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’. 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.
Thorpe lauds the Macmillan clan as ‘real-life Forsytes’, an unlovely image. Harold’s paternal grandfather and great-uncle founded the family publishing house in 1843, the same year that Routledge began. By the time of Harold’s birth in 1894 the family was ensconced in the late-Victorian metropolitan upper-middle class, with a home in Chelsea’s prosperous Cadogan Estate. In 1906 they acquired a country pile at Birch Grove, Sussex. Like Churchill, Macmillan had an American mother. She withdrew him early from Eton in 1909—Thorpe speculates ‘Nellie had got wind that he was a potential victim of predatory older boys’—then sacked his private tutor, the theologian Ronald Knox with whom Macmillan was infatuated, when the youth began to lean toward Catholicism. Macmillan started promisingly at Oxford but left half-way through his degree to volunteer for military service in 1914. He never resumed his studies. His mother somehow obtained for him a captaincy in the Grenadier Guards, and he went on to be wounded at Loos and the Somme. Thorpe claims that he ‘developed an empathy for those who suffered with him’, but notes in a later chapter how Eden ‘cringed when Macmillan harked back to the Somme’. Experience of the trenches may have contributed to a nervous breakdown in 1931, precipitated by his wife’s affair with a fellow Tory mp. Thorpe suggests that the war also influenced his later opposition to appeasement. Alistair Horne was more explicit about Macmillan’s lasting ‘distrust and dislike of Germans’.
It is a well-known fact about Macmillan, the faux patrician elder, that he modelled his prime ministerial style on his aristocratic in-laws. After the armistice, his mother posted him to Canada as aide-de-camp to the Governor General, the 9th Duke of Devonshire. She was a friend of the Duke’s mother. ‘Macmillan was seeing the aristocracy at first hand, learning their ways and imbibing their milieux’, observes Thorpe. In 1920 he married one of the Duke’s daughters, Dorothy, a granddaughter on her mother’s side of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, Balfour’s foreign secretary and a Viceroy of India. At a stroke he had family connexions to 16 mps. Thorpe comments that ‘Macmillan was marrying into the purple line of political influence’. Although his patrons did not greatly assist his sluggish early parliamentary career, once prime minister Macmillan turned benefactor. He appointed the 8th Marquess of Lansdowne and 11th Duke of Devonshire ministers at the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Relations Office respectively; his son-in-law Julian Amery under-secretary at the Colonial Office, and then Air Minister; his son’s brother-in-law David Ormsby-Gore ambassador to Washington. ‘The Trollopean side of Macmillan’s character seemed to be winning’, commented Sampson. Ormsby-Gore was a close friend of Robert Kennedy, under whose father Joe the Kennedys had fraternized with the Devonshires in London before the Second World War. One of Joe’s offspring married Lady Dorothy’s nephew in 1944. Thorpe has little to say about this thicket of family relations, except that Macmillan’s nepotistic ministerial reshuffle of 1960 ‘was not well received’.