Tears from a serial flapper

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