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Reflections on Supermac

Over the bank holiday break I finished reading DR Thorpe’s magnificent biography of Harold Macmillan, Supermac. It is a classic of political biography. Although too charitable to Macmillan in parts, and wrongheaded on some key historical moments, like the Suez crisis, it is a richly detailed, illuminating and beautifully told history of a political life that encompassed almost all the major events of the 20th century.

It is also striking for what it tells you about contemporary conservatism. Thatcher’s legacy has been so powerful and profound that it is only when you read a political biography of one of her predecessors as leader of the Conservative party that you realise just how thoroughly eviscerated the progressive, ‘One Nation’ conservative tradition became as a consequence of her premiership. This is the tradition to which Macmillan belonged, albeit highly idiosyncratically, and when you survey the current conservative political landscape it is barely visible – at least in ways that would be recognisable to Macmillan and his peers.

To start with, there are hardly any conservative critics of the Coalition’s government’s economic policy, as there were in the 1920s and 1930s, despite the symmetry between the two eras. The first quarter of Thorpe’s book documents Macmillan in this period, during his formative rebel years, when he was a proto-Keynesian left Conservative.  To be sure, he was hardly part of the Conservative mainstream. He flirted with the Labour party, consulted Keynes, visited the USSR, wrote books advocating state planning, and even penned a pamphlet with GDH Cole and Arthur Henderson, before resigning the Tory whip briefly in 1936. But he was not a lone voice. He was part of a group of progressive Conservative MPs, known disparagingly as ‘the YMCA’ by the whips, that challenged the economic orthodoxy of the age and argued for priority to be given to stimulating economic growth and job creation. Their intellectual mentor was the far-sighted Tory MP Noel Skelton, who advocated a property-owning democracy and a ‘constructive Conservatism’.

As the 1930s progressed, these ideas became more influential in the mainstream of politics until they became accepted orthodoxy after the second world war. The great triumvirate of post-Churchillian conservative politics in the 1950s – Macmillan, Butler and Eden – were the midwives of the conservative accommodation to the post-war Attlee settlement, with full employment, demand management and the new welfare state at its heart. The key document of that transition, The Industrial Charter, ratified by the 1947 Conservative conference, was described as a ‘second edition’ of Macmillan’s pre-war tract, The Middle Way.

Contemporary conservatism has its thoughtful progressive economic thinkers, such as Jesse Norman and Nick Boles, but it is hard to discern an intellectual movement or grouping of MPs that resembles Skelton-Boothby-Macmillan et al. That may simply reflect the fact that contemporary conservatives are confident of their economic policy, particularly on deficit reduction. It may also betoken the fact that Macmillan’s generation came face to face with the consequences of mass unemployment and poverty in a way that is unthinkable today. Unemployment now wears a different face, as poverty does. But Macmillan was also an MP for Stockton, a northern town suffering the consequences of industrial decline, and the experience of representing that constituency in the dark days of the pre-war depression remained with him all his life. It underpinned his deep commitment to expansionary, growth-oriented economic policy, which was eventually to cost him two chancellors, but which also helped to secure the ‘never had it so good’ 1950s and his triumphant reelection in 1959. It is surely not without consequence that today’s Conservative party has barely any representation in the post-industrial areas of Britain that are suffering the highest levels of unemployment.

There is something in the professional formation of today’s elites that matters here too. Macmillan was Eton and Oxford educated and he married into blue-blood aristocracy. He was establishment through and through. Yet his generation fought and died in the trenches alongside their fellow Britons of all social classes. His successor generation, which produced the abundant talent of the youthful post-war political class, was also schooled in the collective experience of combat. It formed their character and shaped their concept of public service and the wider common good. Nothing has bound our political leaders to those they serve in the same way since.

It is striking how Macmillan’s generation gave institutional expression to this commitment. As a wealthy pre-war Stockton MP, Macmillan personally funded and guaranteed the mortgage on the local Constitutional Hall, where dances, fetes and rallies were held, and he funded local poverty relief charities. Later, on a grander scale, the Conservative party gave the British working class a direct stake in prosperity. Macmillan famously presided over the construction of 300,000 houses a year as housing minister in the early ’50s; later, as chancellor and prime minister, his orientation to growth and broadly shared prosperity ensured that the economy worked for working people (to borrow Labour’s current political phraseology). Thatcher did the same with council house sales, but within a much more narrowly drawn social demographic, in class and geographical terms. In the 1950s, by contrast, the rising tide lifted all boats.

In 1959, Macmillan had an incredible breadth of appeal, as Thorpe amply demonstrates:  from the deferential working class and the aspirant lower-middle class who shared in rising living standards, to military veterans who admired his war record, intellectuals and academics who liked his seriousness on big issues, liberals who liked his Keynesianism, to patriots, churchgoers and Rotary Club Tories. Only Tony Blair in 1997 comes close to this kind of hegemonic appeal among subsequent prime ministers.

‘The key thing,’ Macmillan said after his 1959 victory, ‘is to keep the Tory party on modern and progressive lines.’ That insight was not lost on David Cameron in 2005, but he inherited a party that had largely lost its left wing. Iain Duncan Smith and others have kept alive a commitment to social justice, and key conservative thinkers dwell on a future progressive agenda. But the pro-European, economically interventionist, socially progressive One Nation tradition is surely now almost extinct. Its remaining standard-bearers are grandees, not rising stars.

Of course, it might be said that this is to look in the wrong place and that contemporary progressive conservatism is simply a different beast to its post-war variety, much as Michael Gove might be said to be a New Labour schools reformer. There is some validity to that retort. But it stretches credulity to believe that today’s progressive conservatives are the modern expression of the One Nation tradition of which Macmillan, Butler, Heath and Heseltine were torch-bearers. They are indisputably Thatcher’s children and mostly very comfortable with that fact.

So much for the contemporary resonance of Thorpe’s work. If that doesn’t engage you, there are some lovely anecdotes in the book which make it eminently readable. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Macmillan was visited regularly at his company’s offices on St Martin’s Street offices by WB Yeats and that, as a minister moving up the departmental ladder in the 1950s, he would give a leaving present to all his private secretaries of a privately printed limited edition of Yeats’ poems, numbered and signed by the great poet himself.

As Ferdinand Mount pointed out in his review of Thorpe’s book, Macmillan was also ‘deeply lonely. He took refuge in West End clubs to an almost pathological extent: Pratt’s, Athenaeum, Buck’s, Guards, the Beefsteak, the Turf, the Carlton – he was in and out of them every day. A member of Pratt’s calling in there one evening in the 1960s inquired whether there was anyone in that night. “Nobody at all, sir, only the Prime Minister”.’

Thorpe records that Tory wags had some great lines on ‘Morrison’s folly’, the Festival of Britain. ‘All Heal let loose’ was one comment. RAB Butler described the Skylon at the Festival of Britain as ‘being like the British economy, without any visible means of support’.  That looks like a quip someone could use today.

Finally, Macmillan’s first rule of politics was probably the truest: ‘Never invade Afghanistan.’

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