The Macmillan Diaries, Vol II: Prime Minister and After (1957-66)

Harold Macmillan, "Supermac", was Britain's prime minister from 1957 to 1963. He and Anthony Eden were the only postwar heads of government to keep a regular diary. Macmillan's has now been skilfully edited by Peter Catterall. It is deeply revealing, not only of the man, but also of postwar Conservatism.

In the entry for 9 August 1958, Macmillan summed up the central theme of his administration and of the progressive Conservatism he represented: interdependence. "We had seen the old empire fade away into a new concept. Independence was over; interdependence must take its place." He sought to put Britain at the centre of an interdependent Commonwealth and an interdependent western Europe, while retaining all the rights of a sovereign state, especially in nuclear defence.

Britain's postwar leaders are often accused of lacking realism and therefore clinging to the relics of great-power status. Churchill fought a hopeless battle to maintain the empire. And as foreign secretary Ernest Bevin hoped, by preserving British overseas bases, to raise Britain's status to that of equal partner with the United States and the Soviet Union.
Eden and Macmillan, however, were to follow a different strategy, conceding to colonial-era nationalists in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, in the hope - vain, as it turned out - that they would associate themselves with the west.

But Macmillan's liberal-minded colonial secretaries Iain Macleod and Reginald Maudling did succeed in saving Britain from the futile rearguard actions fought by France in Algeria, or Portugal in Angola and Mozambique.

The old white Commonwealth had been bound together by imperial preference. Macmillan hoped that the new, multiracial Commonwealth might, with western Europe, comprise a "third force": allied to America, but a partner rather than a satellite. Yet, like Eden, Macmillan failed to appreciate that the countries of Asia and Africa would, at least in the first phase of independence, continue to regard Britain as a colonialist power and the Soviet Union as the real friend of peoples struggling to be free, even though the Soviets were ruthlessly holding down an empire of their own in central Europe and the Baltic states.

Macmillan is often criticised for his post-Suez policy of making Britain subordinate to the US, in contrast to Charles de Gaulle, who drew the lesson that only a strong Europe could hope to influence the Americans. Yet, Macmillan's motive for preserving an independent nuclear deterrent, a policy initiated by the Attlee government, was to increase Britain's leverage vis-à-vis the US. Bevin had said that Britain needed to become a nuclear power so that no future foreign secretary would be spoken to as he had just been spoken to by James F Byrnes, the American secretary of state.

Macmillan also sought to strengthen Britain by championing European unity. Indeed, it was he who, in 1961, made entry into the European Economic Community, as the European Union was then known, a prime Conservative objective. Admittedly, he had always been sceptical of the Europe of the Six created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, because he believed that the fledgling EEC would divide rather than unite the continent. He hoped instead for a wider European free-trade area. The Americans, however, did not, in the words of one of their diplomats, welcome "any increase in the number of nations that have preferential access to the Common Market as against American producers". De Gaulle was also hostile and succeeded in scuppering the proposal.

Macmillan's decision that Britain should apply to join the EEC was consequently a second-best solution, a pis aller. But here, too, he was blocked by de Gaulle, though ironically the Frenchman's conception of Europe was much closer to Macmillan's than it was to that of idealists such as Jean Monnet, or the bureaucrats of the European Commission, led by the German federalist Professor Walter Hallstein. Had Mac­millan succeeded in tying Britain firmly in to Europe, he would no doubt be remembered
today as a great statesman, rather than merely a successful politician.

In domestic politics similarly, Macmillan, as a One-Nation Tory, emphasised interdependence. The class war is over, he declared after the 1959 election victory. It was the first time that a party had won three successive general elections with increased majorities. Influenced, perhaps excessively, by the mass unemployment in his Stockton constituency between the wars, he proved to be Britain's first consciously Keynesian prime minister.

Macmillan's philosophy of noblesse oblige, honed perhaps in the First World War, when the first duty of the British officers had been to look after their men, had more in common with Hugh Gaitskell's revisionist brand of social democracy than with Thatcherism. In June 1960 he visited Norway, where the Social Democrats had been in power continuously since the Second World War. Both Sweden and Norway, he felt, were offering voters the kinds of policies that Gaitskell was seeking "vainly to impose on the British Labour Party. If he were to succeed, they too would win power and hold it for a long time."

With the class war over, Macmillan sought to conciliate labour through new methods of economic management - a national economic development council, which was dedicated to planning, and a national incomes commission. And yet, here, too, Macmillan failed. No more than any other prime minister did he discover the secret of securing economic growth, while the search for an incomes policy led the gov­ernment into a long conflict with organised labour that culminated in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79.

Still, when all these criticisms have been made, he did preside over "the affluent society", which gave the British people a higher standard of living than they had ever before known. Nor did he neglect the public services. The agenda of his last cabinet meeting, held on 8 October 1963, just before he was struck down by an inflamed prostate gland, included a discussion of the Robbins report, which provided for a vast expansion of higher education. The report was accepted by Macmillan's successor as prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home.

During his premiership, Macmillan often stayed at Birch Grove, his country house in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex. In 1959, one of his grandsons complained about the noise from all the planes taking off at Gatwick. Macmillan dismissed the complaint. The planes were carrying contented holidaymakers, who had never thought that they would be able to afford to go abroad. When they return, Mac­millan predicted, they will vote for us. As indeed they did. l

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College London, and author of "The Coalition and the Constitution" (Hart, £20)

The Macmillan Diaries, Vol II: Prime Minister and After (1957-66)
Peter Catterall
Macmillan, 758pp, £40

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis