Tides of Fortune.
by Harold Macmillan.
Harper & Row. 729 pp. $15.00.
Harold Macmillan, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1956 to 1962 (the period bracketed by Suez and Profumo), was without doubt the most important and influential figure in British politics since Churchill. The record he left behind is, by all counts, an impressive one. Among other things, he rescued the Tories after the Suez debacle and kept them in power for many years thereafter. Moreover, despite the obstacles placed in the way by John Foster Dulles, he was able to reestablish Britain’s special relationship with the United States and to strengthen that entente through both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. He was also responsible for reversing the emphasis of his “tepid European” predecessor, the ill-fated Anthony Eden, and he set Britain on the path of closer economic association with Europe. He recast the economic thinking of both his party and his nation so solidly that subsequent governments have had little choice but to follow the main outlines he set forth.
But despite these considerable achievements, Macmillan is not given much credit, or if he is, he is accorded it reluctantly or thoughtlessly. His detractors, particularly those on the Left, tend to attribute his success to luck—an analysis that has the sole virtue of brevity. The theory behind this reading of Macmillan’s career is that all but the most extraordinary of political figures these days are janitors, and that their primary function is maintenance. Macmillan just happened to be minding the establishment when historical forces moved his party and nation in the right direction.
That Macmillan has always been in harmony with his society lends some plausibility to this interpretation. Born into the favored environment of the upper class at a time when its preeminence was unquestioned, Macmillan stayed true to its values and traditions. Never a maverick—he did however, quietly refuse both the Garter and a peerage after his retirement—he embodies many, if not all, of his class’s virtues and wholeheartedly has pursued its aspirations. Though he was something of a late bloomer in the Conservative party, his career, once begun, was one of continual movement upward, with no major setbacks and few extended plateaus. He was so closely identified with his privileged background and he adhered to its patterns so diligently that, even if one sees him as more than a stuffed shirt who stumbled into prominence, one is hard-pressed to resist the conclusion that Macmillan is in every way a most conventional man. The same might be said of his multi-volumed memoirs, which seem to go on and on, weighted down by a mass of detail that omits little yet often seems to say nothing. (We are, for example, treated to a discussion of how, during his tenure as Minister of Housing, he dealt with an invasion of flies after a local flood.) The present volume, which takes up the postwar period, is the third in the series, but Macmillan, not to be hurried, has still not arrived at his account of his Premiership after about 2,000 pages! One is inclined here to think of him as a pedant whose main characteristic is the inability to see the difference between exhaustiveness and thoroughness.
Nevertheless, to dismiss Macmillan as a pedestrian politician and writer is to make the fundamental error of mistaking lack of content for lack of perception. The best way to understand him is to accept the fact that he is essentially enigmatic. One should therefore approach his political career, as well as his published account of it, as one would a mystery story, alert to hints, suggestions, and clues. For the fact is that Macmillan was a remarkably able and—what is even more important—devious politician who knew that his devices would be all the more successful if concealed behind a façade of candor.
Thus, I believe, he actually cultivated the image of amiable mediocrity the better to gain ascendancy. His favored polemical method was to invite attack by feigning vulnerability, and then to strike back. This strategy was never used with greater success than during his encounters with Hugh Gaitskell. I was fortunate to witness one such clash early in their association; it resulted, as did so many, in Gaitskell suddenly and mysteriously finding himself defeated. On this particular occasion the Labour leader launched into an attack on the government that obviously required an energetic rebuttal from the Prime Minister. Macmillan started off with a few desultory observations designed to give the impression that he specialized in the obvious. He followed with some homilies that evoked only impatient noises from Labour. Then, with the full effect of the shaggy brows, there was a sort of plea for fair play and gentlemanly conduct coupled with an expression of mild indignation. Gaitskell, sensing weakness and confusion, pressed the attack, encouraged just enough to overstep his limits. Then it came, the decisive thrust, cruelly accurate, not only wounding but humbling; Gaitskell’s blood had been drawn. For one whose graciousness was endemic, there were variations on the theme, e.g., amiability followed by the dagger, but the result was most often the same. It was produced with regularity by a refined awareness of the proper mixture of atmosphere, amenities, and polite brutality.
Macmillan was also a master of the use of silence as rhetoric. On many occasions he would simply ignore the direct affront or, if required to answer, would dismiss it with a brief and deliberate (and no doubt infuriating) pomposity. The New Statesman once complained that mannered archness was no substitute for answering questions. Actually, its editors were angry because Macmillan had been defeating their party and its leader for years. What Churchill called the severest test of a man, the House of Commons, Macmillan mastered with apparent ease and reserve.
Indeed, Macmillan’s career owed much to Churchill, who recognized the younger man’s talents and created opportunities for his advancement. No one knows for sure, but Churchill may really have preferred Macmillan to Eden as his successor; there is no doubt that he backed Macmillan against Butler when Eden resigned. The association between the two men began to deepen during the war after Churchill commissioned Macmillan to serve as his political representative in North Africa, a seminal assignment that Macmillan carried off with aplomb. He was a great success, too, in his next major step up the political ladder, as Minister of Housing after the fall of the postwar Labour government. When Macmillan took on this job he publicly professed ignorance of all matters that fell within his new sphere of responsibility. But he was in fact quite knowledgeable about economic issues—what he calls “the meat of politics in the twenty years between the wars.” Unlike Eden and others in the Conservative party, Macmillan foresaw that economic affairs would become of central concern, and he made them his area of special expertise (an early Keynesian, he wrote a book on the mixed economy in 1938). At the higher Tory levels, there was probably no one more qualified than he to assume the task of administering the construction of 300,000 housing units. And by making good on the government’s promise, Macmillan found himself thrust into the front rank of Tory leadership—this, after having held only two administrative posts. The movement to wider responsibility was fairly quick, but the ability, and the point of view to match, had been there all along.
It is reasonable to assume that when a man with Macmillan’s background and qualities comes to write the story of his political life he will do so in the same indirect way that he lived it, and for the same reasons: to keep his opponents off balance and to protect himself, his reputation, and his party’s interests. Significantly, Macmillan repeats in his memoirs Disraeli’s advice about surrounding something one wants to conceal with a “long and tedious” account. He also goes out of his way in the present volume to note that when a Minister said to Churchill, “I have tried to put the case fairly,” Churchill replied: “A very dangerous thing to do.” How else but by contrivance are we to explain the long stretches of chronology unrelieved by wit, interpretation, even gossip, or the brief and unsatisfying accounts of such major events of the time as the Palestine crisis and the British withdrawal from India—especially when these are contrasted with the many parts of Tides of Fortune that glow with refinement and insight?
Notable among the latter is the section on the Labour party, wherein Macmillan affirms the high regard in which he held the members of the first postwar Labour government. His portrait of Attlee is deeper and kinder than the one drawn by Churchill; that of Bevin, a minor masterpiece. He adds important human dimensions to our comprehension of Morrison and Dalton; dismisses Churchill’s judgment of Bevan as a “squalid nuisance”; and plausibly makes Cripps out to be a mixture, if one can imagine it, of the devil and Lloyd George. On the Conservative side, where Macmillan has a great deal more to lose, the pickings are deliberately meager. The only really convincing description of Eden occurs in a passage where Macmillan writes with genuine sympathy of Eden’s poignant maneuvering as Churchill kept postponing his resignation. What Macmillan has to say about Churchill himself adds little to what is already known.
Patterned as they are, Macmillan’s choices of emphases and of objects on which to lavish his attention and style are unlikely to be accidental. More probably, they represent the approach of a man who is writing an exoteric account with an esoteric message, and who, like any good teacher employing this classical approach, does not cross all the t’s or dot all the i’s.