A Unifier at Number Ten

This is a state-of-the-art British political biography.  D.A. Thorpe has written biographies of Home, Eden, and Sel­wyn Lloyd, as well as shorter studies of Lord Curzon, “Rab” Butler, and Austen Chamberlain.  His knowledge of the principal political actors, particularly on the Conservative side, is prodigious; he convincingly claims to have interviewed “all the prime ministers from Macmillan to Thatcher, ten Foreign Secretaries, ten Chancellors of the Exchequer and eight Home Secretaries.”  The book contains hundreds of acknowledgments.  Its scholarly apparatus includes 150 pages of footnotes.  It is marred by few typographical errors or errors of substance.

But the inexorable chronological march of the book conflates matters large and small, and Thorpe’s evaluation of Harold Macmillan is marred both by his conservatism and by his “presentism.”  For Thorpe,

Macmillan was a great Prime Minister for much of his time in Downing Street, though not quite in the supreme category occupied by Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Margaret Thatcher . . . [H]e did not “change” Britain in the way that Margaret Thatcher did—there was never any “Macmillanism”—but then in 1957 the country did not need a wholesale overhaul.  It needed economic growth.

Not for Thorpe is David Marquand’s evaluation of...

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