This is a state-of-the-art British political biography.  D.A. 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 prodigious; 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 matters large and small, and Thorpe’s evaluation of Harold Macmillan is marred both by his conservatism and by 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 anecdote 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.  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 preexisting 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 anticommunists 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 claims to greatness, though they appear only episodically and in fragmented form in this book.

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, that

we have time only because of the buffers which have wisely been created between the worker and destitution . . . [I]t 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 that would bear a considerable resemblance to Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, 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 acknowledged 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 (1938), his thinking had taken a Keynesian turn.  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 a 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 of the exchequer, as well as Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, in 1958.  Notwithstanding this, the inflation rate during his term of office was less than two percent.  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 European Monetary Union 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 bath water, including the fiscal autonomy of local governments 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 Mrs. Thatcher 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.

Thorpe gives insufficient attention to Macmillan’s wartime record.  The postwar character of the French, Italian, and Greek governments was largely reflective of his influence, as was the neutralism of Tito’s Yugoslavia.  Thorpe’s treatment of Macmillan’s role in Italy is especially inadequate; Macmillan successfully opposed American proposals for a protracted and doubtless counterproductive occupation and a vindictive peace.

Thorpe provides only an episodic account of the part Macmillan played in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in fostering the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty.  Macmillan emphasized to President Kennedy the importance of giving Khrushchev a face-saving “exit strategy,” which in the end was supplied by the reciprocal removal of Turkish missiles.  He also urged a contraction of the exclusion zone to allow the Soviets to consider their position and the avoidance of a military confrontation, and stood ready to call a conference on his own initiative.  (Theodore Roosevelt had condemned Woodrow Wilson for failing to follow a similar course in August 1914.)  On March 16, 1962, Macmillan addressed a long letter to Kennedy urging a resumption of negotiations for an atmospheric nuclear test ban and an eventual nuclear nonproliferation agreement, a proposal that bore fruit.  He also followed Churchill’s policy of attempting to negotiate a Central European settlement with the Russians; the summit conference that he secured perished as a result of the U-2 affair.

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

Finally, Harold 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 afford to forswear this book in favor of the first of his six volumes of memoirs.  His eloquent 30-page Prologue, which should be required reading in the schools, concludes with the 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 declares.  “[A] warning to authors as well as to cooks.”


[Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan, by D.A. Thorpe (London: Chatto and Windus) 879 pp., £25.00]