Yes, Minister

Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister of Britain from 1957 to 1963. He enjoyed the nicknames ‘Supermac’ and ‘Unflappable Mac’. He seemed cool and littered the political landscape with memorable phrases like, ‘You’ve never had it so good’ and ‘the winds of change’.

Macmillan’s career is well documented. The circumstances for this were unique and propitious. He belonged to the famous publishing family. The house of Macmillan published his war diaries, his memoirs (six volumes), Alistair Horne’s excellent two volume biography, and now the first volume of his diaries.

This spin doctor’s paradise was well controlled. Macmillan chose his own biographer and coordinated with him. There was even ‘a certain amount of guidance’ in his editing of the diaries.

Macmillan was a bookish man, an avid reader and a prolific diarist and writer. He was also reticent and uptight (he worked at being ‘unflappable’). His memoirs are said to be very dull. This is not entirely a surprise. He told his biographer that the aim of the memoirs ‘was to keep myself out of it’. This aim is less manifest in the diaries, but not much.

Macmillan suffered all the hazards of an upper-class up-bringing plus a childhood in a strict Victorian household dominated by a strong-minded American mother of Methodist persuasion. She was ambitious for her three sons and particularly Harold, the youngest.

He was a lonely child, his brothers were much older. Afternoon walks with his nanny were a highlight. At nine he was sent to boarding school, then Eton. At Oxford he fell under the influence of a young tutor, Ronald Knox, but his mother, intolerant of Anglo-Catholic nonsense, fixed that by having Knox sent down from Oxford. Macmillan joined the Army. His mother had him transferred to the Grenadier Guards. He was badly wounded in France. Back in England he joined the publishing company and later became a member of parliament.

In 1920 he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, a daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. His mother approved, but it was a strange relationship, although it began happily. In 1929 Macmillan learned of his wife’s affair with his ‘friend’ and parliamentary colleague Robert Boothby, a charmer of some notoriety. Both Macmillan’s marriage and his wife’s affair lasted until her death in the 1960s.

Against this background it is perhaps not surprising that Macmillan became absorbed in political life with such determination and toughness. The military moustache concealed a stiff upper lip. Bernard Levin, the acerbic commentator of the London Spectator, wrote of Macmillan’s ‘brutality, cunning and greed for power, normally met only in the conclaves of Mafia capi’.

This volume of diaries reveals little of a personal life. Neither his mother nor his wife are mentioned. Boothby gets an occasional reference as ‘brilliant’ and ‘disloyal’.

The subtitle The Cabinet Years 1950–1957 makes it sound rather like the story of an apprenticeship. In a sense it was, although Macmillan was already a senior Tory politician. His descriptions of the dreary stuff of politics (lobbying, committees, speech-making) are as interesting as it is possible to make them. The diaries reveal a noblesse oblige and some tolerance, with lapses: a Labour foreign secretary is ‘a dirty little cockney guttersnipe’ and ‘a third rate Tammany boss’.

As Macmillan steps up the ministerial pecking order from Housing to Defence to Foreign Minister and Chancellor, the politics become more interesting. Occasionally there are some shrewd insights, which 50 years later remain remarkably relevant. Thus, technology (‘labour-saving devices’) means ‘no proper time to think … one can only get away from it by being ill’. Civil servants, ‘the new priesthood’, ‘can only function as a parasite on enterprise and production’, and ‘it is terrifying to realise how dangerous the Americans can be without good advice. They mean well and their heart is in the right place … but their head!’

The fascinating drama of these diaries turns on the role of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. By 1954, aged 80—with his health in decline and his mind tending to wander—he remained reluctant to give up the leadership in spite of urgings from his senior ministers including Macmillan. As the diaries note, ‘“You cannot ask me”, (these are his very words) “to sign my own death warrant”, but as Butler [then Chancellor of the Exchequer] observed, “he has no objection to signing ours”. All this is a tragic situation. All of us who really have loved as well as admired him, are being slowly driven into something like hatred’.

Apart from politics, the diaries record occasional functions at stately homes as ‘a most welcome change from drab political life’, and a glittering world with ‘all the remaining tiaras, necklaces, etc, out of the banks for one night’. At church Macmillan reads the lessons and notes ‘that the children enjoyed Genesis 37’. He has a passion for shooting and there are a number of entries: ‘a pleasant little day at home; we got 22 cock-pheasants before breakfast’.

Amidst all this solemn and committed political life Macmillan had time to keep a diary (with some gaps) and to read omnivorously, mainly but not entirely the English classics. How he did it is difficult to imagine. The diaries are matter-of-fact. At the end of the fortnight in which he became Prime Minister, Macmillan notes ‘I have read a good deal in recent weeks—some Trollope, some Henry James, three volumes of Cobbett’s Rural Rides … I have now embarked on R.L. Stevenson, which I have not read for many years’.

Of all the political diaries written in the last 30 or 40 years, Alan Clark’s are the most entertaining. This is because he was outrageously politically incorrect. R.H. Crossman’s are the most incisive about the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy. This volume of Macmillan’s diaries is very politically correct, but in spite of his reticence it is perhaps the most important simply because of who he was and what he did. It reflects his time, his class, and his achievements.

The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950–1957, Peter Catterall (ed). Pan Macmillan, 2004.
isbn 0 330 48868 6, rrp $30

John Button is the author of three books and the prize-winning Quarterly Essay ‘Beyond Belief’. He was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating Governments.



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