Book Review: Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan

Book Review (Chronicles Magazine)

D. A. Thorpe, Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010, 879pp.)

by George W. Liebmann
This is a state-of-the-art British political biography. Mr. Thorpe has written biographies of Home, Eden and Selwyn Lloyd as well as shorter studies of Lord Curzon, ‘Rab’ Butler and Austen Chamberlain. His knowledge of the principal political actors, particularly on the Conservative side, is prodigous; he convincingly claims to have interviewed “all the prime ministers from Macmillan to Thatcher, ten Foreign Secretaries, ten Chancellors of the Exchequer and eight Home Secretaries.” The book contains hundreds of acknowledgments. Its scholarly apparatus includes 150 pages of footnotes. It is marred by few typographical errors or errors of substance.

But the inexorable chronological march of the book conflates large matters and small, and Thorpe’s evaluation of Macmillan is marred both by his conservatism and his ‘presentism.’ For Thorpe, “Macmillan was a great Prime Minister for much of his time in Downing Street, though not quite in the supreme category occupied by Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. . . [h]e did not ‘change’ Britain in the way that Margaret Thatcher did–there was never any ‘Macmillanism’–but then in 1957 the country did not need a wholesale overhaul. It needed economic growth.” Not for Thorpe is David Marquand’s evaluation of Macmillan as “the nearest thing to a great Prime Minister in the post-war years.”

Although the book provides a considerable amount of new anecdotage and detail, in only two areas does it profess to break ground not covered in Alistair Horne’s considerably more thematic two-volume authorized biography. In the modern manner, Thorpe discusses at length Dorothy Macmillan’s protracted affair with Bob Boothby. The detail may be titillating, but does little to alter, save perhaps to Macmillan’s advantage, the pre-existing view of Macmillan’s personality. Unlike Boothby’s biographer, Robert Rhodes James, Thorpe takes Boothby at less than his full value as a political analyst, if not a political actor. Boothby was ahead of his time in many things, and took few wooden nickels in politics.

The second area of novelty is in Thorpe’s refutation of the charges against Macmillan resulting from the British surrender to the Russians at the end of the war of numbers of anti-communists who were not technically citizens of the Soviet Union. Thorpe convincingly demonstrates that this was a consequence of both the provisions and ambiguities of the Yalta agreements, as well as of directives of Churchill and the War Cabinet; that Macmillan was outside the relevant chain of command; and that the desire to recover Allied prisoners of war was a dominant factor leading to haste and error. At least some of those raising the issue were driven less by the facts than by their residual dislike of Macmillan’s ‘one nation’ conservatism.

Macmillan has several convincing claims to greatness, though they appear only episodically and in fragmented form in this book.

First, Macmillan propagated in British politics an enduring horror of unemployment and its consequences. In Reconstruction: The Need for a National Policy, Macmillan wrote in 1933, at a moment in history that may resemble our own: “we have time only because of the buffers which have wisely been created between the worker and destitution. . . it has to be remembered that a worker’s household which is already supplied with such comforts as adequate bedding, clothing, boots, furniture etc can weather a period of a few months on an insurance standard of income, but when the period extends to years instead of months the physical conditions are entirely changed and the psychological reactions wholly different.” He explicitly feared a condition “in which the violent and ruthless could appeal to the passions of a disillusioned and despairing people.. . . the appeal to the romanticism of youth. They call for sacrifice, for a crusade, for devotion to some mystical ideal of a perfect society, and they would prostitute this idealism to the horrible purposes of violence and war. There is a latent nobility also in the more brutal types of individuals. These movements of violence appeal to that, and provide the pervert with the opportunity of exercising his brutality under the cloak of justification provided by his ‘good intentions.’”

Macmillan’s prescription in 1933 was an apparatus of state-sanctioned codes for each industry bearing a considerable resemblance to Roosevelt’s NRA, subject to various forms of public review. He anticipated a growth of industrial unionism, but opposed any form of compulsory arbitration or impairment of the right to strike. His book was immediately characterized by Professor Hayek as “a blueprint for the destruction of liberty.” Macmillan acknowleged points of similarity with the Bolshevik and Italian systems, but found the evil of those systems more in their politics than in their economics: “The idea of the corporate state was an afterthought of the Italian revolution. The Russian five-year plan was formulated ten years after the Bolsheviks came to power.” Neither regime was the product of ‘creeping socialism.’

By the time he wrote The Middle Way in 1938, his thinking had taken a Keynesian turn, unsurprising in Keynes’ publisher. While that book reiterated the earlier suggestions, it also called for curbs on fraudulent stock issues and speculation, and took the view that low interest rates alone would not stimulate the economy in the absence of a willingness to invest and greater velocity of savings He also urged a system of food subsidies closely resembling what later became the American food stamp program, as well as a minimum wage supplemented by children’s allowances, a scheme resembling the American earned income tax credit. His hostility to monetarism and to an exaggerated fear of inflation was manifest when he fired Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor, as well as Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch in 1958. Notwithstanding this, the inflation rate during his term of office was less than 2%. He was a highly successful housing secretary; the houses built during his tenure were half again as numerous as those built by the Attlee government, were built by a decontrolled private sector, and, though smaller than Aneurin Bevan’s creations, were of equally high and enduring quality

Macmillan’s tenure was one of dramatic and uninterrupted economic growth and full employment. Thatcher’s tenure, so celebrated by Thorpe, encompassed monetary and trade policies, including the entry into the EMU at an artificially high valuation of the pound, that virtually destroyed British manufacturing. While Thatcher’s reforms produced a necessary curtailment of the power of the unions, a number of babies were thrown out with the bathwater, including the fiscal autonomy of local government and the universities, and the quality of the railroad system; the deregulated banking sector became more prone to failures and housing ‘bubbles’; and Britain’s environment was not improved by a government-fostered explosion of the automotive sector. While she had the sense to foster discussions with Gorbachev, she was not helpful in the further discussions leading to the unification and partial demilitarization of Germany and the liberation of Eastern Europe.

Second, Macmillan’s wartime record receives insufficient appreciation. The postwar character of the French, Italian, and Greek governments was largely due to his influence, as was the neutralism of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thorpe’s treatment of Macmillan’s role in Italy is especially inadequate; he successfully opposed American proposals for a protracted and doubtless counter-productive occupation and a vindictive peace.

Third, only an episodic account of Macmillan’s role in the Cuban missile crisis and in fostering the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty is given. Macmillan urged on Kennedy the importance of giving Khrushchev a face-saving ‘exit strategy’, supplied by the reciprocal removal of Turkish missiles. He also urged contraction of the exclusion zone to allow the Soviets to consider their position and avoidance of a military confrontation, and stood ready to call a conference on his own initiative had this been necessary; Theodore Roosevelt had condemned Woodrow Wilson for failing to follow this course in August 1914.. On March 16, 1962, he addressed a long letter to President Kennedy urging resumption of negotiations for an atmospheric nuclear test ban and eventual nuclear non-proliferation agreement, a proposal which bore fruit. He also followed Churchill’s policy of attempting to negotiate a Central European settlement with the Russians; the summit conference which he secured perished as a result of the U-2 affair

Fourth, Macmillan was a builder of British institutions, not a destroyer of them. The invention of life peerages in the House of Lords gave Britain a functioning and influential upper chamber, the rising influence of the Liberals in which operated to moderate British politics at important points and to lay a foundation for today’s Coalition government. His expansion of the universities following the Robbins report was moderate and maintained quality; Thatcher’s university measures exploded numbers and reduced quality, leading to the need for large tuition increases that are likely to foster both shrinkage of the system and curtailment of access to it. Such strength as the British economy today possesses is due to its invisible exports and service sector: academia, publishing, law, accountancy, banking and insurance, all of which rest on its educational system

Fifth and finally, Macmillan played an indispensable role in decolonization. If this did not appear heroic, neither was it a disorderly scuttle, and it spared Britain the debilitating colonial wars suffered by the French and preserved for Britain trade and cultural relations with the Commonwealth countries.

Those seeking an understanding of Macmillan can forswear this book in favor of the first of his six volumes of memoirs. His eloquent thirty-page prologue, which should be required reading in many schools, concludes with a familiar anecdote, in which Churchill told a waiter at the Savoy Hotel:”’Pray take away this pudding. It has no theme..’” “I have always remembered this incident,” Macmillan declared. “[A] warning to authors as well as to cooks.”


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