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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.