Thursday, November 03, 2005

Harold Macmillan

On November 11th, 2005 it will be eighty-seven years to the day when Germany and the allied powers signed the armistice that ended World War 1, the Great War, The-War-To-End-All- Wars.

From the viewpoint of the ordinary foot soldier it was the most terrible of wars, for, if he went into the trenches at the war’s beginning in August 1914, his chances of emerging alive at its end in November 1918 were, to all intents and purposes, nil. This war wiped out almost an entire generation of young men in Britain, France, and Germany, who were poured into the trenches like molten steel into a vat.

But not all the soldiers of 1914 died. A relative handful did survive, if only because, while in the trenches, they were wounded, and so could spend time in the safety of a hospital – an interval when a bomb or bullet may otherwise have killed them

Harold Macmillan was one of the few young men of 1914 fortunate to emerge alive. In later life he became one of the best known of British prime ministers. He was a scion of the Macmillan family which founded the renowned book publishing house of Macmillan - the family which the book, “The Macmillans”, by Richard Davenport-Hines, tells about.

But I want to talk only of what the book says about Harold, the most famous of the Macmillans. He was born in 1894 and, as a boy, was much influenced by his domineering American-born mother, Nellie. Harold went to Eton where he was dreadfully unhappy, so that he was mysteriously removed from there after a couple of years. He completed school elsewhere, then studied classics at Oxford.

When the guns of August 1914 began firing, Harold joined up, became a subaltern, and soon found himself in France, in the trenches which stretched like a hideous gash across much of Europe. He was wounded severely and, while lying in a shell-hole waiting for help, he pulled a copy of Aeschylus’s play ‘Prometheus’ from his back pocket to read during the long wait for a rescue party. So severe were Harold’s wounds that he didn’t recover from them until 1921.

The Great War was the defining experience of Harold’s life. The brutality of life in the trenches was particularly traumatic for the shy bookish Harold, who epitomised the entire generation of young men who came of age in 1914 and were slaughtered. That Harold survived was a miracle, and so, like all the survivors of the carnage, he had many friends and acquaintances who never came back. The list of his Eton and Oxford contemporaries who perished was so long, it read like a veritable necrology.

Harold was moved profoundly by the letters ordinary soldiers under his command wrote home which, as an officer, he had to read and censor. Reading the letters enabled him to see how men of the labouring classes lived, thus making Harold more sensitive to the domestic and financial problems they had to confront. It was an experience that influenced his social policies when he achieved high office.

Harold Macmillan was also a superb actor, having a false self. His public persona was that of an unflappable English gentleman, but inside he was anything but. He suffered nervous breakdowns more than once in his life. Indeed, a nervous breakdown in the form of a panic attack may have been the cause of the famous “Night of the Long Knives” when, as prime minister, Harold fired nearly half his cabinet in the course of one evening.

Given all he went through at the various stages of his life, we shouldn’t wonder that Harold Macmillan developed a false self. It was as good a way as any to deal with a domineering mother, with the horrors of the trenches of the Great War, with his severe shrapnel wounds, and with, later on, being cuckolded by his wife, who had an affair with Lord Boothby over many years, which Harold knew about but said nothing. Only someone with a false self could have been as servile as was Harold to his superiors when climbing up the political ladder, or as manipulative, or as ambitious.

Harold Macmillan may have been the most literate of British prime ministers over the last century, being always a voracious reader, although mostly of works written in the nineteenth century or earlier. Indeed, Harold was very much a nineteenth-century man, being the last British prime minister born in that century, when Britain’s power throughout the world was at its zenith. One could say, Tony Blair notwithstanding, that Harold Macmillan was the last British world statesman. He was, at any rate, the last of the Victorians, or could it be Edwardians?

Harold Macmillan’s legacy will always be shrouded by a cloud from the time, in 1945, when he had ministerial responsibility for the British army in occupied Europe. What did he know, and how much was he responsible for handing back to the tender hands of Stalin, at Stalin’s insistence, many thousands of ethnic Russians who, having escaped the prison that was Stalin’s Russia, and having fought the Germans, found themselves at war’s end herded, as displaced persons, into camps administered by the British army? On being forcibly repatriated to Russia, most of the internees were corralled into Stalin’s Gulag where most died. Harold Macmillan must have known about the repatriations, and so could have stopped them. But he chose not to see, as part of Britain’s policy of keeping Stalin happy.

Harold Macmillan became prime minister in 1957, when Britain’s relations with its former colony, the USA, were distinctly frosty. His immediate predecessor, Anthony Eden, had ordered British troops to seize and occupy the Suez Canal after Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized it and sent its British owners packing. President Dwight Eisenhower, not seeing Britain’s precipitous action to be in the US’s interests, told the British to get the hell out of the Suez Canal or there would be, like, consequences. Britain, seeing on which side its bread was buttered, got the hell out. But Anthony Eden was, thereafter, politically dead meat, and so resigned to make way for Harold Macmillan.

Despite that the Suez Crisis was a reminder that Britain was no longer the big fish in the world’s pond it thought it was, the Britain over which Harold Macmillan began to preside was still somewhat of a big fish, still ruling over considerable swathes of Africa, dabs of the Caribbean, slivers of South America, and soupcons of Asia. However, Britain was trying to shed its empire as fast as it could, no longer having the appetite or wealth to rule it.

So Harold, despite being a product of the Britannia that still ruled the world’s waves, presided over much of the empire’s dismantling, having the sense of history to know that a three-hundred-year era had come to an end. He coined the phrase “The Winds of Change”, now in general circulation, which he incorporated in a famous speech he made to the South African parliament in 1960 during a visit there, a speech that didn’t sit well with that country's white rulers. But the prescience of Harold's speech, which said that the days of colonial white rule in Africa were numbered, was borne out over the subsequent two decades. When Harold went out to pasture in 1963, even the most jingoistic Briton could no longer cherish the illusion that his country was still a Great Power.

Harold Macmillan was British prime minister in the time I grew up in a small British colony in the tropics and was becoming interested in the goings-on in the big outside world. I remember, as if yesterday, avidly reading each day in the local newspaper the very latest revelations in the Profumo scandal that brought down Harold’s government. I remember, too, his visit to the little town where I lived, and listening on the radio (“the wireless”) to a speech Harold gave to some local dignitaries in the town hall, where he spoke for over an hour. He was most eloquent, and it was only after he finished that I realized he’d said nothing at all. It was my introduction to the art of speaking but saying nothing, an art in which Harold was a master.

“The past is another country, they do things differently there”, go the opening lines of LP Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between”. Harold Macmillan, too, came from the past, and, as such, was from another country. He seems light-years removed from our George Bush-Tony Blair present, but he left office only forty-something years ago.

He was prime minister a mere seven years, not even as long as for the hapless Tony Blair. But, somehow, Harold Macmillan’s reign seems to have been longer.