For five remarkable years Harold Macmillan held the country spellbound. He possessed the kind of political magic that the Tory Party had not seen since the days of Disraeli.
As Prime Minister he gave a bravura display of political skill. It brought almost uninterrupted success between 1957 when he succeeded the unfortunate Anthony Eden (who had been broken by the Suez crisis) and 1962, the year that intractable problems started to engulf him, weakening him severely throughout the final phase before his resignation in October 1963.
During his years of triumph he was indeed ‘Supermac’, as he was dubbed by one of the leading cartoonists of the time from whom D.R.Thorpe has taken the title of this quite outstanding biography. It is based not just on Macmillan’s own private papers but also on those of all the other leading politicians of the period (some 90 in all).
The biographer matches the bravura of his subject. There is not a boring page in this large, handsomely produced book.
Both at the time and later Macmillan’s critics said that he was just a showman – all style and no substance. Thorpe shows in fascinating detail how totally wrong the critics are. Often in pain from First World War wounds sustained during acts of great bravery, Macmillan undertook a gruelling series of international trips involving intensive diplomatic negotiations which he believed to be essential to prevent a third world war, which could have brought nuclear destruction on mankind.
It was on the international stage that Macmillan made what his biographer describes rightly as ‘one of the finest and bravest speeches delivered during the twentieth century’. In famous words that resonated throughout the world, the British Prime Minister told South Africa’s apartheid parliament in February 1960 that ‘the wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, the growth of national consciousness is a political fact’.
Many people did not like it and tried to ignore it, with disastrous results. What has distinguished all the great Tory leaders is the courage with which they responded to the challenges of change. Macmillan possessed that essential mark of Tory statesmanship in abundant measure, just as his most important successors have done.
In his speech accepting the Conservative Party leadership in 1957, Macmillan quoted Disraeli: ‘we must be conservative to conserve all that is good and radical to uproot all that is bad’. He added: ‘we will never be a Party of any class or sectional interest’. Everyone benefited from the steadily rising prosperity which Macmillan’s economic policies created – especially those whose lot had been to live in the grinding poverty which he had seen in his Stockton constituency between the wars. He never forgot them. ‘The great thing’ , he said in 1959, ‘is to keep the Tory Party on modern and progressive lines’. No wonder comparisons are often made between David Cameron and this great predecessor.
The dust-jacket of this book includes words from Professor Vernon Bogdanor who taught David Cameron at Oxford: ‘the best biography of a post-war British Prime Minister yet written’. The Professor does not exaggerate.
Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R.Thorpe is published by Chatto & Windus at £25.