You never had it so bad

Harold Macmillan said famously 'You never had it so good'. But this mem o reveals his deep pessimism
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The Independent Online
IN OCTOBER 1963, the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, lay ill in hospital with a stark constitutional choice before him. He was too ill to continue in office, the Tory party was in disarray; whom should he nominate to the Queen as his successor?

In this hitherto secret memo, released from the archives today, he sets out with remarkable frankness his feelings for each candidate - his deputy "Rab" Butler, his Minister of Science and Technology, Lord Hailsham, his Foreign Secretary, Lord Home - an d also his thoughts on Britain and the people he had led for six years. His memo contains many echoes of the crisis that faces the Conservative Party today.

Two references: Lord Hailsham's "stupid behaviour" in the foyer of the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool, was to feed his one-year-old baby, Katherine, in front of the cameras; Theodor Mommsen was the great 19th-century German historian of Rome, who wrote of thescramble for power in the last days of the republic.

Dictated during the morning of Tuesday 15 October - Memorandum by the Prime Minister: THE CHOICE of a successor to the premiership when a Prime Minister resigns not because of any dispute in the Cabinet or any defeat in the House of Commons but from ill-health, presents a situation that is unusual but not without precedent.

In the present case it is complicated by the fact of there being no accepted heir in the sense that Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden were long regarded as the automatic successors to Stanley Baldwin and Sir Winston Churchill when the time came.

In some ways the present situation resembles more that of the resignation of Mr Gladstone in 1894. Then there were many contestants but none outstanding. In the end the choice of Lord Rosebery proved fatal both to the recipient of the honour and to the party which did not recover for more than 10 years.

Under the minute attached I have directed that the Lord Chancellor, the Chief Whips in the Commons and the Lords, and Lord Poole, chairman of the Conservative Party, should try to get the general opinion of ministers, MPs, peers, and constituency parties.

In view of the complication of the situation all kinds of motives would be operating in the minds of those who answer these questions. Some few (the violent anti-Macmillan rebels) will be content with the success they have had in the assassination of their leader and will not care very much who the successor is. On the whole I would say that they would be for Mr Butler or Mr Maudling - none of them for Lord Hailsham. They are a band that in the end does not amount to more than 15 or 20 at the most. Those who originally in the summer wanted a change to a younger man in order to help the election would presumably either be for Lord Hailsham or for Mr Maudling, since Mr Butler is not so much of a change as all that.

Those who think most of the orderly conduct of government would tend to be for Mr Butler as he is likely to carry on the present policies, which he fully understands, and to give full freedom to the Treasury and to the Foreign Office in carrying out the policies which I initiated, approved and largely directed. It is important for the Crown and for the party that the divergencies of opinion should be analysed while it is possible to do so.

1 Administration: Obviously, members of the Cabinet and those likely to come into direct contact with the future Prime Minister will find it easier to work with Mr Butler. They are afraid that Lord Hailsham would be impulsive, even arrogant, in his handling of their business. This applies to some younger members as well as to the older members of the administration, and is largely due to his habit, when he is not in the chair, of talking a great deal and sometimes without much reflection.

2 Electioneering: The mass of feeling in favour of Lord Hailsham will be that he will be a better man to fight Wilson, indeed the only one we have. This will be thought to be vital from the point of view of the marginal seats and of the many so-called safe seats now under threat. To some extent this may be countered by those who will argue that Lord Hailsham's recent exhibitions will have caused some dismay and may even cause people to withdraw their support. Experienced politicians will remember that this is often said about leaders. The right wing have nowhere to go except to the right. They are unlikely to vote for Wilson or to abstain to demonstrate their dislike of Lord Hailsham's behaviour. Moreover, the people who dislike his behaviour will be in sympathy with Lord Hailsham's religious views, his churchmanship and so forth. They will merely be shocked at his rather boyish lack of manners. But they will not be shocked by his deviating from strict moral doctrines.

3 Policy: On the surface, and indeed so far as one can see below the surface, there is no great division of policy that is now splitting the Conservative Party. The weakness in the constituencies is not due as in 1905 to a deep division of views on tariff reform and free trade or as in 1945 to the remnants of the terrible disputes that had torn the party before the war - the guilty men and so forth. The difficulty is really due to a certain boredom with material success and apparent inability to harnessthis to spiritual purposes. But there is no division now as between Europeans and non-Europeans or progressives and reactionaries or free traders and protectionists or pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear, or if these divisions exist they cut across the severalgroupings and are simply representative of a feeling of difficulty which is shared by everybody on these tremendous problems. So far as there is any direct political difference it may be between dynamism and immobilism. It would be argued by some that Lord Hailsham represents what I was like in my stronger period, I am to a greater extent than people appreciate behind the scenes and would like my successor to be; that Lord Hailsham would press forward with the policies in which I believe, whether they be disarmament, the detente with Russia on one side, or international liquidity etc on the other.

The only other political difference that may emerge is by the strong movement at the end of last week to draft Lord Home unwillingly into the position of leader and Prime Minister. Lord Home is clearly a man who represents the old, governing class at itsbest and those who take a reasonably impartial view of English history know how good that can be. He is not ambitious in the sense of wanting to scheme for power although not foolish enough to resist honour when it comes to him.

Had he been of another generation he would have been of the Grenadiers and the 1914 heroes. He gives that impression by a curious mixture of great courtesy, and even of yielding to pressure, with underlying rigidity on matters of principle. It is interesting that he has proved himself so much liked by men like President Kennedy and Mr Rusk and Mr Gromyko. This is exactly the quality that the class to which he belongs have at their best because they think about the question under discussion and not aboutthemselves.

It is thinking about themselves that is really the curse of the younger generation - they appear to have no other subject which interests them at all and all their books, poems, dramas and all the rest of it are almost entirely confined to this curious introspective attitude towards life, the result no doubt of two wars and the dying faith. Lord Home is free therefore from many of the difficulties that beset modern people today. But the very fact that he is free from them makes him in my mind at a disadvantage as well as at an advantage because this strange people, tortured by material success and affluence, are seeking release by some teacher who is himself subject to all these pressures and is not ashamed to break the ordinary rules and conventions suitable to more settled intellectual periods. However, the important fact is that Lord Home's candidature has not been set forward on his own merits but has been thought of as a last-minute method of keeping out Mr Butler now that Lord Hailsham has (according to the pundits) put himself out of court by his stupid behaviour in the foyer of the Imperial Hotel at Blackpool.

The Cabinet would be universally for Lord Home obviously, for he is a popular, delightful man and would make an effective chief. He would be the choice of the board if the business is to run quietly, but particularly of a board that did not have to make any difficult appeal to the shareholders and held all the premiums in their pocket.

Next they will prefer Butler because he would not worry them. After that, they would be against Hailsham. With Parliament, the division would be rather different. More anti-Butlers because of his lack of electoral appeal. A good number of pro-Hailshams and a good number of pro-Homes, the former coming chiefly from the Northern and the more threatened constituencies, ie those that can only be won by non-political votes.

Thirdly, the party in the country. Here I think there will be some division. Therefore, we must bear in mind the danger of setting the party in office and in Parliament against the party in the country. All this is familiar to readers of Mommsen and students of the decline of the Roman republic.