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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Macmillan's past really is another country

I am reading Charles Williams superb biography of Harold Macmillan. Which I actually got because I'd been meaning to buy the DR Thorpe one and picked Williams' book up by accident, and I'm very glad I did. It's a superb book and a reminder of how very different the recent past was. I don't think that I like Macmillan as a man as much as I thought I did before reading this book. I had thought that as he was a great anti-Thatcher rebel and the author of The Middle Way, he might be my kind of Tory (not that I'm supposed to have a kind of Tory, as they're all irredeemable and we're only working with them as an act of necessity, in the national interest, ahead of the great day when we shall win a General Election and form a Liberal Government without them). It is hard, however, not to admire him and to warm to him as his years pass. It is impossible to dislike a man who said, at a time when Margaret Thatcher had five Jews in her Cabinet: "The thing about Margaret's Cabinet is that it includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians." Oh, I know Macmillan shouldn't have said that, but interestingly, when the chips were down for Macmillan, as Anthony Julius writes in Trials of the Diaspora:
In his biography of the philosopher A.J. Ayer, Ben Rogers tells of a provision in Eton's governing statute requiring fathers of Collegers (the school's scholars) to be British by birth. Hearing of this in 1960, Ayer, an Old Etonian, wrote to the headmaster asking when and why this particular provision had been added. The answer given was 1945, in order to ensure that the College did not admit 'too many boys who, though themselves British subjects, were alien in outlook and difficult to assimilate into the intimate life of college'. The fear was that the 'over-maturity' of 'sons of Southern Europeans and Middle Easterners' might 'exert a most undesirable influence' on British boys. Ayer replied that this had 'the flavour of anti-Semitism'. Following a private meeting, at which it was conceded that the provision had been aimed primarily at Jews (because they were 'too clever' or 'clever in the wrong way'), it was agreed that the provision would be repealed within a year, and that in return Ayer would not 'go public' on the matter. But the year passed and nothing happened. Then, by chance, Ayer ran into a senior Conservative Party politician and raised it with him. He in turn raised it with the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan. An Old Colleger himself, Macmillan wrote to the School complaining of the anti-Semitic tone of the statute. Within a month, it was repealed.

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