Great political plays (No7) Never So Good by Howard Brenton

This play takes its name from Harold Macmillan’s most famous speech where he declared that the British people had ‘Never had it so good’. Times change and people change with them, or not as the case may be. Macmillan has always struck me as a rather odd figure in the line-up of British Prime Ministers. He became leader just as the country was beginning to come to terms with no longer being a world power. His government helped bridge the gap between post war austerity and the collapse of the Empire in the 1950s and the growing confidence and nuclear ambitions of the 60s. However Macmillan himself always seemed to come from another era. He was an old Etonian through and through who could read the classics in the original latin and greek. When he was shot in the stomach during World War One he comforted himself while lying in a ditch waiting to be rescued by reading his pocket copy of Aeschylus.

The First World War is actually one of the recurring themes in this play. His experiences in the trenches shaped his later worldview and despite being seriously injured several times he never quite lost the nagging feeling that he should have died along with so many of his contemporaries. Classic survivors guilt. In the play this manifests itself as Macmillan as a young man shadowing his older self and commenting on the action like a ghostly greek chorus throughout the four acts. These cover key periods in his life ranging from World War One and the beginning of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis and finally his time as Prime Minister.

Threaded in-between these events is Macmillan’s complex personal life. His wife Lady Dorothy Cavendish had an affair lasting decades with his parliamentary colleague Robert Boothby that he tried to ignore, despite the fact that everyone knew about it. This emotional betrayal later fed into his politics cultivating a ruthlessness that few people properly saw or understood. The way he subtly deals with his predecessor Anthony Eden here is less Machiavellian than suggested in the play Eden’s Empire, but no less deadly. It helped of course that the persona he projected to the world was one of slight detachment. He was always the one calm man in the whirling storm that was politics in the post-war period.

Macmillan was a leftist by the standards of the day, and his book ‘The Middle Way’ is still an interesting read as it advocates both nationalisation of certain industries and a minimum wage. Although Macmillan became less radical as he got older he never quite let go of these principles. Equally the play suggests that he was part of a long line of British politicians who were razor-sharp but pretended to be less bright in order to get on in their political careers (Boris Johnson being a modern example). The British public have always been distrustful of intellectuals and this goes doubly so for the Conservative Party.

The thing that most struck me when watching Never So Good is how much of Macmillan’s life paralleled Britain’s decline, and to what extent his values have been disregarded by later politicians. Of course they all pay lip service to the idea of decency and helping others, but its surprising how rarely their words translate into actions. If Macmillan’s political career was a disappointment to him then it should at least be pointed out that he is much better remembered by the British public than some of his contemporaries. His later attacks on the more extreme elements of Thatcherism in the 1980s also endeared him to a whole new generation. As he states at the end of the play:

“My life. Tarnished silver perhaps, but solid. British. With a genuine hallmark: ‘Democratic politician’”.

Here is Macmillan’s obituary on the BBC:

For a full list of great political plays like Never So Good please click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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