He Never Had It So Good

Review of The Macmillan Diaries Prime Minister and After, 1957-1966 Edited by Peter Catterall Macmillan

Books History UK Politics
Half-forgotten figure: Harold Macmillan in his study

Harold Macmillan kept a diary during most of his lifetime. Although he used it as a convenient record of events, it often became more of a ruminative conversation with himself. Thus, one day in 1957, after noting a busy trip to Paris as well as a fresh controversy about the H-Bomb, he wrote: “I had to deliver a speech in the House, about Lord Balfour, moving that a statue be put up to him. It took me a long time and infinite trouble to compose this speech — but the papers scarcely reported it. What a thing is fame! Hardly anyone today has even heard of AJB!”

Coming upon that wistful entry half a century later, one wonders to what extent Macmillan was also reflecting upon his own portion of fame, which was real enough in its day — and upon the certainty that he too would fade from the public memory.

The publication of this final section of his diary, covering almost the entire span of his term as Prime Minister, can scarcely protect his name from oblivion, since he is  already a half-forgotten figure. But  it will at least revive, in the minds of those still surviving, the strong impression left upon his contemporaries by a singular public figure — one who was also a complicated man of contrasts. To the task of being Prime Minister he brought a refreshing change of style. Whereas politicians often like to cultivate a solemn demeanour that signifies gravitas, Macmillan’s preference was to seek to convey good humour and calm. He was a master of the very English art of  ironical understatement, which often counts as  wit — one remembers his reference to “a little local difficulty” after all his Treasury ministers had resigned in a fury; or “it seems to have gone off rather well” after a thumping general election victory. One remembers too the voice, the easy going    patrician tone so well suited to irony, and how its effect was fortified by his physical appearance. He retained a moustache of the type favoured by young officers of World War One, he watched the world from hooded eyes with an air of faint disbelief and courteous scepticism.

It is tempting to dwell upon the personality of this Prime Minister, rather than on the weightier matters of statesmanship discussed in his diary, because to read these daily jottings is vividly to encounter again the man who wrote them. There is enough, for sure, about nuclear test negotiations, about the post-Suez complications, about Middle East alarms and all the other discontents of the age; equally there is material to intrigue the historian about the Profumo affair and the struggles for the succession to the leadership of the Tory party. But what will interest many readers is the implicit self-portrait which emerges from a diary which firmly eschews the confessional mode. 

As Peter Catterall, the meticulous editor of these diaries, observes in his introduction, Macmillan valued “character” highly. In his own political life he aspired to display “character” and resilience as he struggled  to renew the national fortunes at a time of defeat and uncertainty. His care about his own reputation for “unflappability”, which is made apparent in these pages, reflects that concern, as do his sometimes startlingly caustic comments on fellow politicians of all parties.   

The studied calmness under pressure which Macmillan displayed was, of course, a front, carefully cultivated, behind which a far from easy or tranquil life story unfolded. He was badly wounded at the Somme in 1916 and invalided out of the army. There were early setbacks in his political career, when he found himself a lonely backbench “Tory rebel” at odds with his party over appeasement and economic policy. There was a dark cloud over his life cast by the long adulterous affair between his wife and another Tory MP, Robert Boothby. The diary makes no reference to this, except glancingly in one entry (“21 April. Our wedding day. Sent telegram to Dorothy, who left for Scotland yesterday.”). He had need of the consolations of religion (his faithful church-going is carefully noted in the diary) and of literature (even in high office he read more than a hundred books a year).

There was too the sadness common to all men of his war-ravaged generation. This is the diary entry for 19 October 1961:

“Poor Harry Crookshank — my oldest friend — died on Tuesday. I had intended to go to Scotland tonight to shoot for 2 days with Alec Home. But I must go to the funeral tomorrow […] We went to Summerfields together nearly 60 years ago. We got scholarships at Eton in the same election. We went to Oxford in the same year (1912) and into the Army — Grenadiers — together in 1914. We were both seriously wounded in the same battle — the Somme. We were in H. of Commons together from 1924. I shall miss him very much […]”

There is a deal of English social history in those words.