar, though some of Ball’s revelations from the earlier period shed new light on it. Although Salisbury (as Cranborne had now become) was the kingmaker (‘Well, which is it, Wab or Hawold?’), Macmillan realised that he had to dismantle Eden and Salisbury’s work (release Makarios, make peace with Nasser, unscramble the Central African Federation and decolonise) as fast as possible, using every unsavoury trick in the book to cut corners.

This outraged Salisbury, who soon denounced him as worse than Chamberlain; his remark about Ian Macleod being ‘too clever by half’ was really aimed at Macmillan – Macleod’s boss. But Macmillan, like de Gaulle, had understood the urgent need to leave the age of empire behind, whatever the costs. In de Gaulle’s case this meant facing down repeated military revolts: ‘You want to raid Arab villages as if we were in feudal times when the real task is to move at speed into the age of rockets and nuclear weapons,’ he would scold his generals. Macmillan managed to get away with lies, wiles and charm. Salisbury couldn’t understand how he could hand settler minorities over to the tender mercies of African majorities. Macmillan agreed about the Africans: they were ‘powerful, swift and elemental’, but also ‘vain and childish, they easily get excited’ – in a word, they were ‘barbarians’. But his time as a North African proconsul had convinced him that white settlers were even worse, ‘the rag-tag sweepings of the scum of Europe, with an unhealthy admixture of decayed British aristocrats’, as Ball puts it. Salisbury became close to Rhodesia’s stalwart, Roy Welensky – an ex-boxer and engine-driver, an unlikely friend for a Cecil – but to Macmillan, Welensky was just ‘an emotional Lithuanian Jew’, someone to be got rid of by any means. Power, as Macmillan understood it, wasn’t a matter of morality or immorality: morality didn’t come into it. While the Tory establishment was working itself up into a lather over Profumo, Macmillan, fed up with the homosexual scrapes of Lennox-Boyd and the like, heaved a sigh of relief that it was ‘women this time, thank God, not boys’.

While Salisbury and Macmillan fought one another and Crookshank (who had become leader of the House of Commons in Churchill’s 1951 government before being pushed out by Eden) died lonely and embittered, Lyttelton (now Lord Chandos) wrote two staggering volumes of memoirs of the Great War (Macmillan thought them the best account of war since Tolstoy), and dedicated himself to creating the National Theatre, bullying, cajoling and charming his way to that goal. He regarded Macmillan as a modern Richelieu, and saw through his play-acting. Of a lunch in 1966 he wrote that ‘Harold arrived in the character of senile, bland retired statesman puttering about with little steps. "After all, one has had one’s successes and one’s failures. I am very old.” After two glasses of Pol Roger he forgot to be so old and old Adam began to appear.’

Chandos hadn’t wanted Laurence Olivier as director of the National Theatre; when it became inevitable he made the mistake of trying to balance him by appointing alongside him the epitome of 1960s chic, Kenneth Tynan – who then tried to get rid of his Tory boss by staging plays calculated to offend him. First came Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers, which cast Churchill as a war criminal. When that didn’t see Chandos off, he put on Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Murderous Angels, which accused Britain of responsibility for the murder of Dag Hammarskjöld. It was in response to Oh! What a Lovely War that Chandos brought out his second volume of memoirs. ‘We thought,’ he said, ‘we were fighting in a worthy cause, and had no idea that our efforts would one day appear to Miss Littlewood as merely absurd.’ He spoke, feelingly, of his sense of belonging to a ‘lost world’. Philip Toynbee, reviewing the book, concluded that Chandos had not understood the war he had fought in. But for all the dramas of wartime and the high political world, it is this collision of the guardsmen with the world of the 1960s which strikes the saddest and most powerful note in Ball’s book.