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Never Had It So Good?
THE PAST MASTERS
Politics and Politicians 1906-1939
Author : Harold Macmillan
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
This book was written when Margaret Thatcher had just succeeded Edward Heath as the leader of the Conservative Party and was still four years away from office.
In the intervening years, there have been a few attempts at political revisionism in relation to the achievements of Churchill and the Churchillians, with the theme of casting them in poor light.
In this period, on the other side of the coin, there have been important biographies published of the two leading Churchillians, Bracken and Beaverbrook, publication of the post-war correspondence between these two and Andrew Roberts' Eminent Churchillians, a book notably sympathetic to the difficulties faced by Churchill in coming to power.
Macmillan's book is an interesting piece of historical evidence because it covers the period leading up to Churchill's formation of a war administration in 1940 but written well before any whiff of this modern controversy, by a largely independent observer. It corroborates the Churchillian perspective of events.
Although Macmillan served in Churchill's governments, a reading of the book can leave us in little doubt that he was a man of independent thought, not a dyed in the wool Churchillian.
That a man of undoubted ability, destined and ambitious to be Prime Minister - 'If Dizzy had made himself Prime Minister by his own unaided effort, could not I have a go?' - could remain a backbencher for 16 years before being called to office or shadow office is testimony to his independence and, perhaps, to a self-seeking nature that the powerful mistrusted.
The published correspondence between Bracken and Beaverbrook shows them to the right of, say, Margaret Thatcher in terms of economic policy.
Macmillan, in contrast, was always proudly on the left of his party on economic issues. As he writes : 'It was not until July 1935 that our volume, entitled The Next Five Years, was published. On economic policy it was an attempt to find a working compromise between the extremes of collectivism and individualism, but it was a compromise much to my taste. At the time it seemed to lean rather more to the Left than the Right, especially with regard to the proposals for an increase in public or semi-public control of utilities such as transport, gas and electricity.'
His view of personalities is similar to that of the Churchillians. Asquith was rather a haughty and uptight figure, Stanley Baldwin an underestimated but not unsympathetic figure of some political cunning (or of unfathomably complex cunning if Beaverbrook is to be believed - scarcely a simple man himself) who handled the issues of the General Strike and the Abdication well out of love of country and who received unfair opprobrium in 1940 and later for not doing more to re-arm the country. He confirms a high regard that politicians had for Andrew Bonar Law, despite his short tenure as Prime Minister, and that Beaverbrook had a great affection for him.
Neville Chamberlain comes across as a cold, priggish and condescending figure whose tenure is confirmed as a disaster.
Unlike most political chronicles of later politicians, Macmillan's book strives for objectivity in its assessments of the political figures, nearly all of whom he knew professionally or socially. It is not coloured by the need to score points against enemies. This is naturally made easier by the period in question being 35 years and more before the date of writing. Most enemies could doubtless be left unmentioned and damned by obscurity.
Yet a little feeling does come out against Neville Chamberlain, whom he regarded as condescending to backbenchers, and who was probably responsible for keeping him as one for so long.
In contrast, he expresses generous sentiments for Neville Chamberlain's half-brother, Austen Chamberlain, and approbation for his achievements as Foreign Secretary at Locarno.
For Lloyd George he unquestionably shows warm feelings, seems to have been friendly with him for many years, if not on a close basis, and shared with him some political philosophy. Like the Churchillians, he considered Lloyd George a benefactor to his country, a man who emerged to take the reins of power at a moment of crisis for the nation and brought victory in the Great War when victory might have been uncertain.
Macmillan married into a great Whig family in 1920. His family's political leanings had also been towards the Whigs. In becoming a Conservative M.P. in 1923 he was in a sense travelling in an opposite and independent direction.
Yet much of his political life seems to have been consumed by an ambition to become himself a noble, political grandee in the Whig mode, something he achieved along the way but perhaps had finally confirmed when he was ennobled by Margaret Thatcher, becoming the last non-royal personage in the United Kingdom to be elevated to an earldom. By then his son, Maurice Macmillan, sometime minister in Edward Heath's government, had died and his acceptance of a hereditary title no longer threatened his son's career.
May 1961. Macmillan was PM. You never had it so good.
His personal and Whiggish independence were reaffirmed in his 'selling the family silver' speech when he turned on his new patron's policy of privatisation. There was an element of humbug in the speech as he knew full well that only a grandee - indeed, only a grandee who had risen himself - could refer to the nationalised industries in such terms. It was a statement that he had succeeded by the rules of his time and therein lay his glory.
In other respects, his speech was forward looking, even visionary, so the phrase was carefully chosen.
He did not profess to Churchillian stature. He was always modest and knew his role in history, in relative terms, was limited. His book does not seek to assert his role - for the period in question he casts himself as the young Member learning from his elders with only one reference to being a rebel.
At heart he was proudest of his independent, at times rebellious, rise from prosperous middle-class origins to being one of the grandest of grandees.
Unlike Lloyd George, Margaret Thatcher and, possibly, Attlee, who were originals that seemed to spring from nowhere, Macmillan's career, like Churchill's - but to a lesser extent - drew on a long study and understanding of history. In both these men, a determination to play a part in it never faltered.