Tears from a serial flapper

'Fuddy-duddy' or the 'apotheosis of aplomb'? Gerald Kaufman assesses the premiership of Harold Macmillan

The Macmillan Years 1957-1963: The Emerging Truth

by Richard Lamb John Murray, pounds 25

With the exceptions of Stanley Baldwin and the posthumously rehabilitated Harold Wilson, both of whom left 10 Downing Street at a time of their own choosing, no recent British prime ministers have given up office until after the expiration of their sell-by dates. Clement Attlee should have resigned no later than 1949, instead of staying on to fritter away a Commons majority of 140 by bungling his choice of the 1950 election date. Churchill ought to have called it a day when Attlee defeated him in 1945 rather than returning to office in 1951 and succumbing to senility. Thatcher, it is generally agreed, would have done herself - and her country - a favour by retiring, garlanded with laurels (however undeserved), on the tenth anniversary of assuming the premiership.

John Major, the epitome of the ditherer, and Harold Macmillan, the apotheosis of aplomb, have in common the achievement of having unexpectedly won elections after clearing up messes left by their predecessors. Both should, if sensible, have retired as soon as possible after chalking up these victories. Neither, of course, did and both reaped the whirlwind: in Major's case, the mess we see before us today; for Macmillan, a series of humiliating mishaps climaxing with his misinterpreting the diagnosis of a tumour and deciding precipitately to resign instead of staying on to recover comfortably and resume the reins of office.

Maybe, however, it was a relief for Macmillan to retreat to the back benches since, as in this book Richard Lamb demonstrates - or "reveals", as the author would prefer it to be put, making overmuch of what he has learned from hitherto concealed, but not over-informative material - being Prime Minister was in many ways a trial for the old fellow. Although he made much of his "unflappability" and gained something of a reputation for this much-to-be-desired quality, Macmillan, in fact, often fussed and not infrequently panicked.

Even Lamb, who succeeded Macmillan as Conservative candidate for Stockton (for all the good that did him) and who opines that his hero was not only "the most interesting and intelligent" but, indeed, "the best of Britain's post-war Prime Ministers," has to admit that Macmillan on occasion was guilty of "dilly-dallying" and of having "constantly changed his mind and worked himself into a nervous state." When de Gaulle vetoed Britain's application to join the Common Market, Macmillan "was deeply distressed and almost in tears," leading even the stiff-necked French president to have "told his Ministers that he had felt very sorry for Macmillan and had almost said, 'Ne pleurez pas, milord' '', Mac-millan had his revenge by cruelly cancelling a visit to Paris by Princess Margaret.

Mind you, to judge from this book, Macmillan had a great deal to put up with, apart from de Gaulle. Abroad, he had to cope with America's weird Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who wanted to deter the Chinese Communists from invading a couple of barren islands by dropping atom bombs on them ("I hope no more than small air bursts without fallout" , this predecessor of Dr Strangelove opined soothingly.) President Eisenhower scotched his lunacy and also put a stop to a daft plan put forward by Macmillan in 1958, whereby British and American troops would invade a substantial number of Middle East countries: "a wild project," says Lamb, understating the position, "which could have led to a third world war."

At home Macmillan was assailed by a phenomenon which is now so extinct as to seem unimaginable, namely a bevy of cabinet ministers threatening to resign on grounds of principle; one trouble-maker, Alan Lennox-Boyd even contemplating resignation as Colonial Secretary because he regarded planned restrictions on coloured immigration as racist. Other ministers stayed on but grew petulant about changes in their duties - RA Butler threw a tantrum at losing "all my connection with the court and my duties with the Queen." Temperamental ministerial colleagues aside, Macmillan was also beset by a would-be Rasputin, a dim but egomaniacal Oxford economist named Roy Harrod, who kept pressing nostrums upon him which were often unrealistic and sometimes mildly demented.

If Macmillan's temperament and judgement sometimes left much to be desired, did his achievements compensate for it? It would not appear so. Lamb is compelled to admit that acceptance of Dr Beeching's butchery of the railway system "must be looked on as one of the major aberrations of the Macmillan Government." While the Wilson administration, which came to office a year after Macmillan retired, presided over a social revolution that turned Britain into a far more tolerant place, Macmillan could not bring himself even to tackle the single vexed issue of capital punishment, instead putting through Parliament a Homicide Act that, by creating logically unjustifiable categories of murder, made the situation if anything even more confused than it had been before.

Various completely useless economic bodies, with acronyms distorted to such cosy familiarities as Nicky and Neddy, came and, in the case of Neddy, far too belatedly went; as did ineffectual devices to limit incomes, such as "pay pauses" and "guiding lights."

Lamb does his best for Macmillan by bestowing upon him the accolade of achieving a partial nuclear test-ban treaty; but proprietorial rights to this award would certainly have been contested by the American president, John Kennedy, with whom Macmillan claimed a close friendship (even inventing a "fantastic, even romantic atmosphere" during a curtailed visit which Kennedy deigned to pay to Macmillan's country home at Birch Grove) but who regarded his British confrere as "fuddy-duddy." And, of course, Macmillan's farewell present to the Conservative party was the successor he foisted on his colleagues, the election-loser Alec Douglas-Home (Lamb takes the view that Butler, whom Macmillan venomously did down, could have beaten Wilson in 1964).

Just as politics is mostly boring, so Macmillan's nearly seven years of premiership were mostly boring. Lamb accurately reflects this tedium in an earnest book which is a good deal more turgid that it needs to be, littered with dull quotations ("However there might be a good case for considering the reduction of protective tariffs in particular instances where, for example, some identifiable section of industry appeared to be deriving undue benefit from a position of monopoly...") from documents which the author evinces pride in having unearthed but which might have been better left to gather dust.

Macmillan's triumph is, I suppose, that, more than 30 years after he relinquished the high office he did not do all that much to adorn and which he left in so fumbled a fashion, he is still regarded by many as the kind of stylish and capable prime minister that his latest successor, so obviously, is not.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing