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Harold Macmillan: A Biography

Published in History Today

Writing the biography of a living subject must always be a tricky assignment. But delicacy can be carried too far. 'I had hoped', Sir Nigel Fisher writes in his preface, 'to write a definitive biography of this complex and remarkable man. He preferred it to be a political biography, so some of the personal aspects of his life have been omitted at his request. I am content to respect his privacy.'

This is a curious starting-point for a biographer, but it might be justifiable if it cleared the way for an acute political analysis. Nearly twenty years after his retirement, Harold Macmillan's privacy could surely stand a little scepticaI probing of his political career. But Sir Nigel has attempted no such thing. The measure of how he has approached his task is to be found in his source notes: the citations are overwhelmingly from Mr Macmillan's own memoirs, on which he relies throughout quite uncritically, merely throwing in an occasional anecdote from Lord Butler's or Selwyn Lloyd's. No doubt there is something to be said for reducing Mr Macmillan's six volumes to manageable length, but if Sir Nigel considers the originaIs 'not always very readable', his own digest of them is no better, with less excuse. His political narrative is perfectly sound, but it is unspeakably boring: one episode follows another in forty-three short chapters, but his judgements are blandly predictable and stupefyingly banal. Of personality, whether Mr Macmillan's or anyone else's, there is none; of serious discussion of policy alternatives, achievements and omissions there is, if it were possible, still less.

Offering neither the dramatic immediacy of politics nor the critical perspective of history, Sir Nigel's book is thus entirely redundant. Until we get a more ambitiously conceived and authoritatively researched life – in perhaps fifteen years when the records of Mr Macmillan's premiership will be open and his diary presumably available – Anthony Sampson's 1968 Study in Ambiguity remains the best interim biography. It at least asks some questions; while George Hutchinson's 1980 sketch The Last Edwardian at No. 10, written with the full knowledge of the inflation which has some claim to be Mr Macmillan's most lasting legacy, suggests some uncomfortable answers. Sir Nigel does neither.

  • John Campbell is author of a forthcoming biography of F.E. Smith.

Harold Macmillan: A Biography

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982; 370pp.

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