Saturday, September 03, 2011

Ferdinand Mount on Harold Macmillan

The latest London Review of Books has a review of D.R. Thorpe's Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by Ferdinand Mount His conclusion:
Supermac in his heyday was a class act. In his later years the satirists got at him, and to the young he was a somewhat moth-eaten comic figure. Thorpe tells us at the end that ‘Macmillan was a great prime minister for much of his time in Downing Street.’ There is a certain desperation about those italics. What was his legacy, after all? Premium Bonds and the Beeching Report.  
Macmillan said of Eden, quite rightly, that he had been trained to win the Derby of 1938 but had not been let out of the stalls until 1955. If you change the dates slightly, you could say much the same of Macmillan. His best years were already behind him when he reached the top at the age of 62. And somewhere at the back of his mind, I think he knew it.
Sadly, Mount does not find room for the anecdote that Michael White once retailed in the Guardian:
When Ed Muskie, a Democratic runner for US president, wept on TV after his wife was accused of being a drunk, an MP asked the unflappable Tory PM how he would have felt had the charge been levelled against his own (unfaithful) wife. Macmillan's response ran thus: "I would have said 'You should have seen her mother.'"


David said...

Was the conclusion Thorpe's or the reviewer's ? In either case it was unfair. He was a Keynesian whose objective was full employment. His government gave independence to more countries than anyone in the history of the world. He rebuilt Britain's image after the disaster of Suez and made our first application to join the European Communities. Before becoming Prime Minister he oversaw a huge expansion in housing whereas our current government has just presided over the lowest annual number of new house starts since 1924. We could do with a few more Conservatives like him today. Indeed the Liberal Orange Bookers could learn something from him.

Jonathan Calder said...

The post is about Ferdinand Mount's review, so the quotation is from his review.

Jonathan Calder said...

Incidentally, the Mount review is very good. Having judged it, you should read it some time.

Another good portrait of Macmillan and his generation of Conservatives, who had to wait so long for Churchill and Eden to leave the scene, is The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends and the World they Made by Simon Ball.

Pete said...

<a href="> Simon Hoggart </a> has a slightly different version on the Muskie anecdote - and adds this one:

Julia Langdon recalls another remark he made to Lord Carrington, who had told him about an American congressman who had murdered a woman with whom he was involved, and put the body in his boot, or trunk. Some of her nightie was left sticking out, so the police stopped and arrested him.

"Could have happened to any of us," said Macmillan.

Pete said...

But enough of the trivia. We could do with an 'Unflappable Mac', with his sense of history, to calm the current economic hysteria - around, for instance, the National Debt. This from Samuel Brittan :

Let me therefore cite the distinguished English historian, Lord Macaulay: "At every stage in the growth of that [national] debt the nation has set up the same cry of anguish and despair. At every stage in the growth of that debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt kept on growing; and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever." Harold Macmillan, as chancellor of the exchequer, quoted Macaulay in his 1956 Budget speech and remarked how the national debt had risen from £6bn in 1914 to £27bn in 1956, representing 27 and 146 per cent of gross domestic product respectively - about twice what is now in prospect. Yet these percentages were reduced in the postwar phase without any heroic reserve or "sinking" funds, through the simple forces of economic growth and inflation creeping at a rate not much above current inflation targets.