Commentary Magazine

Ministering to Britain

There are two basic stereotypes of politicians, with a great many variations on each. The first is what might be called the “politician-as-conspirator” stereotype: this sees politicians as pursuing deviously their own long-term ends, wire-pullers and intriguers ruthlessly bending events and manipulating people to their own purposes. The second is the “politician-as-weathervane” stereotype: this sees politicians as men without principles, adjusting their policies to events, changing even their public personae to make them more acceptable to the voters, ready to abandon any long-term aims they may happen to have in order to maintain themselves in office. In the context of the United States, Lyndon Johnson would probably fit the first stereotype and Richard Nixon the second. In the British context, Harold Macmillan emphatically fits the first while Harold Wilson represents the second.

The recent publication of the fourth volume of Macmillan’s “memoirs”1 and of Wilson’s “personal record” of his premiership2 provides a good opportunity to examine how well such popular ideas about politicians, their style and motives, stand up. For certainly, to approach either of these two volumes with any hope of historical illumination would be to insure disappointment. Both books are examples of verbal inflation: too many words chasing too few goods. There are precious few “revelations.” There is nothing which will cause us to look at past events in a new light. There is, instead, a self-indulgent torrent of self-quotations from old speeches and a disregard of the reader’s boredom threshold. As historical contributions these volumes provide footnotes for the specialists; as literary efforts they are non-events.

The two volumes do have a certain fascination as involuntary self-revelations: the psychoanalyst’s case notes which provide new insights into the nature of politicians and, indeed, into the nature of the British political system. Macmillan, long since retired from active politics, is writing for posterity; Wilson, still active as the leader of the Labour party, is addressing the voters at the next general election. Macmillan’s world is largely peopled by the dead: John Foster Dulles, Khrushchev, Adenauer; Wilson’s world is that of those with whom he has to live, negotiate, and bargain.

As for our two basic images of politicians, Macmillan, as I noted above, seems type-cast as the devious conspirator-politician. When his book begins he is Chancellor of the Exchequer, with Eden still Prime Minister. When it ends Macmillan has been Prime Minister for more than two years, having successfully held together the Tory party in its retreat from Suez although he was among the most fervent and unrepentant advocates of this adventure in the first place. Chosen as leader of the Conservatives precisely because he appeared to be a traditional tough Tory—an anti-appeasement man in the 30’s in contrast to his rival for the leadership, the elusive R. A. Butler—he completed the liquidation of the British Empire which had been started by Attlee’s postwar Labour government. In this volume the process is only beginning but the trend is already clear, as Macmillan prepares to pull out of Cyprus and sheds the leading Tory diehard, Lord Salisbury, from his Cabinet. On the knowledge of Macmillan’s past record as an enthusiastic European (the previous volume) and his future as an applicant for entry into the Economic Community (the next volume, presumably), it seems reasonable to conclude that all his policies formed part of a grand design, and that when he was acting the traditional Tory statesman it was a charade carried out for the benefit of his party, a cynical exercise in deception calculated to give him greater freedom of maneuver.

This sort of explanation, though it is generally accepted and fits in well with the stereotype, does not to my mind survive a reading of the Macmillan memoirs. What really destroys the stereotype, as applied to Macmillan at any rate, are the unconscious revelations. These suggest that, while he was a ruthless politician and shrewd tactician, there was also a romantic side to his character, attracted by the chance to play the historical roles of British statesmanship. If he acted out what now appear to be political charades—notably the attempts to play the middleman between Washington and Moscow—it was because he enjoyed doing so and because he was able to suspend any disbelief about their efficacy (and, to be fair, they may well have had some marginal value).

In other words, Macmillan’s memoirs underline that being a politician means playing what is often an inherited role—and that it is virtually impossible to act it out successfully in a spirit of cynicism; self-deception comes before the deception of others. Macmillan, in those days of reflected if ebbing Churchillian glory, behaved in the way a British Prime Minister was still expected to behave; this, rather than conscious play-acting, is the simplest and most convincing explanation.



But if Macmillan was a traditional romantic in his postures, he was also realistic enough to recognize a brick wall when he met it face to face. It was the romantic in him which made him an advocate of the Suez adventure to the point where he ignored the warning signals from Eisenhower and Dulles. (Interestingly enough, even now Macmillan considers that it was United States opposition which caused the failure of the expedition, rather than the unrealistic nature of his hope of being able to install a friendly, pro-Western regime in Egypt.) But it was the realist in him which caused him to liquidate the policy which had led to disaster. In many ways, this volume suggests that Macmillan was emotionally on the side of those diehard Tories who throughout the 50’s bitterly fought the disengagement from imperial grandeur; intellectually, though, he knew that the policy did not make sense. It was this quality of imaginative sympathy, rather like a novelist thinking himself into the mind of one of his characters, which made him so successful a politician for so long, not the cynicism and calculation of the stereotype. Indeed, the Macmillan memoirs, despite their ponderous orotundity of style, suggest that one of the key qualifications of a successful politician is precisely a quickness of intuition, a readiness to imagine the hitherto unimaginable—for example, to consider, as Macmillan did when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer but as Wilson refused to do when he became Prime Minister, devaluing or even floating the pound.



Wilson conveniently provides a counterpoint to Macmillan. Although he reputedly modeled himself on the Tory master-tactician, as he saw him, Wilson seems much nearer to the “politician-as-weathervane” stereotype: a model of the politician who, lacking convictions of his own, is prepared to trim his sail to whatever wind happens to be prevailing, concerned only to keep himself in office. The record of the Labour government from 1964 to 1970—the subject of his book—is the story of policies abandoned and reversed: of the long struggle to defend the pound which ends in devaluation, of the determined attempt to maintain Britain’s East of Suez position which ends in withdrawal, of the dream to keep on playing a world role which ends in the application to join the European Community. While Macmillan appeared to be leading his party, Wilson seemed to be led only by events.

This view of Wilson is certainly more convincing than the picture of him—widely accepted in 1964 but destroyed by his actual performance in office—as the archetypal political tactician: unlikable perhaps and certainly not to be compared to Hugh Gaitskell with his moral commitment to policies, but to be admired, if only reluctantly, for his adroitness and dedication to survival. In the event, Wilson turned out to be not Mephistopheles but Micawber, not so much the unscrupulous schemer as the euphoric optimist. Wilson’s record (the “memoirs” for the period are presumably reserved for a later date) does, on the whole, fit the weathervane stereotype reasonably well—with one very important reservation, however. The stereotype assumes that politicians who act without principles necessarily have none; the Wilson volume suggests that an apparently shiftless drift from expedient to expedient is perfectly compatible with what seems to be a genuine, even a deep-rooted, attachment to principles.

Looking at the events chronicled by Wilson himself, one gets the impression more of excessive stubbornness than of excessive suppleness. The reversals of the Labour government’s policies tended to be violent precisely because Wilson was reluctant to modify or abandon them until left no option by events. Wilson was weak precisely where Macmillan was strong: the apparently down-to-earth, commonsensical, numerate Labour politician—with his elaborately constructed public facade as the first British Prime Minister with his feet firmly in the age of technology (this was before technology got a bad name for itself)—turns out, on inspection, to have had a less firm grasp of reality than the apparently anachronistic Tory leader whose manners and style often seemed to be a deliberately theatrical parody of the Edwardian.

Again, the crucial element in Wilson’s performance as Prime Minister seems to have been his own private vision of himself in this role. Macmillan, as I have argued, saw himself still in the Churchillian mold—which is why he carried so much conviction even while he was reversing the historic policies which he had inherited together with his role. Wilson, I suspect after reading his book, was concerned primarily to establish himself as a moral figure: the man of principle, the inheritor of the Labour tradition based on an ideology of doing good. It was a role which perhaps he pursued with all the more energy because of its being suspect in the first place; it was as though he were, if only unconsciously, trying to live down his reputation as the man who had refused to stand up and be counted while Hugh Gaitskell successfully fought and fought again to prevent the Labour party from going neutralist. His career as Prime Minister suggests that no politician is more stubbornly attached to his principles than the one who is publicly suspected of having too few.

This sort of psychological overcompensation mechanism helps to explain a lot about Wilson, and perhaps also about other politicians. For example in this book Wilson tries to present his commitment to defend the parity of the pound as a practical, not a moral, decision; this is not convincing to anyone who remembers the emotion with which he used to denounce those of us who dared to use the word devaluation in print at a time when a change in the parity would have saved years of deflation, stagnation, and rising unemployment. Precisely because of this moral, emotional investment in the pound as a symbol of financial integrity and virtue, devaluation happened at the worst possible moment—when it was forced on Wilson by events, and there was no alternative. In all this, Wilson certainly showed himself a man of high principle who put country before party in his own view of things: after all, his policy probably cost Labour the 1970 election. Unfortunately he also showed himself a disastrous Prime Minister because—unlike Macmillan—he proved to be an insensitive politician who did not recognize the signals warning him to change direction.

A recurring theme throughout his volume is the emphasis on the unexpected event which somehow robs Wilson of the credit which his intentions ought to have won him. Domestically there is the stress on the various strikes which weakened the pound and therefore helped to defeat Wilson’s economic strategy; in Britain, at any rate, this is rather like complaining that the climate prevents tropical fruit from being grown. Abroad, there is the lament that he was betrayed by the hawks in the Johnson administration in February 1967 when on the point of successfully negotiating a formula with Kosygin in London which would have allowed the start of negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam (though no recognition, despite subsequent events, that getting negotiations going is a pretty meaningless and futile exercise while there is not a shadow of agreement as to the possible outlines of a settlement).



So, once again, a stereotype needs revision. Like the politician as devious conspirator, so the politician as weathervane is not a psychologically convincing type. It lacks shade and subtlety. For to think in terms of such crude caricatures—implicit in many current attitudes toward politicians which tend to range from tired cynicism to brutal contempt—is to forget that even politicians have mirrors. It may be the mirror of their own personal code, in which they have been brought up. It may be the mirror of their own parties or friends. It may be the mirror of the media, press, and television. Whatever it is—and whether one tries to explain it in terms of reference groups or role playing, as the psychologists and sociologists might—the very distortions and inaccuracies of political memoirs and records are a tribute to its existence. The way in which politicians try to justify their actions is significant precisely because it reveals what their own ideals are—an attempt to fit events into the patterns of what they would have liked to do instead of what they actually did. Thus the ideal Prime Minister of the Tory Macmillan—implicit in his account of his own actions—is a very different sort of political animal from the ideal Prime Minister of the Labour Wilson.

The Wilson self-portrayal is a reminder that political parties of the Left tend to be parties of morality: that some of the Labour party’s roots, for example, go back to the Levellers and other Puritan sects of the 17th century. As a result, lurking invisibly but omni presently in the book is the specter of the ideal Labour leader—something of a Calvinistic Old Testament character, strong on good works, hard on moral lapses, intolerant of slackness. Hence perhaps the curiously defensive character of A Personal Record, the constant emphasis on how hard Wilson tried and worked, the endlessly boring chronicles of ceaseless activity. This need for self-justification may, of course, simply reflect the fact that the book was written in the wake of an election defeat, or some personal psychological quirk peculiar to Wilson. I suspect, though, that it is also indicative of the attitude of left-wing parties toward their leaders, who are made to feel perpetually on trial and assumed to be corrupt unless they prove the contrary by their actions (leading logically to the Chinese habit of public self-confession).

Right-wing parties, on the other hand, at least of the moderate, non-ideological sort represented by the British Tories, expect their leaders to be successful rather than morally spotless, if Macmillan’s memoirs are anything to go by. The memoirs suggest a relaxed sense of superiority, as well they might given Macmillan’s astonishing political achievement in pulling together a dispirited and disunited party after Suez and leading it to a triumphant election victory in 1959. Unlike Wilson, he does not fight a retrospective running battle with his newspaper critics, nor does he conduct long inquests on his own failures in order to secure a verdict of “not guilty.” There is a deliberate if deceptive air of patrician nonchalance about the writing. It is deceptive in a double sense, because Macmillan is no patrician (though he married into the dukeries) and because in practice he was anything but nonchalant in his style of running his government. For instance, he was far more ruthless in getting rid of ministers than Wilson; those who disagreed with his policies, as his memoirs show, went down the political oubliette.



These books do more, however, than illuminate the differences between the British political parties and the personalities of their authors. They are also revealing about the problems involved in exercising political power. This is particularly true of Wilson’s book. It is interesting in this respect precisely because of its stylistic ingenuousness. Unlike Macmillan, who chops up his material into chapters each of which deals with a specific issue, Wilson’s account of his premiership is strictly chronological—day by day, hour by hour. As a result, it gives a vivid sense of a political leader besieged by events, with important international occurrences taking their place in the same queue as the small change of party political disputes. And although this sort of timetable makes the book dreary reading it also makes it one of the best case-studies ever written of the pathology of power, of the incredible physical and psychological pressures which events can impose on politicians, and of the consequent need for an effective filtering system to distinguish the key messages coming in from mere background noise. (This, in turn, points to the difficult question of who should control the filtering process—and the importance of those chosen by the political executive to select the key messsages on his behalf.)

Given Wilson’s obsessive memory, the omissions from his book are all the more interesting. They suggest that for a politician, the capacity to forget may be almost as important as the ability to remember: that if he cannot reinterpret events to his own satisfaction, he must diminish their importance to the vanishing point. The politician cannot afford to have the pea of intellectual self-doubt under his mattress. Characteristically Wilson dismisses Britain’s once famous National Plan in a brief half-page; no one reading this book would realize that the Plan was the centerpiece of the Wilson government’s economic strategy—an attempt to emulate French-style planning which, it was hoped and promised, would introduce an era of smoothly accelerating economic expansion.

Equally these books suggest that politicians develop another psychological defense strategy: this is to narrow their interests (always assuming, of course, that they are not successful politicians precisely because of a monomaniacal interest in politics). The years covered by the two memoirs were an exceptionally interesting period in Britain’s history, and not just because the country was trying to find a new international role, indeed almost a new national identity. Behind the crises of imperial disengagement, behind the crises of economic readjustment—faithfully recorded by the two ex-Prime Ministers—the country was undergoing rapid social and cultural changes. While politically the Macmillan-Wilson generations were still in power, culturally a much younger generation was taking over. In turn, there was a shift in public morality reflected in changes in public policy. Of this, there is hardly any hint in these memoirs. Macmillan openly shrinks from the subject, while Wilson simply omits any mention of what was after all one of the great achievements presided over by his government. Between 1964 and 1970, homosexual conduct between consenting adults in private was legalized, the divorce laws were liberalized, and publicly-regulated abortion was introduced. So anxious throughout his book to salvage credit even from disaster, Wilson refuses to take it in this instance. Is it that he thinks there are no votes to be gained from this kind of issue? Or is it because he himself is just not concerned, or even hostile?



Conceivably the stylistic coarseness of these two books—the reach-me-down 19th-century style of Macmillan and the computer prose of Wilson—reflects a coarsening of the perceptions in a more general way. The intriguing question is whether this kind of coarsening is the occupational hazard of politicians, or whether there is some process of natural selection whereby only those capable of taking a one-eyed view of life come to the top. Macmillan’s story suggests the first explanation: enough hints of a once-sensitive intellectual come through to suggest that he was at least partly stunted by his environment. Wilson’s book suggests the latter explanation: of a man who in politics has found his natural, inescapable vocation.




1 Riding the Storm: 1956-1959, Harper & Row, 786 pp., $15.00.

2 A Personal Record: The Labour Government 1964-1970, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 836 pp., $15.00.

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