Wholehearted Tory but too clever by half

Iain Macleod
October 6, 1995

There has been no biography of Iain Macleod since Nigel Fisher's in 1973, and Robert Shepherd's new one has been sorely needed by students of the postwar years. The availability of the Tory party's archives in Oxford, as well as the release of official records for the 13 years of Conservative hegemony that ended in 1964, has made a scholarly assessment of Macleod's record viable. Shepherd has made full use of these resources, and his own position as a Tory insider has given him access to important private sources of information closed to most academic historians of the postwar Conservative party. The result is an enjoyable, if over-long and detailed, biography, that will almost certainly last as our principal work on this critical shaper of contemporary Conservatism.

The dustjacket rather curiously describes the book as "impartial", although Shepherd proves unsurprisingly to be anything but impartial on his subject. Like Macleod he is himself a product of the Conservative research department, and Shepherd's own record on the wet left of Conservative politics in the 1970s and 1980s has clouded his judgement of the man who traditionally has been regarded as pre-eminent among the consensus-minded Conservatives who the Thatcherites so enjoy sneering at. This is disappointing; particularly so given the author's use of the archives that gives the book its scholarly credentials. Shepherd accepts the orthodox and increasingly anachronistic interpretation of the 1945-79 period which holds that Conservatism was somehow transformed into a pink and vacillating band of lost souls until Margaret came along and set things right. That is, of course, simply Thatcherite propaganda. The records allow for a fascinating reinterpretation of those years, one that Shepherd has missed, and leads to confusion in his reading of Macleod's intellectual development. For Macleod was anything but a closet socialist - and that is precisely why Barbara Castle once commented that he was the Tory whom Labour should fear most.

More than any other Conservative of the 1940s and 1950s, Iain Macleod was responsible for the repackaging of traditional Conservative values to suit the demands of a political climate in which Keynes and Beveridge set the boundaries of acceptable debate. It was Macleod who, in partnership with EnochPowell, firmly and clearly set out the party's arguments against universalism in welfare provision. The One Nation Group, of which he was a founder member, was not by any stretch of the imagination left wing, as the traditionalist school would have us believe. It has been interpreted that way simply because One Nation was willing to address contemporary issues full on; the group's perspective, however, was clearly of the right. Shepherd has missed that point, and his understanding of Macleod rather suffers as a result.

Nevertheless Macleod was both pragmatic and ambitious. His ideological beliefs generally gave way to his political instincts. This is what Lord Salisbury meant in 1961 when, referring to government policy on Northern Rhodesia, he accused Macleod of being "too clever by half". It was a cutting and accurate remark. Shepherd has constructed a portrait of Macleod that captures his cool genius for the game of politics. But we are still waiting for an intellectual assessment of "Macleodism".

Harriet Jones is lecturer in contemporary British and European history, University of Luton.

Iain Macleod

Author - Robert Shepherd
ISBN - 0 09 178567 7
Publisher - Hutchinson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 608

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