Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan Hardcover – September 1, 2010
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About the Author
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Harold Macmillan was born of an English father and an American mother. Winston Churchill also had an English father and American mother, but Churchill's family were aristocrats while Macmillan's were upper middle class - wealthy and influential from his father's founding and success at Macmillan Publishers. Harold, third son of three, was educated at Eton, for a short time before his mother pulled him out for reasons that remain unclear a century later, and continued then to Oxford's Bailliol College. He did well there, a very good student at a very good Oxford college and made many friends who would be helpful in later life. He served in British forces in WW1 and rose to the rank of captain.
After the war, he joined his father's publishing company and began to explore politics. A Tory - or Conservative - he rose slowly up the ranks of the party in the 1920' and 1930's. He also married Lady Dorothy Devonshire, a marriage which produced one son and three daughters. Dorothy was famously unfaithful to Harold for many years with Macmillan's political ally, Bob Boothby. Macmillan turned a blind eye to the affair, carried out in public and fully known to Macmillan's friends and political associates. Why did Harold Macmillan stand for such public cuckcolding? He wanted to rise further in politics and a divorce would have ended his participation in public life. So he endured the many year affair with a certain degree of grace and Dorothy and he remained married. Their marriage - happy in certain ways and a great political coupling - ended only in 1966 with Dorothy Macmillan's death.
Thorpe doesn't neglect Macmillan's public life while writing about his private one. Macmillan seemed to be in on most of the major WW2 and post-war governmental decisions in Britain, and finally succeeded Anthony Eden as head of the Conservative Party and as British PM in January, 1957. He served for about six years, overlapping the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. He died at 91, an honored and respected man, seen as someone who - generally - served his country well in a variety of different governmental positions.
Thorpe is a very smooth writer and he has written an excellent history. I bought the book on Kindle because it's not yet published here in the US. But I'm glad I read it on Kindle instead of ordering the British edition of the printed book or waited for its release in the US. Kindle is the best way to read a huuuugge book like Thorpe's.
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(One aspect that remained unclear to me was the reason for Macmillan's continued animosity towards R A Butler.)
In 1955 he held his ultra-safe seat against a young Labour candidate, Gerald Kaufman, later a close associate of Harold Wilson and senior Labour MP, and now Lord Kaufman. Macmillan describes him as "a rather unpleasant youth" - OK, that's his view - but also "very semitic". Thorpe points out that this use of someone's Jewishness as an insult is unpleasant, though perhaps reflecting a general snobbishness rather than anti-semitism per se. But the oddity comes in the footnote to this, which I'll quote in full:
"It was, unhappily, not unusual, particularly among the upper classes, to be dismissive of Jews in the 1930's. But to continue, even in the privacy of a diary, in such attitudes in the 1950's, in the shadow of the second World War and in the full knowlegde of what had happened to hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, reveals an unpardonable insensitivity"
Why "hundreds of thousands"? It doesn't make sense; this is a Holocaust denier's type of figure (the sort of figure that the likes of David Irving use to claim that the allies killed more people in the bombing campaigns (e.g. Dresden) than the Nazis killed Jews - see Richard Evans "Telling Lies About Hitler") and I do not belive than Mr. Thorpe is that! The note makes no sense to me - despite reading it many, many times, looking for meanings I've missed!
For all I know, Thorpe and Bogdanor believe that Macmillan was the best post-war Prime Minister we British had. I beg to disagree. I believe that 'Supermac' was a myth as to his nickname and a fraud and, thankfully, though the book is sympathetic to 'Uncle Harold,' much of the evidence for my verdict on the man is there in print, hundreds of pages of it.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding the Soviet Union. This seems to have stemmed from his first visit to Stalin's 'Evil Empire' in 1932. Some suspected him of being sympathetic to the Soviets for the rest of his life. Thorpe sets out the main facts that are known and exonerates his subject. I still have doubts.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding the Cossacks and the White Russians in 1945. As to how much 'in the wrong,' we shall never know, but he was an important figure at the time and the Cossacks and the White Russians suffered and died. Again, Thorpe sets out what he sees as the main facts. Readers must judge. I recommend them to do so.
Macmillan was in the wrong in placing faith in Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles at the time of Suez. The Americans were working to a different agenda and, though both Ike and Dulles subsequently realised their mistakes, the damage was done and we have been paying for it ever since.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding the pace of change in Africa. He and his chosen ministers - Butler, Macleod, Maudling, etc. - pushed for a typhoon-type 'wind of change' and the subsequent history of many former component parts of the British Empire in Africa casts doubt on the judgement of the prime pushers.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding the British economy and 'Keynesianism.' It is clear that his admiration and affection for John Maynard Keynes warped his judgement with dire economic consequences for Great Britain and its standing in the world. (His much later ridiculing of Margaret Thatcher over 'the family silver' was in the same vein, and wrong again).
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding our relations with Europe and the British Empire. In retrospect, it is easy to see that, whilst it was important for political reasons for the European Union to succeed, Macmillan's policies were expensive for the Empire and unsuccessful.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding the weaknesses of his Cabinet. In his aloof and patrician style - itself something of an act - he couldn't see - or didn't want to see - that the behaviour of such as John Profumo was a gift to the satirists. Indeed, Macmillan himself was a gift to the satirists.
Macmillan was in the wrong regarding President Kennedy and 'Camelot.' Like Ike, Jack Kennedy was working to a different agenda from Macmillan's and, though he was 'family' and regarded 'Uncle Harold' highly, they were in reality as chalk and cheese.
Where Harold Macmillan was in the right was in his going, for Richard Thorpe has set out clearly the key documentation, created at the behest of Macmillan from his hospital bed, that led to the succession in 1963 of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as leader of the Conservative Party and as Prime Minister. Though by no means perfect, Douglas-Home was the very best of a dubious bunch and I, for one, recall well my satisfaction at 'Rab' Butler being 'dished' yet again.
Despite my dislike for Macmillan, I would have given this book five stars were it not, first, for the too-extensive notes - 150 pages of them - some of which might more usefully have been edited or omitted and some incorporated into the text or inserted as footnotes on the relevant pages. The latter type is easier to take in than turning frequently to the notes section. And, second, the errors. Books with errors that I can spot myself - the most egregious being reference to Sir Harry Pilkington (later Lord Pilkington) being 'Chairman of the Federation of the Bank of England' when he was president of Federation of British Industries - worry me, for if I can spot some errors, those who are more expert and knowledgeable than I must be able to spot more and, if there are more errors, how does the average reader know what to take as fact?
Finally, I found myself cheering 'Supermac' when I read the following:
'Rule one in politics, he [Macmillan] often declared, was NEVER INVADE AFGHANISTAN [in capital letters]' (page 605). Intriguingly, I have not been able to find any reference to Mr Macmillan having said this. If he did, good for him: if he didn't, Richard Thorpe has made another mistake and has been a naughty boy.
So, good read, yes. Admirable subject, no. Overall, four stars.