Half-forgotten figure: Harold Macmillan in his study
Harold Macmillan kept a diary during most of his lifetime. Although he used it as a convenient record of events, it often became more of a ruminative conversation with himself. Thus, one day in 1957, after noting a busy trip to Paris as well as a fresh controversy about the H-Bomb, he wrote: "I had to deliver a speech in the House, about Lord Balfour, moving that a statue be put up to him. It took me a long time and infinite trouble to compose this speech — but the papers scarcely reported it. What a thing is fame! Hardly anyone today has even heard of AJB!"
Coming upon that wistful entry half a century later, one wonders to what extent Macmillan was also reflecting upon his own portion of fame, which was real enough in its day — and upon the certainty that he too would fade from the public memory.
The publication of this final section of his diary, covering almost the entire span of his term as Prime Minister, can scarcely protect his name from oblivion, since he is already a half-forgotten figure. But it will at least revive, in the minds of those still surviving, the strong impression left upon his contemporaries by a singular public figure — one who was also a complicated man of contrasts. To the task of being Prime Minister he brought a refreshing change of style. Whereas politicians often like to cultivate a solemn demeanour that signifies gravitas, Macmillan's preference was to seek to convey good humour and calm. He was a master of the very English art of ironical understatement, which often counts as wit — one remembers his reference to "a little local difficulty" after all his Treasury ministers had resigned in a fury; or "it seems to have gone off rather well" after a thumping general election victory. One remembers too the voice, the easy going patrician tone so well suited to irony, and how its effect was fortified by his physical appearance. He retained a moustache of the type favoured by young officers of World War One, he watched the world from hooded eyes with an air of faint disbelief and courteous scepticism.
It is tempting to dwell upon the personality of this Prime Minister, rather than on the weightier matters of statesmanship discussed in his diary, because to read these daily jottings is vividly to encounter again the man who wrote them. There is enough, for sure, about nuclear test negotiations, about the post-Suez complications, about Middle East alarms and all the other discontents of the age; equally there is material to intrigue the historian about the Profumo affair and the struggles for the succession to the leadership of the Tory party. But what will interest many readers is the implicit self-portrait which emerges from a diary which firmly eschews the confessional mode.