Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain forecast in 1962 that the Macmillan ministry, then in its sixth year, would ‘go down in history as a curious diversion in the social evolution of Britain’.footnote1 The prime minister’s Edwardian aspect and aristocratic entourage were becoming ‘more obviously anachronistic’. In terms of national strategy, however, this post-Suez administration set the pattern for most future governments: the uk’s relative decline only partially concealed by a heady consumer boom and enthusiastic subordination to Washington. Macmillan’s reputation within the Tory ranks soured in the course of a long retirement—he lived well into the Thatcher period—partly due to growing mistrust of his (albeit ambiguous) Keynesian profile, and in reaction to his having foisted on them the unelected, and unelectable, 14th Earl of Home to replace him in 1963. Nevertheless, Peregrine Worsthorne, veteran of the Tory Right, writes in the Spectator that Richard Thorpe’s new biography ‘conclusively clears Macmillan of pretty well all the charges that have been levelled against him’. For a career that encompassed, among other things, colonial reaction in Cyprus, Kenya, Central Africa and Malaya, the Suez debacle, the Windscale accident, the Profumo scandal and de Gaulle’s humiliating eec veto, this clearly constitutes an impressive feat of exculpation.
Thorpe has form, moreover. Born in 1943 and privately educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, he taught history at Charterhouse, a lesser public school in Surrey, for many years. In 1980 he published a triptych biography of failed Conservative contenders for the premiership: Austen Chamberlain, Lord Curzon and Richard ‘Rab’ Butler, The Uncrowned Prime Ministers. He has since produced solo portraits of senior Tories of Butler’s generation—each with a generous application of whitewash—beginning in 1989 with a life of Old Fettesian Selwyn Lloyd, foreign secretary under both Eden and Macmillan. In October 1956 Lloyd secretly met Ben-Gurion and Mollet at Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris to plot the invasion of Egypt. ‘He came from a [provincial, Methodist] background where people were honest and straight’, argues Thorpe, surely with manufactured naivety. ‘Therefore, when he was embroiled in a world where people told lies and put the knife in he was completely out of his depth. No more unsuitable person could have been sent to Sèvres than Selwyn’. In the mid-90s Thorpe then turned to Alec Douglas-Home, the erstwhile peer who led the Conservatives to electoral defeat in 1964. Thorpe believes that accusations of dilettantism are misplaced: Home brought ‘reforming zeal’ to Whitehall. Eden, Thorpe’s apology for the principal British architect of the Suez adventure, followed in 2003. It was the second salvage operation to have been commissioned by Eden’s widow. Thorpe finds extenuating circumstances for Eden’s drive to topple Nasser without tackling head-on either its illegality or sheer strategic folly: ‘In one sense Eden was more colluded against, than colluding. His belief that details [of the Sèvres protocol] could remain secret in perpetuity was unrealistic. This was the error of judgement, not the negotiations themselves.’
What, then, to make of Macmillan? A company director married into the aristocracy, he belongs to a post-war quartet of upper-class Conservative prime ministers—Churchill, grandson of a duke; Eden, younger son of a mere baronet; Home, the sometime patrician—who took up the reins after Baldwin and Chamberlain’s feeble handling of the Depression and continental fascism had tarnished the leadership pretensions of Tory industrialists. In Thorpe’s opinion, Macmillan’s main achievement as leader was to rid the Conservatives of Baldwin’s ghost ‘by winning a general election on the back of economic prosperity’. This is a much more positive assessment than the preliminary verdicts of Labour mp and Keir Hardie biographer Emrys Hughes in 1962, and Anthony Sampson in a 1967 retrospective, who both juxtaposed the pre-war rebel with the increasingly stuffy prime minister. Macmillan had been ‘unprepared to come to terms with the new problems of the 1960s’, argued Sampson. Subsequent studies generally had less, not more, critical purchase on the Macmillan era—for obvious reasons: George Hutchinson (The Last Edwardian at No. 10, 1980) was a press officer under Macmillan; Nigel Fisher (Harold Macmillan, 1982) made the surprising claim that he became a Conservative after reading The Middle Way. The official two-volume life by Macmillan author and military historian Alistair Horne released in 1988 is less evasive than Supermac, but in its own way equally admiring. Labour peer Charles Williams, related by marriage to Rab Butler’s family, brought out another biography as recently as 2009. Williams began from the unconvincing premise, presumably based on some of Cameron’s pre-election posturing, that the Tory Party was ‘turning its back’ on Thatcherism and ‘embracing much of what Macmillan stood for’.
Thorpe pushes aside Horne’s lengthy study with the deceptively simple observation that ‘things move on, more archival material becomes available, and the historical perspective alters’. Of course Horne lacked access to state papers withheld under the Thirty Year Rule—except for a considerable number filched by Macmillan—but Richard Lamb had already plugged these gaps with his largely supportive account, The Macmillan Years (1995). What actually distinguishes Supermac is its relative lack of interest in personality, compared either to Macmillan’s first profilers—greatly preoccupied with his political stagecraft, still fresh in the memory—or to Horne, who was evidently beguiled by his subject during interviews conducted in preparation for the authorized biography. Thorpe is free to take a broader view of ‘the Prime Minister who presided over Britain’s transition from austerity to affluence’, as he puts it. Any fears Thorpe may have, post-credit crunch, for the future of Macmillan’s consumerist utopia are safely channelled into nostalgia.
Macmillan variously curtailed the careers of three of Thorpe’s former subjects: Eden, Lloyd and Butler. In Supermac, Thorpe again summarizes Eden’s opinion of his ‘vulgarian’ colleague, ‘at heart untrustworthy’. Yet true to authorial habit, Thorpe declines the opportunity personally ‘to put the knife in’. Supermac opens with Macmillan’s apogee in October 1959, when his sole general election fought as leader delivered—like Thatcher’s win in 1987—a third Conservative victory in a row, ample proof of the party’s Cold War predominance. Macmillan increased his Commons majority to 100, aided by an economic upswing and Gaitskell’s lacklustre campaign. None of the recent Conservative frontmen, including the present incumbent, has come close to matching this electoral performance.