Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years, 1950-1957
Diaries and letters are a special genre from the point of view of the reviewer, because he has to evaluate both the intrinsic interest of the material selected and the editor's work in providing background information to enable the reader to fully enjoy the text. With material like Harold Macmillan's Diaries, there is a prima facie case for having high expectations about the value of the text proper, and indeed the reader interested in British and international politics will not be disappointed. As Catterall puts it in his "Introduction", "Politics are always at the core of this diary."
A quick glance at the List of Abbreviations beginning with the letter "A" can perhaps give an inkling of the variety of domestic and foreign subjects covered: AE—Anthony Eden; ADC—aide de camp; AEU—Amalgamated Engineering Union; AFHQ—Allied Forces Head Quarters (North Africa); AIOC—Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; ANZUS—Australia/New Zealand/United States Pacific security treaty (1951); AP—Associated Press; ASLEF—Amalgamated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. The very unscientific conclusion derived from this not-so-unrepresentative list is that Macmillan often had to deal with trouble-makers at home (the Trade Unions) and abroad (the emerging Third World and the Cold War menace). As might be expected, a large (perhaps the largest) part of the Diaries is devoted to problem-solving: being in the forefront of the political scene, as Macmillan always was in the period covered, means keeping a stiff upper lip against adversity. Thus, the Diaries are peppered with remarks like "The Persian situation is as bad as it could be" (28 September 1951); "The Americans are pressing all the time for a reduction of trade with China by us. They have, in fact, done great injury to Hong Kong" (17 January 1952); "We have been scurrying all this week in a desperate search for timber and steel" (as Minister of Housing, 16 May 1952); "A heavy morning; the Chancellor of the Exchequer is (a) attacking our Housing programme (b) attacking our proposals on Town and Country Planning" (14 July 1952); "It has been an exhausting period—fighting for my own political life and that of the party" (17 July 1952); "The situation in Kenya is ugly" (12 December 1952); "The foreign situation gets more and more complicated" (14 June 1953); "It is not easy to see what the Russians aim at" (27 December 1953); "Some rather gloomy telegrams from Berlin" (14 February 1954); "The Hydrogen Bomb panic is spreading" (31 March 1954); "The news is bad; the Communists seem to be winning all along the line" (17 August 1954); "The Chinese crisis is boiling up" (24 January 1955); "As I expected, the Greeks proved tricky and false" (16 December 1955); "The Government's position is very bad at present. Nothing has gone well" (21 July 1956).
Predictably, knowing Macmillan's tastes (usefully recalled by the editor in his "Introduction"), typical entries on his preferred forms of relaxation read like those of 12 January 1952: "A pleasant shoot in glorious weather—sunny, frosty and still. We got 50 pheasants and a woodcock", 24 August 1952: "A round of golf at 9.15...Motored on later...to Gavin Astor's new Scottish property where we are to shoot grouse and stay a week," and 8 August 1952: "Stayed in bed most of the day. Read Madame Bovary, which I had [not] read for many years. (It is difficult French, full of hard words)," with an addendum on 9 August: "...Having finished Flaubert's masterpiece, I have started on Hugo's. Les Misérables has the advantage of being written in very clear and easy French." Again, on 1 November 1952, after "another heavy week" (31 October), he ends his remarks of the day with "What a relief it is to have Jane Austen to fall back upon in this troubled world!", with a similar conclusion to his long entry on 21 July 1956: "Read and finished Emma. There is nothing like Miss Austen's novels for a state of fatigue such as I seem now to reach by the end of every week."
The entry for 31 August 1952 neatly explains his taste for shooting:
Malevolent readers interested in Tory Party gossip will not be disappointed, as Macmillan's entries at times foreshadow the kind of subdued politics-and-sex mix which has done so much to boost Murdoch's Sunday Times sales—as on 13-15 August 1952:
Equally malevolent readers who look with cynicism at their political masters' cynicism will not be disappointed either, even though the concluding entry (3 February 1957) reflects that "Politicians are not really cynical and self-seeking." Here is for instance Macmillan's tableau of his senior Government colleagues on 27 September 1952:
The plotting and speculation which took place during the summer of 1953, after the news of Churchill's stroke broke among senior Conservatives, is of course described from the inside, with Macmillan's dislike for "RAB" Butler clearly visible. The speculation was resumed in July 1954, when Churchill chose to inform Molotov that he was ready to meet him, and this without the approval of President Eisenhower or the consent of the British Cabinet, thus starting a major row because of the resulting general embarrassment. The value of such diaries appears fully when we have an insider's immediate reflections. We already knew that Macmillan wrote "It was the most dramatic Cabinet which I have attended" in his diary on 9 July 1954, because Horne, who had had access to Macmillan's diaries, mentioned the phrase in his biography2 and Larres made use of it to describe the tense atmosphere in Churchill's entourage in his sub-chapter entitled "Cabinet Crisis in London."3 But now we have the full entry for that eventful day, with Lord Salisbury [see above what Macmillan thought of him] threatening immediate resignation and Macmillan trying to mollify him. The surrounding days are equally informative, with letters to Eden and conversations with Lady Churchill ("His resignation will be her liberation" [16 July 1954]), culminating in the stock-taking of 18 July: "Really, this has been a very strange week. It would be stranger still if the public knew what was going on." On 31 July, as the tension had not really abated, we have a remarkable diatribe against Churchill:
Foreign dignitaries are not forgotten in his portrait gallery. Thus on 22 July 1955—he had now become Foreign Secretary—during a dinner offered by the Soviets: "Bulganin—who looks a sort of French bourgeois mayor [...]. Kruschev is the mystery. How can this fat, vulgar man, with his pig eyes and his ceaseless flow of talk, really be the head—the aspirant Tsar—of all these millions of people and this vast country." Nasser is described as "an Asiatic Mussolini, full of insult and abuse of US and UK" (27 July 1956).
Even though Macmillan probably destroyed the diaries covering the actual Suez intervention, as Catterall explains in his "Introduction" and in a very informative footnote, the entries of the weeks leading up to the decision to resort to military action are of capital interest, with considerations which will ring a bell among readers who followed the process which led to the Iraq war of 2003: "To use force without going to the Security Council is really almost better than to use it after the Council has passed a resolution against it" (10 September 1956) or "On Suez, he [The American President] was sure that we must get Nasser down. The only thing was, how to do it" (25 September 1956), culminating with the last extant entry on the subject, for 4 October 1956:
Now, the main problem with political diaries is that of sincerity—the writer playing cat-and-mouse with the reader by being "economical with the truth" when it suits him. After all, such diaries are not supposed to reach the outsider's eye—but then, as Catterall reminds us, a man like Macmillan obviously felt/hoped/knew that his diaries would be published some day. Thus, he naturally wrote them "for posterity." What they lose in credibility as a secret intimate journal, they gain in interest by indicating what Macmillan wanted to put on record. In the first degree, as an insight into what he really thought at the time, they are of little value—but in the second degree, as revealing what Macmillan thought at the time that future readers should learn, they are of considerable interest. This past master in manipulation (he would not have reached the pinnacle of career politics otherwise) has the ultimate provocative attitude when he writes on 6 July 1953: "When I write this diary, I feel it best to put down quite truthfully what is in my mind. Whether it will (in future years) be of any historical value, depends on absolute sincerity." Of course the diary is of historical value, but more for what his objective insincerity tells us about him than for any subjective "truthful" account which it may contain.
The reading is facilitated by Catterall's unobtrusive footnotes. A clever technique to avoid having to insert a footnote every time somebody is mentioned is the provision of comprehensive Biographical Notes at the end of the book. An Appendix giving the list of members of Conservative Cabinets, 1951-1957, is also useful for situating Macmillan's colleagues, whose names naturally recur in the various entries. Older readers like this reviewer will probably find it amusing that the Editor should have felt the necessity to have a footnote to explain the word "shilling" ("Before decimalization in 1971 there were twenty shillings in a pound, and twelve pence in a shilling"). Conversely, Macmillan's cryptic enumeration, "Pol Roger—a wine, a woman, and a horse" (4 July 1953) would probably have deserved a footnote for the uninitiated, because if the champagne is well known, the name of Churchill's horse is not so well known—and the woman remains a mystery to the present reviewer: but then one can endlessly argue about the right amount of footnotes in such diaries, letters or correspondence. All in all, Catterall seems to have struck the right balance between irritating intrusiveness and culpable negligence. The index, though of course useful, is not as useful as it might have been if more copious. One example: Macmillan's famous phrase on the Americans, "Let us, if we can, be the Greeks of this new Roman Empire," found in the entry for 22 July 1955, is impossible to locate from the index if you do not know the date—nothing at "Greek," nothing at "Roman," no index sub-entry for "America(ns)" or "United States" under "Macmillan, Views and Opinions;" nothing at "United States of America," a long list of sub-entries ending with "see also Anglo-American relations"—a possible lead, but alas a long entry with many subdivisions but no reference to the page where the famous phrase appears. The fat book also has plenty of photographs and cartoons, 47 altogether, which show many of the protagonists mentioned in the entries. As far as Macmillan himself is concerned the most spectacular photograph is no doubt no.7, "Macmillan exploring the flood damage at Lynmouth, 19 August 1952," where he is seen diffidently walking a shaky plank over a waterfall, holding to an equally unreliable "handrail" (a barge pole?). Such a "photo opportunity," as it would now be called, shows that politics is not always an easy way to earn a living.
It will be clear from the above that in spite of the excision of the "purple passage" on the Suez weeks The Macmillan Diaries constitute a source of considerable value for the scholar. All University Libraries will probably have already ordered a copy. History Departments will also naturally want one, so will Departments of Politics and Departments of International Relations—but the book will also be found of great interest by Social Policy Departments, if only because of Macmillan's extensive coverage of housing problems in the Diaries when he was in charge of the Ministry of Housing (1951-1954). Also warmly recommended for the interested layman, of course, as there is no doubt that it is a "good read."
1 Note provided by Peter Catterall: "The family name of the Marquesses of Salisbury."
2 Alistair HORNE, Harold Macmillan: The Official Biography. (1) 1894-1956: The Making of a Prime Minister, London: Macmillan, 1988.
LARRES, Churchill's Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy,
Yale University Press, 2002, p. 348. Reviewed in Cercles: