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