Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D R Thorpe

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Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D R Thorpe

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full, all-embracing biography, the fruit of over thirty years of research, of the man who was Prime Minister for six years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 912 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1844135417

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The great-grandson of a crofter, and son-in-law of a Duke, Harold Macmillan was born in London in 1894. Despite the well-to-do aristocratic background, his years as a young adult were marked by bad experiences in the trenches which left him with lifelong war wounds, and his early service as a Conservative Member of Parliament by the plight of the unemployed in his first constituency of Stockton. He had much in common with another future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill; both had American mothers, and both were mavericks who were elected as Conservatives but refused to toe the party line too steadfastly.

Though Macmillan never crossed the floor, he was a persistent party rebel who had initially considered standing in the Labour interest, and during the mid-1930s he briefly resigned the Conservative whip. Defeated in the 1945 landslide, he was soon returned to the Commons at a by-election in the safer seat of Bromley. Twelve years later he entered No 10, when it was his good fortune to preside over a briefly contented, even mildly prosperous era when, in a memorable phrase he made in a speech of 1957, many people had never had it so good.

It was a very long and complex life, and Thorpe has done his work splendidly in ensuring that this lengthy volume is never dull. Macmillan was not only a politician but also a soldier, author and publisher, and all the separate strands of his career during a long life are kept skillfully in place. The delicate matter of his Christian beliefs and refusal to contemplate divorce, even to a wife who had a humiliatingly public fling with George Boothby, another Conservative MP, are well handled with sympathy and understanding.

His wit and unflappability come across in several illuminating little anecdotes. When interrupted in a speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations by the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev petulantly banging his shoe on the table and shouting out, he paused before saying quietly, Well, I'd like it translated, if you would. Some years later he invited Margaret Thatcher, then a newly-elected leader of the party, to a family lunch when she talked endlessly and hardly paused for breath. As her car drove away, he wryly asked one of his grandsons,Do you ever get the feeling that you have just failed geography?

Thorpe praises Macmillan's achievements, but does not gloss over the more questionable episodes. His role in the Suez affair, which culminated in the seriously ill Anthony Eden resigning as Prime Minister and resulting in his being elevated to high office, is somewhat murky, and his conduct during the repatriation of the Cossacks at the end of the Second World War, something which returned to haunt him for the rest of his days, even more so. His Labour opponent Aneurin Bevan, not known for charitable comment, thought he was a poseur and concluded that behind that Edwardian countenance there is nothing. Yet fortunate is the senior politician who never makes a mistake, or any enemies, throughout his or her career. He could be ruthless at times, and his merciless sacking of ministers during the declining years of his premiership, especially 'the night of the long knives' in 1962, showed he was beginning to lose his touch. But he was a shrewd political operator who was fortunate to preside over the country during the transition from austerity to affluence. The 100-seat majority his party attained during the 1959 election, the only one he fought as party leader, could not be put down merely to good luck and the fact that, in the words of Labour member Richard Crossman, Tory voters were far more afraid of another Labour government than Labour voters were of another Tory government.

Home and foreign affairs during Macmillan's premiership – the Cuban missile crisis, the Profumo affair, the relationship with America and the assassination of Kennedy, and even the rise of the Beatles – are all dealt with smoothly and seamlessly as part of the story. A poignant postscript to his premiership, during which he lost not only many a friend but also his wife and only son, is sensitively recorded, and his by no means uncritical view of the Thatcher years – of which he lived to see the majority before his death in 1986 at 92 – is also told shrewdly. There is also a useful analysis of the six volumes of autobiography which he produced during his retirement years.

With over 600 pages of text, plus extensive notes and bibliography, this is anything but a light read. But it is an enthralling one, and anybody with more than a passing interest in politics and 20th century history will find this an extremely rewarding, even entertaining read. Thorpe's style is very readable throughout, and this book is certainly not as 'heavy' as its ample physical appearance might suggest.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy, a book about the age over which Macmillan presided; and Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown by John Campbell, which includes a chapter on Macmillan and Butler, the man he defeated in the race to No 10. He came rather earlier, but you might also appreciate Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist by Zareer Masani.

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