Why I am not a High Tory

A review of “Supermac: The life of Harold Macmillan”, by D.R. Thorpe.

In Vicky’s famous cartoon for the Evening Standard, Harold Macmillan was depicted as the “terrific, stupendous, irresistible” Supermac. Intended as mockery of the then Prime Minister[1], it backfired badly, and became a badge of honour. For a certain generation, Macmillan really did stand for decency, prosperity, tradition… and whatever else is our equivalent of “Truth, Justice and the American way.” My mother was not the only little girl who called her teddy “Supermac.” For those Tories fearing the twin evils of socialism and war, Macmillan’s premiership represented a time of blessed prosperity when they really had “never had it so good.”[2]

The verdict of history has been much harsher – and not in the way that one might have expected. The dominant counter-narrative at the time was that the 1950s was really an “Age of Anxiety,” that the gains were only going to the middle-classes, that the system was merely supporting inherited privilege, and that only the “white heat” of socialism could blow away those stuffy cobwebs – a view that now seems ridiculous. Rather, Macmillan is seen as being the bad farmer who ate next year’s seed, who failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining and therefore forced future leaders to try and fix it in a hurricane. In short, he is now attacked not from the left but from the right – his economic views, for example, would nowadays be significantly to the left of any major British party. And what is particularly remarkable about all this is that the kind of attacks you hear on Macmillan today were not heard at all during his premiership.

Thorpe’s book does not seriously seek to challenge this narrative. Indeed, it seems barely to try. It is above all a narrative of his works – the last 23 years of his life, after he had resigned, are covered in just 27 pages. Wisely, the book accepts that Macmillan was a man of his time – less wisely, it does not grapple with the fact that the times changed around him, partly of his own making. Indeed, whether from the left or from the right, this has always been the central criticism of Macmillan – that he did not understand that the world had changed, that he was forever living in 1932. It is therefore disappointing that a book so long on painstaking research should be so short on serious analysis[3].

Macmillan’s inheritance gave him wealth, connections and an excellent education. Combined with his natural intellect and bravery, he would nowadays be considered a consummate political insider. Yet Macmillan always saw himself as an outsider. Perhaps this was understandable, to a degree, in the early 1920s, when his mercantile, rather than aristocratic, origins may have counted against him. And in the 1930s he was certainly on the political outs with the Conservative Party. Even then this was probably less salient in reality than in his mind – after all, he married Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, and the Conservatives were such a broad church in the 1930s that there were whole future Cabinets wandering in the wilderness. Yet to the end of his life Macmillan persisted in this view, long past the point when it was absurd. The old Establishment had withered and a new one grown up, of which Macmillan was fundamentally part, even if he could not see it himself.

As an MP, Macmillan was happiest in Stockton, an industrial town in the North East, where his constituents were almost entirely working-class. Later he represented Bromley, whose residents he despised as bourgeois and complacent. Yet what Macmillan missed is that the whole country was becoming like Bromley – a trend he contributed to by his performance as Minister of Housing. Even by 1960 this shift was clear, but by the 1980s you would have to have been blind to miss it – yet miss it he somehow did. As Lord Stockton, he famously described privatisation as selling off heirlooms:

The sale of assets is common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties. First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go. 

Oh yes, it’s very common to have Canalettos to sell off. Perhaps this kind of thing might have played in Stockton in 1932 – but that was a more deferential age. Perhaps the factory workers of the time might have accepted the view of the state as an essentially aristocratic operation, but by 1985 this was no longer the case. It just made him look ludicrously out-of-touch. Peter Cook famously gave two impersonations of Macmillan – the first, in 1961, portrayed Macmillan as an out-of-touch, amoral chancer. He tells a poverty-stricken widow: “Mrs McFarlane, as one Scottish old age pensioner to another, be of good cheer. There are many people in this country today who are far worse off than yourself. And it is the policy of the Conservative Party to see that this position is maintained.” The second, in 1986, portrays him as a slightly senile old man whose sole pleasure in life is annoying “those ghastly estate agents in the House of Commons.” Both portrayals are funny because they are so dead-on, but are also tinged with great affection for the man.

And indeed Thorpe’s book is tinged with no less affection, affection that leads it slightly astray. Macmillan was involved in several serious controversies during his life – the Klagenfurt affair, the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, and the selection of Douglas-Home as his successor. In each case, the book mounts a vigorous defence of Macmillan’s motives, without ever really addressing the broader questions. I do not mean that the author must make moral judgements, but rather that actions must be seen in the context of social, political, legal and constitutional proprieties.

Moreover, the book would do well with better economic analysis. It is simply not true that “there is an inevitable trade-off between unemployment and inflation,” and this has been well-known for at least 25 years. Indeed, this goes right to the heart of the argument that Macmillan stored up trouble for future years. Moreover, Macmillan’s wage controls and planning policies[5] were clearly counter-productive. The book is right to emphasise that Macmillan was deeply affected by the Depression in pre-war Stockton, and that this had a lasting intellectual effect on him, as did his friendship (and publishing relationship) with Keynes. But this psychological portrait is no substitute for good economics – there is no reason that what is good for Stockton in 1932 is good for Britain in 1962.

Ultimately, however, the broader failure of the book is its inability to tie together a consistent story of what Macmillan was trying to achieve. Such will always be difficult with a figure as amoral as Macmillan[4], and perhaps the answer is that there is no such story. But still, it must be addressed. The author quotes C.P. Snow: “The first thing is to get power. The next is to do something with it,” but he does not explain what Macmillan did, or even intended to do, with his power. The book says that there was no “Macmillanism,” but I’m not sure that’s true. There was no coherent Macmillanism, but that is another matter.

Overall, this book taught me a lot about Macmillan’s life – and rather more about his personal life than I needed to know. For those who wish to know more about him as a person and a politician, I greatly recommend it. Those looking to understand his place in history may be disappointed.

[1]Although I think the cartoon’s primary focus is wider than Macmillan personally. In my reading of the cartoon, the Tory grandees are cynically exploiting the stupid middle-classes standing in line – the bowler-hatted punters are the real fools. The cartoon is reproduced on page 370 of Thorpe’s book.
[2]A phrase he actually used in a very different sense, but has nevertheless stuck.
[3]Unfortunately the book does contain a good deal of tawdry sexual psychoanalysis, no doubt to increase its interest to a certain kind of reader.
[4]A word I use without judgement. It is the repeated conclusion of the book that Macmillan, like Murray Edelman, saw politics as simply an insider power game.
[5]”Nicky,” the National Incomes Commission, the “guiding light,” the soft incomes target for wage settlements, and “Neddy,” the National Economic Development Committee.

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