The Guardsmen, by Simon Ball

An unguarded picture of Tory grandees
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The Independent Culture

Between his resignation as prime minister in 1963 and his death in 1986, Harold Macmillan had plenty of time to cultivate his own myth. He presented himself as a supremely patrician figure, so different from the vulgar parvenues of the Thatcher cabinet.

Between his resignation as prime minister in 1963 and his death in 1986, Harold Macmillan had plenty of time to cultivate his own myth. He presented himself as a supremely patrician figure, so different from the vulgar parvenues of the Thatcher cabinet.

In this original and well-written book, Simon Ball takes Macmillan at his word and looks at him in context, by intertwining his biography with those of Oliver Lyttelton, Harry Crookshank and Robert Cranbourne. The four were contemporaries at Eton, Grenadiers during the Great War and prominent figures in the Conservative Party.

Ball is good on the subtle distinctions of English society - aristocrats versus upper-middle class, Guards versus Regiments of the Line - and on the peculiarities of the men he studies. He shows that Macmillan was ill at ease in his own milieu. His life was overshadowed by the notorious adultery of his wife; and his political isolation during the 1930s owed as much to gaucheness as to courage.

Personal unhappiness seems to have given Macmillan ruthlessness and drive. Those qualities were tested by fire when he clambered out of a crashed plane in 1943 with painful injuries and returned almost immediately to work. However, Macmillan never felt at home among his social peers; few such people served in his government.

Like Macmillan, Crookshank was a middle-class scholarship boy, but the tragedy of his early life was even greater: he was left a eunuch by an "unmentionable" war wound. The rest of his life was enlivened only by ecclesiastical politics and merchant seamen.

Cranbourne was a grandson of the great Lord Salisbury but his early career seemed to confirm his aunt's remark about the family's general mediocrity of intelligence being "only varied by instances of quite exceptional stupidity". Cranbourne was saved by family connections, which got him into office, and by the courage or indifference that made him willing to leave it on principle.

Lyttelton was, in many ways, the most interesting. A relaxed charmer with an eye for girls, he came from a family of gentlemen amateurs. His father died in 1913 after being struck on the head by a fast ball from a professional cricketer.

Lyttelton then made a fortune running a metals cartel. Business gave him an entrée into new worlds. His grasp of finance stood him good stead when he presided over the wartime Board of Trade. Working with Jews meant that he understood the evils of Nazi anti-Semitism more fully than many of his peers. After the war, he deployed his administrative abilities to found the National Theatre.

Lyttelton's career reflects two great truths of modern England. First, that money matters more than noble birth or political office; second, that the ruling classes have an unexpected capacity to adapt and recruit new members. If they were as stupid as they looked, they would not still be there.

The reviewer's A History in Fragments is published by Abacus

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