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Harold Macmillan was not a superman

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.

14 comments to Harold Macmillan was not a superman

  • Bogdan from Australia

    Macmillan’s case shows again that a brave and highly decorated soldier and war hero can also be a political and social imbecile.

    After all, Otto Skorzenny has been very professional, brave and decorated soldier too.

    So can be a perfect money making machine as the ludicrous rantings of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steven Jobs or Donald Trump’s and so many billioners’ prove.

  • Nuke Gray

    Next, you’ll be claiming that Winston Churchill didn’t win the war single-handed!

  • I am going to do Worsthorne the respect of assuming he is sane

    Of course Peregrine Worsthorne is sane. He is just a typical example of the sort of châteaux bottled shit that floats at certain rarefied levels of British society exuding a miasma of highly articulate ignorance from every orifice.

  • Jonathan writes:

    that he was a decidedly flawed politician in certain respects

    This surely lacks uniqueness. Is it not actually the case that our better politicians are, for the employment of some and the titillation of others, subject to immense scrutiny. Maybe it is right: we don’t want Churchill, Macmillan, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Cromwell or any others placed on too high a pedestal. Perhaps we could have a ranking, always assuming one could define a single scale of flaws.

    Personal recollection makes me question, if not challenge, what is meant by both David Thorpe and Jonathan here:

    He [Thorpe] 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?

    Macmillan secured the UK submarine-based nuclear deterrent through the Nassau Agreement. Is this the action of a prime minister who thinks too much is made of the Cold War?

    [Aside. I recollect this instantly, as my father flew with Macmillan’s party as radio engineer for that particular summit. I wonder whether such technical support is still provided: perhaps instead someone uses their mobile if the official communications channel breaks down.]

    Most interestingly, looking at Macmillan’s track record (Wikipedia is the easiest reference), at least he was a Prime Minister with comprehensive experience, across the many branches of government: something that seems lacking in more recent occupants of that office.

    Best regards

  • John B

    Elitists, all.
    “The only good peasant is a dead peasant.”
    Well, scrubbing the floors, or in bed, or at least doffing the cap.
    Winds of change, and reaping the Whirlwind, was mentioned here the other day.
    That was Macmillan in South Africa warning South Africans what would happen if they didn’t unravel their society and make it into what it has become: The Whirlwind.
    (Apartheid was more a British institution in South Africa, by the way. It was a bit more elitism at work.)

  • Andrew Duffin

    Our Perry is pretty much on the money about that Perry.

    He is a loathsome snob whose vapourings in the Daily Telegraph years ago very nearly made me cancel my subscription.

    I would tend to discount his views on pretty much anything.

  • “Of course Peregrine Worsthorne is sane. He is just a typical example of the sort of châteaux bottled shit that floats at certain rarefied levels of British society exuding a miasma of highly articulate ignorance from every orifice.”

    Perry, I wish I’d said that.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Like many snobs, Worsthorne is not quite as posh as he claims. There has always been a touch of the actor manque about him.

    I could have been far ruder about him but thought better against it. It is amazing, when you think about it, that when she was leader of the Tory Party, that Maggie had to put up with sneers about her being a grammar school educated lass from Lincolnshire who had the temerity to study chemistry. I mean, how vulgar!

    I suppose that Worsthorne does have the benefit of reminding me of why I would never, unless under the influence of drugs, join the Conservative Party.

  • Janine McA

    Perry’s comment really REALLY needs to be SQOTD :-D

  • Janine,
    I kinda menat that too but didn’t say it because for a blog editor to put himself up as QOTD is perhaps a bit unseemly.

    Having said that, why not!

    Though with this…

    “I suppose that Worsthorne does have the benefit of reminding me of why I would never, unless under the influence of drugs, join the Conservative Party.”

    JP is making some excellent late running down the outside.

    There is a reason I read this blog I think I’ve just quoted it twice.

  • Aetius

    Presumably, Worsthorne will be in raptures over David Cameron too. So the heir of Blair counts Harold Macmillan in his political pedigree too. It only makes me hate all of them more.

  • John K

    Macmillan was a vicious bastard under the cover of his sleepy patrician image. Quite apart from his complicity in the murder of thousands of Cossacks (who had never been Soviet citizens), he stabbed Eden in the back over Suez, making him think our currency reserves were about to disappear. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, the Middle East was screwed up forever, Britain’s long decline was cemented in place, but hey, at least Super fucking Mac got his arse in Number Ten. I sincerely hope he is polishing the family silver in hell, having to watch Bob Boothby screw his wife for the rest of time.

  • John B

    Yes, John K.
    When it comes to those vital moments of history, the enemy always seems to win.
    He allows freedom types to celebrate to various degrees in the intervening periods.
    As long as defeat can be snatched at those vital moments.
    A class act, indeed.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way, Perry’s point is not made up.

    Mr Worsthone himself has told the story that he was offended by a man eating a Hamburger (not the way the man was eating it – just the fact that he was eating it at all) so he went over to the man and farted in his face.

    Mr Worsthone appears to believe that this story indicates he is a gentleman – however I would hold that it proves that he not.

    The man was supposed to have be much younger than Mr Worsthone (this is the part of the story where Mr Worsthone implies he was brave to fart in the face of much younger and stronger man) – yet did not respond with violent word or action.

    Which means that the Hamburger eater was the gentleman – certainly more of a gentleman than I would have been.