The Past Masters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In this book, Harold Macmillan, himself a later British prime minister, offers his opinions and judgments on some of the men who preceded him in that high office, the men who were his own “masters” in the art of politics.

Although he was born into the prominent publishing family of The Macmillan Company, Harold Macmillan decided early in life to pursue a political career, to go to the House of Commons. He was much influenced in that decision by the opportunities he had as a young man to observe and listen to some of the leading men of the day. His family estate in Sussex adjoined that of Lord Robert Cecil, a Conservative party leader. John Morley, the Liberal, was a lawyer for The Macmillan Company. Lord James Bryce visited the family frequently, and H. H. Asquith invited young Harold to No. 10 Downing Street on two occasions. Through his acquaintance with such men, Macmillan became persuaded that the pursuit of political office would be an “honourable ambition.”

The Great War of 1914-1918, however, disrupted all personal plans. Volunteering for King and country, Macmillan fought at the Somme, was severely wounded and invalided home. For many months he recuperated. Then he decided he would spend some time learning the family business; his political career was further postponed.

Not until 1924, at the age of thirty, did Macmillan return to his early ambition. In that year, standing as a Conservative, he won a seat in Commons from Stockton-on-Tees, an industrial constituency. As a young back-bencher, Macmillan had little influence and made little impact on the politics of Britain for quite some time. He gave few speeches and worked on committees where he did not attract much attention. Furthermore, by his own account, he was quite modest and self-effacing. But he observed, studied, and continued to learn the art of politics.

A major art in the British parliament was that of debating and speechmaking, and the “best parliamentary debater of his, or perhaps any day” was David Lloyd George. Macmillan first admired Lloyd George from a distance, and then more intimately when Lloyd George took an interest in the young man. A high point of their association came after Macmillan had presented a well-prepared but rather poorly delivered speech to the House. Lloyd George took Macmillan aside and offered him valuable advice on how to be a more effective orator. Macmillan does not say whether Lloyd George’s recommendations made him into a better speaker, but he was most grateful for the advice. The author leaves no doubt that Lloyd George was the greatest of his political masters. To him, the Welshman was a genius; a “giant among pygmies.” And he repeats the tribute that Winston Churchill delivered at Lloyd George’s death: “when the English history of the twentieth century is written, it will be seen that the greater part of our fortunes in peace and war were shaped by this one man.”

The next leader of whom Macmillan writes is James Ramsay MacDonald, who formed the first Labour government in 1924, and later headed a coalition called the National government. Macdonald appeared to Macmillan a complex figure: romantic, handsome, and vain—a perennial actor. It seemed to Macmillan that MacDonald’s political philosophy most resembled the Christian Socialist tradition (“like my grandfather”). MacDonald was certainly not a Marxist as some of his associates were. MacDonald remains a political enigma: a “prince among men” to many of his followers, a double-dyed traitor to those who thought that personal ambition led him to ruin within the Labour Party.

A possible successor to MacDonald as leader of the Labour Party was Sir Oswald Mosley, a “man of ideas ... a man of courage” in whom Macmillan found much to admire. But Mosley, disillusioned with the Labour Party, broke from it and attempted to found a so-called New Party. Macmillan, for a brief time, was nearly induced to join Mosley’s New Party and work to bring...

(The entire section is 1636 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. August 1, 1976, p. H10.

Books and Bookmen. XXI, December, 1975, p. 7.

Economist. CCLVII, November 1, 1975, p. 103.

History Today. XXV, December, 1975, p. 799.

Library Journal. CI, August, 1976, p. 1624.

New Yorker. LII, June 7, 1976, p. 138.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Autumn, 1976, p. 114.