Flapping about in the wind of change

The Macmillan Years, 1957-1963
September 22, 1995

Richard Lamb regards Harold Macmillan as "by far the best of Britain's postwar Prime Ministers". His administration, he believes, "performed considerably better than any of their successors". Yet almost every word of The Macmillan Years serves to belie this verdict.

Macmillan is shown as having entirely misjudged Britain's strength in the world and relations with Europe, while his management of the economy tended to be dominated by electoral considerations. Moreover, his leadership style, far from being calm and "unflappable" was characterised by nervousness, uncertainty and fear of non-existent plots against him by his senior colleagues.

Macmillan became prime minister in January 1957, after the failure of the Suez expedition, a political defeat for Britain of the first magnitude. The French, our partners in that disastrous venture, drew the conclusion that they must distance themselves from the United States; this involved taking the lead in constructing an independent European entity. Macmillan, by contrast, disdained Europe whose leadership Britain could have had for the asking in 1957. For Britain remained a global power through her position as head of the Commonwealth and her "special relationship" with the US, buttressed by Macmillan's personal relationship with Eisenhower, based on old wartime associations.

This proved a sad misjudgement. In December 1962, Dean Acheson, speaking at West Point, declared that the British attempt to play a role outside Europe was "about played out". During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Kennedy had consulted Macmillan only to inform him of decisions already made, Macmillan's responses, according to McGeorge Bundy, being "not very important". The Birch Grove meeting of 1963 with Kennedy, mythologised by Macmillan as a tour d'horizon of world affairs, was in reality devoted mainly to British Guiana and the alleged Communist threat there. Kennedy was "disappointed at what he took to be Mr Macmillan's lack of grip on international affairs", while American officials found their British counterparts "bumbling and old-fashioned".

By 1961, Macmillan had been reduced to the role of supplicant, seeking special terms from the members of the very Common Market that he had earlier sought to disrupt. Even then, he misjudged the position, believing that the Continent remained so grateful to Britain for saving it from Nazism that the "six" would accept almost any conditions to secure British membership. When de Gaulle at Rambouillet in December 1962 made it clear that he would veto British entry, the French president told his ministers that he felt so sorry for Macmillan that he had felt like comforting him with Edith Piaf's words: "Ne pleurez pas, milord". Under Macmillan's leadership, Britain slid remorselessly and humiliatingly into the second rank of nations.

Macmillan is often credited with having reoriented Britain away from Empire and towards Europe. Lamb, however, shows that the prime minister was neurotic and indecisive in his African policy and that the major decisions were taken, often against Macmillan's instincts, by Macleod, Maudling and Butler. Indeed, Butler in 1963, wanted to dictate terms to Winston Field, Ian Smith's predecessor as prime minister of Rhodesia, terms that could have avoided the trauma of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Macmillan, however, frightened of the Tory right, gave him no support. The Macmillan Years should put an end to the idea that the prime minister was in any way a far-sighted progressive on African affairs.

Lamb also casts doubt on the view, propagated by Thatcherites and Tory "wets" alike, that Macmillan was a dedicated Keynesian expansionist. He did, admittedly, search for some alternative to the conventional nostrums of the Treasury under whose aegis Britain seemed condemned to an endless "stop-go" cycle, harmful both to investment and to economic growth; yet he never succeeded in finding one. The new planning mechanisms introduced in 1961 and 1962 - Neddy (National Economic Development Council) and Nicky (National Incomes Commission) - were introduced without consultations with the trade unions who boycotted Nicky. As a result, they achieved little.

Lamb is the first writer on Macmillan's government to have consulted Cabinet papers up to 1963, now released under the 30-year rule. He has also been able to consult formerly closed documents under the Waldegrave initiative, and to look at papers on the Profumo affair from Lord Denning's private archive. The Macmillan Years is a straightforward narrative account, but it becomes at once the best source for the Macmillan administration, replacing the second volume of Alistair Horne's official biography, published in 1989, an artless production whose author was too much in thrall to Macmillan's version of events to produce an objective work of history.

Vernon Bogdanor is reader in government, University of Oxford.

The Macmillan Years, 1957-1963: The Emerging Truth

Author - Richard Lamb
ISBN - 0 7195 5392 X
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 545

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