Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Harold MacMillan

Having nothing else to do with my time I read a book.  'Harold MacMillan by Charles Williams, just in case you did not see the picture above.  All too often books about politicians can be heavy going.  The chapters veer from one in-depth investigation into this bill and that boring the pants of everyone bar trainee lawyers.  This one however avoids the nitty gritty of parliament and rushes through the 478 pages.
MacMillan made a lot off his humble Scots background but by the time he arrived the family was definitely 'upper middle class,' wishing to be 'lower upper class!'  'Supermac.' as the cartoonists dubbed him, liked to give the impression he came from the latter, regarding the workers as 'servants' rather than staff. His paternal grandfather began the MacMillan publishing company and in time Harold found his way there.  His extremely pushy American mother pushed his education which led to him eventually reaching Eton, where too many of Britain's leading politicians have come from.  Sickness however forced an early removal and home tutoring.  One tutor was Ronald Knox who later became a leading Catholic theologian.  This left Mac with a very High Anglicanism which remained throughout his life.  
His time at Balliol College Oxford was interrupted by the Great War.  He served in the 4th battalion Grenadier Guards, later also in the 2nd Battalion, being wounded three times, the bullet in the hip at the Somme being the most serious.  Like Captains in all regiments he remained in a slit trench suffering while reading a copy of Aeschylus, as you do!  His wounds took years to heal and the shuffle and weak handshake never left him.  Indeed his main relaxation was shooting grouse which was conducted using the left hand as the right no longer had the grasp required.  
During 1920 MacMillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish.  She the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, he someone in 'trade.  The family considered him below them, she an nineteen year old outgoing horse lover, he academic, withdrawn and twenty six.  It was never going to work!  It didn't!  In spite of the children who arrived she soon discovered the outgoing Bob Boothby more interesting and spent her time playing with him.  A later remark by Mac regarding the works of Anthony Trollope which he adored was interesting. "It's good to go to bed with a Trollope," he said, and he did!  The fourth child was in Harold's eyes likely to be Boothby's but now we cannot be sure. 
Much influenced by Liberal politicians Macmillan's politics were centrist, or even left of centre.  This was magnified not only by contact with working men during the war but by being elected to Stockton on Tees as MP in 1924.  This deprived area in the working class north east brought home to him the reality of lower order life.  he may not have been an angel in disguise but like Churchill before him he wished to be an aristocrat but did not wish to let the servants die of starvation.  His first book, 'The Middle Way,' with its centrist policies was a turgid read, as were his speeches at the time, and his ideas pushed him well away from the Conservatove leaders of the day, Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain.
The second world war did allow Mac the opportunity to show his administrative talents.  He worked under Lord Beaverbrook to some success, which in itself was not easy, and in 1942 became 'Under Secretary of State for the Colonies.' (By 1942 this no longer included the USA or Australia) During this time he began pushing the idea of a Commonwealth of nations working together for the good of all.  Not popular with Empire builders like Churchill.  He reached cabinet ranked when sent to the middle east as liaison between Eisenhower and Churchill.  This allowed him direct access to the PM avoiding Anthony Eden then Foreign Secretary, which annoyed Eden! Although nearly killed in a plane crash and much time spent dealing with De Gaulle, his talents showed through.  The biggest question mark of his time included the forced return, probably to their deaths of Russian POWs and their families.  He never forgot this but found himself in an awkward situation.  Many hard decisions were taken during 1945.
After 11945 the Labour Party were given a mandate to build a new nation which they did.  The National Health Service being their greatest success.  However the Conservatives returned in 1951 and now seated in Bromley, very much more Tory than Stockton, Mac was given the job of building three hundred thousand homes each year.  He succeeded and I grew up in one of them! These were not high quality housing but they did the job and were perfectly acceptable, especially to those coming out of tenements like we did or slums like far too many others did!
His work gained him respect, and enemies within the party.  Ambition is a terrible thing and anyone who has watched 'Yes Minister' will see politicians pushing one another aside to succeed. It has been seen in action this week in Westminster where Teresa May and that nice Mr Gove have been knifing one another in the back publicly.  
MacMillan became Chancellor in 1955, a very high rank indeed.  During the Suez crisis of 1956, when an allied force invaded Egypt and Eisenhower, afraid of losing the upcoming election, forced them to withdraw, it is thought the Chancellors warnings of impending monetary doom caused the cabinet to harden their stance against Eden, leading in the end to his inevitable resignation.  Harold MacMillan then became prime Minister.    
His first few years were a success.  Many African nations became independent, South Africa was told to change the apartheid policy in a straight forward speech, and the economy at home grew. Indeed we 'never had it so good,' as he said.  Actually we never had it at all!!!
One 'trouble' was the monetarist policy of the treasury.  Looking around the north east Mac knew this would cause hardship there, that would lead to less votes and so opposed their tight fisted policy.  he would oppose austerity today also for the same reason!  The resignation of the Treasury team was dismissed as 'a little local difficulty.'  Mac's success was establishing the UK as a nuclear state, aiding arms negotiations, using British troops in the middle east and Malaya to oppose Soviet aggression.  He failed by aImost getting into the Common market and rushing work at Windscale reactor that almost cost us all dear! 
After his success in the 1959 election he ought to have retired.  His determination to stop Rab Butler becoming leader however and his self importance in world affairs kept him in place.  Then it all went wrong.  His incomes policy caused great resentment and while Africans were finding their independence the UK began to wilt.  The dismissal of several. mostly junior ministers was called 'the night of the long knives,' and the public perception was that of panic.  "Greater love has no man than he lays down his friends for his life," said Jeremy Thorpe.  The election of John Kennedy changed US-UK relations.  No longer were the Americans friends from the war, here was something completely new and from a different age.  The Profumo affair, in which a cabinet member was involved with Christine Keeler at the same time as a Russian Naval attache!  This did serious damage to a sinking ship and being diagnosed wrongly with cancer he retired.

He retired to his publishing once again reinvigorating the work there.  Family owned companies can be ideal to work for, or they can be unbearable.  There were those who saw both sides under Harold.  He continued to travel widely, his marriage improved but a gulf remained, he played golf constantly, and shot innocent creatures for fun.  He occasionally spoke in the House and eventually became the 'Earl of Stockton.'  Possibly that area still meant something to him, maybe he used it for effect.  he was of course an actor, all politicians are, our present lot are just bad actors.  Mac learned much during his time, to act as a leader, to speak well, to use humour to deflate an enemy, and act like he was in control, unflappable.  He appeared in the early 60's as an Edwardian in a modern age, his shuffle, his upper class pretensions, his high class associates, but he was indeed a canny political animal.

This book is written by a man who married Rab Butlers daughter.  He might reveal a certain bile but of so he keeps it under control.  He writes smoothly making the book easy to read, boring bits are avoided and summarised well, and we are left with an image of a powerful politician who had some care for a decent society, although quite why may be harder to understand.  Was it a godly care, or a political game?  We might never know.  I like Mac, had I met him I might well change my mind however.  One thing remains.  His dislike of Thatcher's privatisation policies was well known.  During the Falklands conflict Thatcher called him into her office in the Houses of Parliament, a place he knew well.  At that time it was being redecorated and most of the furniture had been removed.  As he entered he looked around at the almost empty room and asked, "Have you sold it all?"



Lee said...

Interesting post, Adullamite...thanks. It sounds like a good read; and you've given an excellent review.

Adullamite said...

Lee, Ta.

the fly in the web said...

He's an interesting character, isn't he?
I can remember the cartoon of him as SuperMac wehich was meant to take the mick and actually worked in his favour.