Why he never had it so good: Enthralled by his role on the world stage, Harold Macmillan was a stylish performer whose lack of substance led to his downfall, says Richard Aldous

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'I 'ave a go, I do,' says Archie Rice to his audience in John Osborne's The Entertainer. While the hecklers shout their insults and abuse, John Major pleads the same. Trying to ditch his grey image, the Prime Minister might feel tempted to put aside his hero, Stanley Baldwin, and take lessons from the old political entertainer of his youth. Harold Macmillan would have been 100 this week. His premiership should be a warning to Mr Major that style without substance still leaves you, like Archie Rice, 'dead behind the eyes'.

Harold Macmillan was a renowned myth-maker, his greatest creation being himself. He took acting lessons from the comedian Bud Flanagan and perfected a routine for every occasion: lofty aristocrat and humble crofter's grandson, heroic soldier and intelligent scholar, he could play them all. Elegant, witty and unflappable, with his Old Etonian tie and Balliol shuffle, he seemed the very model of an Edwardian gentleman.

''Now I'm going to sing you a little song I wrote myself and I hope you like it,' announces Archie Rice to the crowd. Macmillan did much the same. And what a song it was. This was the heroic tale of a Britain that had 'never had it so good', restored to its rightful place as a No 1 power.

That story hasn't been easy to rewrite. Seemingly endless volumes of Macmillan's own memoirs and an authorised biography, which judged that he was 'generally right about the things that mattered', have perpetuated the myth. Private papers, including Macmillan's diary, remain shut away (other than to the official biographer, who used them to devastating lack of effect).

Macmillan was not 'dead behind the eyes', but at times he must have wished he was. Beneath the mask of clubbability and elegant wit lay great unhappiness. He suffered appalling 'black dog' depressions and could never escape 'the inside feeling that something awful and unknown was about to happen'. It seemed to a friend that something awful might well be about to happen when he saw Macmillan bashing his head in despair against the wall of a train compartment. At such traumatic moments during the premiership, Rab Butler, his deputy, would 'step in and take over the Cabinet', insisting that Macmillan 'go away for a few days' to read Jane Austen and recover his emotional balance.

Being dead behind the eyes would have saved Macmillan much pain, but so, too, might his wife. Lady Dorothy Cavendish, third daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, married Macmillan in 1920 but soon tired of him. She took a lover, the Conservative MP Bob Boothby, so beginning an affair that would run for 30 years. The cuckolded Macmillan was humiliated not only in his own bedroom but also in the gossiping world of the elite. By his own admission, it made him a 'strange, very buttoned-up person'.

Macmillan spent his life masking his unhappiness. When he became prime minister in 1957, he set out to do something similar for Britain. 'This is a great nation,' he declared, 'and do not let us be afraid to say so.'

The proud British people would never 'give up the struggle and accept the position of a second-rate power'. Britain could always 'stay in the big game'.

It was only 'external expenditure', Macmillan believed, that had 'broken our backs'. He would dream up big ideas to relieve that strain but quickly got bored when it came to putting them into action. Sweeping plans such as the Grand Design, the 1957 defence review, and Future Policy 1960-70, were heralded with great enthusiasm but ended up either in the rubbish bin or as timid, half-hearted affairs. Forget the details. It was the performance that enthralled Macmillan.

In 1943, he had accompanied his hero Churchill to meet President Roosevelt at the Casablanca conference. It was 'like a meeting of the later period of the Roman empire', he breathlessly recorded, likening the two leaders to 'the emperor of the East and the emperor of the West'. The role he coveted more than any was to tread the boards of the world stage as a latter-day Churchillian emperor.

Macmillan adored being the centre of attention. Nothing gave him more pleasure than flying off to sing and dance with leaders across the world. The first British prime minister to get to grips with sound-bites and photo opportunities, he had a penchant for the flamboyant. Turning up in Moscow to see Khrushchev, he astonished all by sporting an extraordinary foot-high white hat. 'Oh, that wonderful, wonderful hat,' enthused one reporter. 'Tall, white, furry and distinguished, it did more for Anglo-Soviet relations in 10 minutes than diplomatic exchanges do in a month.'

The climax of Macmillan's performance was to come in his double act with President Kennedy, himself no stranger to razzmatazz. 'The very first time we met to talk', Macmillan recalled, 'I felt something had happened. Naturally I 'fell' for him. But (much more unexpectedly) he seemed to warm to me.' Kennedy could not resist Macmillan's nonchalant elegance and the two seemed to talk in their own shorthand. 'It was as if they had known each other for life' said the presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger.

With this friendship, facade and reality at last were one, bringing genuine results for Britain. Kennedy valued Macmillan's advice enough to ask him, during the Cuban missile crisis, what he called 'the 64,000 dollar question': should he 'take out' Cuba?

And when the British discovered that the Skybolt nuclear weapons system they had carelessly bought from the Americans didn't work, Macmillan convinced the President to give him Polaris instead. Kennedy's advisers were furious, but, as the White House report on the deal concluded, 'It was a case of king to king.' Almost 20 years earlier, Macmillan had sat in awe at the feet of the 'emperors' of East and West. Now it seemed the role was his.

But the imperial triumph was shortlived. Macmillan's chummy relationship with JFK convinced Charles de Gaulle that he was no more than an American stooge. With the Polaris agreement as his excuse, De Gaulle blocked British membership of the EEC in January 1963. Within the year, Kennedy was dead and the new president, Lyndon Johnson, showed no interest in maintaining the 'special relationship'. The old double-act destroyed, Britain was 'all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea'.

'All our policies are in ruins,' Macmillan confided to his diary after De Gaulle's veto. With make-up flaking, the entertainer was revealed as tired and vulnerable. The Profumo affair would strip him naked. Justifying his ignorance of the minister's indiscretions, Macmillan protested: 'I do not live among young people much myself.' It was a damning self-indictment. The dapper Edwardian now seemed a bumbling old codger, out of touch with the modern world. He could not remember 'ever having been under such a severe personal strain'. By autumn, it had become too much. Exhausted by sudden illness and scandal, he told Rab Butler: 'I am finished.'

Harold Macmillan could be a stylish performer and tremendous fun, even at moments of crisis. At the disastrous 1960 Paris summit, he emerged from a meeting in the Soviet embassy with the wry observation that 'they may know how to make Sputniks, but they certainly don't know how to make trousers'.

In the loneliness of retirement, he might have reflected that, whatever the state of Soviet tailoring, at Downing Street he'd been an emperor without clothes. A great performance without a strategy had left him an entertainer, like Archie Rice, 'dead behind these eyes, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there'.

The writer is author of 'Staying in the Game: The Search for a Summit', to be published by Headstart in the autumn.

(Photograph omitted)