Ihope he dies before they find him out". This, according to Woodrow Wyatt, was what Maurice Macmillan said about his father Harold. As it turned out, Harold Macmillan – prime minister from 1957 to 1963 - did not die until 1986, by which time many thought that he had indeed been "found out". The more sharp-clawed Thatcherites came to present Macmillan as the epitome of the consensual politics and inflationary economic policy that they believed to have ruined Britain – though Thatcher herself treated Macmillan with wary respect.
In addition to this, some historians in the 1980s argued that Macmillan had played a dishonorable role in the forced repatriation of the Cossacks, who had fought with the Germans, to the Soviet Union in 1945. Finally, the fashion for discussing the private lives of politicians damaged Macmillan. The fact that his wife, Dorothy, had had a long affair with the Tory MP Robert Boothby, which had been known to the inner circle of British political life for many years, seeped into the newspapers.
DR Thorpe is too subtle and intelligent an historian to try to "rehabilitate" Macmillan. In some ways, his work reads like the pleading of a skilled defence counsel seeking to introduce just enough doubt in the jury's mind. On the question of Cossack repatriation, he stresses that Macmillan's role was relatively small. On Dorothy's infidelity, Thorpe presents Macmillan as an honorable man who felt genuine, if asexual, love for his wife. He does, however, allow for the uncomfortable possibility that Macmillan clung to the cold corpse of his marriage because he preferred separate bedrooms, clubland humiliation and even doubts about the paternity of Dorothy's daughter, Sarah, to the damage that a divorce might do to his political career.
As for politics, Macmillan was more orthodox than he sometimes admitted. When he was prime minister, state spending and inflation had not reached the levels that were to alarm the British ruling class in the 1970s and, for all his evocation of the horrors of inter-war unemployment, Macmillan was no socialist. His private contempt for post-war Labour politicians was often expressed in the crudest terms. Herbert Morrison was a "dirty little cockney guttersnipe"; Gerald Kaufman "rather unpleasant" and "very semitic".
Macmillan was on the left of his party, but was able to play on support from the Tory right to advance his own career. It was support from the right that helped Macmillan to outmanoeuvre RA Butler for the prime ministership. Thorpe does not play down the cynicism of Macmillan's conduct during this episode or during the latter machinations by which he ensured that Alec Douglas-Home was chosen as Macmillan's own successor.
In political terms, the most striking feature of Macmillan's career was pessimism about the future of his country. His involvement in the making of grand strategy during the later stages of the Second World War showed him that Britain could never be a great power again. The long historical perspective conferred by a classical education gave him a Gibbonesque sense of the impermanency of empires. Like Churchill, he had an American mother and, like Churchill, he cultivated American politicians precisely because he believed that the United States was now the real leader of the "English-speaking world".
Thorpe is good on Macmillan's non-political hinterland. He says much about Macmillan's literary tastes and publishing career. We know that even as PM, Macmillan often lost himself in the novels of Trollope or "Miss Austen". It is more surprising to find that he championed the work of fashionable young writers, such as Muriel Spark and Robert Byron, or that his support for the, very unfashionable CP Snow seems to have been based on genuine admiration. Most of all, Macmillan's life comes across as heartbreakingly sad. Buck-toothed, gauche and, in the eyes of the aristocratic grandees with whom he associated, plebeian, Macmillan seemed plodding and dull to the bright young things of his own youth in the 1920s. Even in purely intellectual terms, he was overshadowed by his older brother, Daniel. In late middle age, he became more confident. The charming, witty, unflappable figure, who fascinated and repelled the satirists of the 1960s may have looked as if belonged to the era before 1914, but his persona had, in truth, been constructed after 1945.
There was, of course, a core of steel inside Macmillan that survived as the nervous youth turned into the apparently gregarious old man. The steel showed itself in 1916, as he lay wounded in a shell hole, dosing himself with morphine and reading Aeschylus. It showed itself again when, as prime minister, he treated ministerial colleagues like pawns on a chessboard. Macmillan was a religious man but his faith in God had the intensity that sometimes derives from lack of faith in anything else. On finishing this biography, I was left wondering whether there was not some human quality lacking in Macmillan, and whether Aneuran Bevan did not have a point when he said: "Behind that Edwardian countenance there is nothing."
Richard Vinen's 'Thatcher's Britain' is publishd by Pocket BooksReuse content