First in, first out

The Macmillan Diaries: the cabinet years (1950-1957)

Peter Catterall <em>Macmillan, 704pp, £25</em

Harold Macmillan once memorably observed that whenever he felt bored, he liked to go to bed with a Trollope. Well, I can't say the same for The Macmillan Diaries. They are more than 600 pages long, covering the period from 1950 until he became prime minister in 1957. Although they have been well edited by Peter Catterall there remains much that is convoluted, technical and verbose.

To my fury, they do not cover the Suez crisis, when Harold Wilson accused Macmillan of being "first in, first out". Macmillan claims here that he "mislaid" the volume that he had begun for that period, but he later admitted that he had destroyed it at the request of Anthony Eden. Instead, there are long, rather boring passages on the search for concrete and cement as he strove successfully, as housing minister, to achieve the target of building 300,000 houses a year.

In similar vein, there are interminable descriptions of unending debates within the Council of Europe and other European gatherings about how Germany could be brought into Nato and European defence without upsetting the organisation's allies. I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a German general who said that Germany was always being encouraged to build up armed forces that would help deter the Soviet Union without worrying Luxembourg.

Political diaries are always frustrating. They do not aspire to tell the whole story. They whet your appetite with some fascinating account or revelation, and then never mention the subject again because the author's interest meanders elsewhere. Diaries always intended for publication rarely fall into this trap. The publishers would not let them. It is not clear whether these diaries were written with a view to them being released to the public. In any event - surprise, surprise - Macmillan is the publisher.

But although this book is not a great read it does contain some splendid gems that deserve immortality. Thus, on page 393, we are told about the cabinet discussion on the claim to British citizenship by Prince Ernst August of Hanover, on the grounds that he was a direct descendant of the Electress Sophia. The cabinet was advised by the attorney general that the necessary inquiries had revealed that all her descendants were entitled to citizenship but were, therefore, also subject to the Royal Marriages Act. If the king's permission for their marriages had not been given, the marriages were null and void and the children were illegitimate. Wait for it: this seemed to mean that Lord Mountbatten, whom many people already considered to be a complete bastard, was also one in the more precise meaning of the word.

When the cabinet was not discussing the legitimacy of the Mountbattens (or whether Prince Philip should be given the official title of Prince of the Commonwealth) it discussed the implications of thermonuclear war for Britain's defence policy and how the nation would deal with nuclear attack. Today, when British troops sustain a handful of casualties in wars in Iraq or Kosovo, it is worth being reminded that in the 1950s, there was every expectation that there would be a Third World War, with Britain sustaining the loss of millions of lives.

Indeed, Macmillan reveals that in 1951 the operational plan of the western allies assumed that, in the event of war, the Russians would reach the Channel ports in two months, that most of Europe would be overrun, and that Switzerland might need to be the centre of guerrilla resistance against the Soviet occupiers. No one had informed the Swiss.

The diaries are also interesting in the way they reveal the lifestyle and workload of cabinet ministers in those dim and distant days. Cabinet government seems to have been far more substantial then than now: most weeks, the full cabinet met several times and there were heated discussions of real issues. Today, the real arguments take place elsewhere and cabinets have a rather dreary formality. This is probably because in the past, they were much better at keeping their affairs secret. Winston Churchill had a stroke that incapacitated him for weeks. The nation never knew. Now, whenever Tony Blair sneezes the country catches a cold.

Despite the heavy workload, Macmillan was able to combine his responsibilities with considerable recreation. Pheasants and grouse were regularly slaughtered; between 1951 and 1957 Macmillan read more than 400 novels, memoirs and other literary works. Often on Saturdays he stayed in bed until lunchtime, although, admittedly, he was reading or working rather than sleeping.

One recurrent theme of the diaries is the constant pressure on Churchill from his colleagues to retire and the determination of the old warrior to continue. Churchill won all the way, and stayed in office until after his 80th birthday. This made Eden increasingly frustrated. He was the heir apparent but he had no idea when or whether he would ever enter No 10 as of right. Does it sound familiar?

Imagine if Tony Blair plays the same game with the current Crown Prince. It is the year 2033 and Blair, aged 80, is enjoying his final term as Prime Minister. (Allow me to assume that the Tories have formed several governments in between!) A white-haired, grizzled Gordon Brown can at last look forward to kissing hands with King William. Let us hope that John Prescott is long retired. Just remember, you first read it here.

Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995-97