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The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made by Simon Ball

29 August 2007

May as well start up the reviews with a book that’s tangentially related to my current reading. I’m working through Francis Beckett’s biography of Clement Attlee and re-reading D.H. Thorpe’s biography of Sir Alec Douglas-Home to write a double review article for Political Studies Review, and I ended up doing a bit of cross-checking with Ball’s book just to make sure of my facts. All the more reason to post a review of it here.

The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made by Simon Ball

The old saying about the battles of England being won on the playing fields of Eton is well past cliché by now, but it’s difficult to deny the hold that Eton’s students-turned-soldiers have had over British political history, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. To take one representative sample — the subjects of Simon Ball’s collective biography — four young men entered Eton in 1906, proceeded to Oxford University, served in the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards on the Western Front during the Great War and became members of Winston Churchill’s Cabinet during World War II. One of the four, Harold Macmillan, would eventually serve for nearly seven years as Prime Minister. The other three — Robert Cranborne (known to his friends as ‘Bobbety’, and later as the fifth Marquess of Salisbury), Oliver Lyttleton (later the first Viscount Chandos), and Harry Crookshank — would all hold prominent positions in the Conservative Party. Looking at political history from the perspectives of these four men makes for an interesting and intimate perspective, one worth examining further.

The Guardsmen‘s focus is primarily on Macmillan and Salisbury (as the two who made it farthest up the greasy pole, as king and king-maker respectively), but Lyttleton and Crookshank certainly aren’t ignored by any stretch of the imagination. Ball has crafted his study of these Tory politicians from a staggering amount of personal letters and diaries, pulling together any number of complex narrative threads to weave the four men’s lives together. The history’s solid, the narrative for the most part keeps up a steady pace (though it does get bogged down a little in the intricacies of inter-party politics in the 1930s), and Ball manages to keep the reader engaged in his subjects without sounding overly sympathetic or hostile to any of them. He’s very deft at character sketches: Macmillan’s obsessive and often vicious politicking and Salisbury’s sense of his political destiny come through very clearly, but also with subtlety that keeps them from becoming the caricatures they so often ended up as in the press.

The Guardsmen is in many ways a very sad book, most notably in the later chapters as the friendship between the four men increasingly fragments and unravels. It is not easy to keep friends in politics, as any reader of political diaries and memoirs will note. What makes it all the more sad is that even as Macmillan, Salisbury, Lyttleton and Crookshank were drifting apart, the rising generation of the 1960s found their generation a worthy and easy target for scorn and satire — the play Oh! What a Lovely War!, for instance, is a biting commentary on the entire mindset of those who had fought in the Great War. Where once they had been young dashing heroes, now they were either laughable or pitiful old men, hopelessly out of touch and even viewed by some more radical writers as little better than war criminals for the part they had played in both world wars. The world they had made had somehow fallen away from them, and to a man they almost seemed to end their days in frustration and sorrow. The Guardsmen doesn’t end on a very happy note, but it does illustrate just how much these four men had to sacrifice to ‘play the game’ in their attempts to thrive and stay alive in the delicately cut-throat world of Westminster politics.

– SG

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