History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan

Martin Farr applauds a new biography of an unusual prime minister

Published: March 27, 2012 at 10:05 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Reviewed by: Martin Farr
Author: DR Thorpe
Publisher: Pimlico
Price (RRP): £16.99


There are few, if any, front-rank British politicians of the modern era who are as interesting as individuals as they were important as actors. The subject of DR Thorpe’s new life is one. 

‘Actor’ has a dual, and not usually wholly complimentary, meaning where Harold Macmillan is concerned, and the notion of him as, essentially, biddable was reinforced by a later generation of Conservatives who placed as much blame for Britain’s ‘decline’ in his hands as they did those of the socialists.

Macmillan was certainly, at least emotionally, never far from old Labour, nor, indeed, from ‘New’, as is made clear in this deeply enjoyable biography. It is a book that gives due attention to a full life rather than merely a period of prominence. And it sensitively, and pertinently, explores the personal (no modern prime minister had so unorthodox a marriage, and two of his children predeceased him) in a life suffused throughout with melancholy. 

Scholarly, and thoroughly researched, Supermac should nevertheless appeal to the general reader through the accessibility of its prose and the assistance offered by fully placing events in historical context.


It complements Thorpe’s lives of Eden and Douglas-Home to complete a magisterial triptych of high Tory postwar premiers, and deserves to become the standard single-volume life. It is humane, benevolent, and considerable; much like (his critics notwithstanding) its subject.

Dr Martin Farr, Newcastle University


Sponsored content