There have, as I might expect, been a flurry of reviews about a recent biography of Harold Macmillan, who – to those non-Brit readers who might not have heard of him – was prime minister in the late 1950s through to 1963, and who was involved in controversies that hung over his head until his very old age, such as the issue of his alleged involvement in sending Cossack forces back to the tender mercies of Stalin at the end of WW2. He was a complex and interesting character in many ways; my mother remembers his nickname of “Supermac” and the extraordinary period in the early 1960s when the Profumo Scandal broke, as well as Macmillan’s own resignation through ill health and the subsequent emergence of Alec Douglas Home as leader. Home, let it not be forgotten considering how he was mercilessly lampooned by parts of the leftist press, almost won the 1964 general election.
One review here by Simon Heffer more or less sums up my own views of the man. Heffer recognises that for all Macmillan’s undoubted merits – he was, for example, an extremely brave army officer wounded several times in the First World War – that he was a decidedly flawed politician in certain respects, particularly on the crucial issue of economic policy and industrial relations. The 1950s and 60s saw the rise of what was to be dubbed the “British disease” – a time of rising industrial strife, inflation, low productivity, endless “stop-go” cycles of Keynesian-inspired reflation followed by subsequent slamming on of the monetary brakes. And while it would be grossly unfair to pin too much blame on one prime minister for the sort of problems that eventually came to a head in the 1970s, he must take some share of the responsibility for the mess that was eventually addressed – after a fashion – by Mrs Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s. And yet the impression I get from Heffer’s review, and particularly, this one by Peregrine Worsthorne, is that the biography more or less absolves Macmillan of any blame whatever. Worsthorne’s review in the Spectator – behind a subscription firewall – carries this, for instance:
“He was right to have himself been the main political champion of his old friend Keynes and his economics.”
Oh dear. Fell asleep during the 1970s, did we?
He also says that Macmillan was right to have played down the danger of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I am not sure that is really true, but if it was true, is that to his credit? With the benefit of hindsight, the Soviet Union was a rotten house that looked imposing with all its mass Red Square parades and all the rest but eventually crumbled very fast, but at the time, it did not seem that way, and some very supposedly clever people, such as that Keynes fan (!) JK Galbraith, were arguing as late as the early 80s that there was no real difference economically between the West and the Soviet Empire. And the sheer size of the Soviet armed forces, and the way that the Hungarian and Czech revolts were harshly suppressed, hardly squares with the idea that that Empire could be treated with a sort of shrug of the shoulders. By the way, for a dose of good sense on the Cold War years, I recommend this by Norman Stone.
But perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of Worsthorne’s review is this part, in which he writes mournfully of what might had been had Sir Alec Douglas Home won in 1964:
“This would have spared us both the Thatcher interlude, which put power in to the greedy hands of what Macmillan called the ‘banksters’, and then the Blair/Brown years, which entrusted it to the equally grasping and disreputable New Labour cabal, which purported to be a meritocracy. But it is beginning to look as if a promising reaction has set in – not too late one hopes – and although David Cameron is not exactly a 14th earl, he is the next best thing, so Uncle Harold must be cheering in his grave.”
I am going to do Worsthorne the respect of assuming he is sane, and serious, when he wrote that somehow, Mrs Thatcher’s time in office was some sort of ghastly “interlude” when the rightful aristocratic rulers of us unwashed were horribly pushed aside by a bunch of grammar school educated City slickers and Jewish intellectuals. Macmillan once infamously said that he regretted there were more Estonians than Etonians in the Tory Cabinet of the time, a particularly nasty little line. Sure, the attack on the Blair and Brown bunch is perhaps more deserved, but let’s not forget that Blair was a Fettes public schoolboy, and a good many of Mrs Thatcher’s ministers came from smart backgrounds.
In fact, when all is said and done, what Worsthorne rates as Macmillan’s greatest achievement, is contained in the opening paragraph of his review. I leave readers with this to ponder:
“Since the main purpose on earth of the Conservative Party was, and still should be, to keep Britain’s ancient and well-proven social and political hierarchy in power – give or take a few necessary upward mobility adjustments – Harold Macmillan must rank very high in the scale of successful Conservative prime ministers; just below Benjamin Disraeli, whose skill in sugaring the pill of inequality and humanising the face of privilege is never likely to be bettered.”
In other words, whatever Macmillan may or may not have done to stem the UK’s post-war economic decline, at least he kept the toffs on top.
Words fail me.