There are times when some of us who are engaged in politics wonder if the British system of government is as superior to the American as we think. In fact has not the world scene altered so sharply in the last few years that the British would be wise to set up a committee of inquiry into the whole question of parliamentary government under modern conditions?
Just for a moment let us contrast the situation of the American president vis-à-vis the British prime minister. A few years ago in Washington I had arranged to meet President Truman at the White House but as it happened he had made his annual State of the Union speech on the previous evening with the result that the morning newspapers were calling for his blood. In the circumstances he would almost certainly cancel my appointment or, at best, give me five minutes of polite talk.
But sharp on time I was ushered into his presence and he greeted me with the smile of a man who had so little to do that he was quite giad to have a visitor. Yet he was within a few weeks of facing his last election.
“Mr. President,” I said, “you surprise me. I expected to find your desk littered with press clippings and I supposed you would
either cancel my appointment or throw me out after five minutes.” Again he smiled. “You must have been reading my press notices. Are they very bad?”
“They were savage,” I answered. Mr. Truman chuckled. “I knew what the newspaper boys would be saying this morning. In fact if any of them had been stuck I could have written their editorials for them.” Then he took my arm and led me to a globe of the world on a swivel.
“General Eisenhower gave me that,” he said. He pointed to Korea. “That’s where our next trouble is coming from.”
The following day, lunching with the editors of the New York Times, I predicted that Truman, then on the eve of an election, would be the next president. The city editor laughed so hard that he actually fell off his chair. But that is part of the charm of Americans. Their emotions so frequently rule their judgment.
My purpose in recalling that talk with Mr. Truman is to contrast the detachment of an American president as compared, say, with Harold Macmillan today. At any time the Prime Minister has to be ready to face the Grand Inquest of the nation when for the first hour of each day’s parliamentary sitting continued on page 66
continued on page 66
London Letter continued
continued from page 10
(except on Fridays) the ministers must meet the onslaught of question time.
At regular and irregular intervals the prime minister presides over the meetings of the cabinet. He has to discuss taxation matters with the chancellor of the exchequer, he has to confer with the foreign secretary on the world crisis of the moment, and he has to talk with the president of the Board of Trade about trade difficulties. Then there are Guildhall banquets and so on ad infinitum.
But the biggest strain of all is the new technique of foreign affairs. Not very long ago, the visit abroad of a prime minister gave him the rest and enjoyment of a sea voyage, or at the very least a Channel crossing. Now he is launched into space like a guided missile and has no time to relax or orientate his mind to the situation.
Consider for a moment the strain as well as the risk of Harold Macmillan’s recent visit to Moscow. Supposing Khrushchev had decided to ridicule him by making him a completely secondary figure. The dictator, supported by a servile press, could have absented himself from this or that official function while pleading the excuse of urgent affairs.
Or suppose Khrushchev had decided to show Macmillan to the crowds as if he were a tame lion in a cage. If this seems an unworthy thought let me assure you that the prime minister was warned that the Russian dictator might well be affronted if too much fuss was made about the visitor from Britain.
In the first Moscow meetings there was a genuine fear that Khrushchev would confine the program to top-level conversations and visits to industrial plants in order to show that Russia was allpowerful in weapons of peace and war.
There were rumors at the time that Macmillan was not particularly pleased with the program that Khrushchev had prepared for him. Merely to be taken around Moscow like a VIP to see and praise the achievements of a Communist regime was not at all what Macmillan intended. He had taken the risk of a calculated affront, of a possible breakdown in such talks as had been arranged, and even a retreat from Moscow only less unpleasant than Napoleon’s.
But being a man of sensitivity and imagination Macmillan recognized that Khrushchev had to present himself to his own people as the gracious all-powerful dictator who was anxious that Britain’s prime minister should be allowed to see the splendors of Communist achievement. On the other hand Macmillan was determined not to play the role of an ardent admirer envious of Soviet success.
Therefore it is not surprising that the tension grew more acute as the visit progressed. Actually there was a moment when it seemed that Macmillan would cut short his visit and return to London. In fact he refused to play the performing bear which dances at the command of his masters. The Moscow newspapers began to resume their usual denigration of the West, and there were threats that Russia would not even discuss the future of East Germany. Inevitably a lot of Britons said that the prime minister should never have gone to Moscow.
Then something happened toward the end of the visit. It was announced that the British prime minister would speak on television and radio to the Russian people. The time allotted, including time for translation, was thirty minutes.
Give credit where it is due. The Russian dictator presented the British prime minister with the freedom of the air.
Not even Winston Churchill at his greatest heights possessed a more sensitive understanding of his task than Harold Macmillan. Slowly, and without bombast, Macmillan spoke to the Russian people who had crowded everywhere to see and to hear him.
Briefly he emphasized British achievements in science, medicine and industry, punctuating the discourse with statistics for a people who have been suckled on them. Then with quiet dignity he told of Britain’s mighty heritage of justice and parliamentary freedom.
He was speaking from a cleverly prepared script — and who wrote it? The author was Harold Macmillan, publisher and premier. Who invented television? “We did,” said Macmillan. “We had television thirty years ago.”
What was the setting in which the prime minister delivered his pregnant words? I* was nothing more than a routine room in a Moscow radio station, with a background of the Union Jack and the Soviet flag and a plain desk. Not once did the prime minister show any sign of fatigue although he had been under heavy strain for hours.
But the night’s work was not all that he did in the twenty-four-hour period. Previous to it he had gone to a long diplomatic reception at the Kremlin where he shook hands with hundreds of people and listened to a very long concert. Not only is it tough at the top but you’ve got to be mighty tough to stay there.
Strangely enough there are some voices in Britain who have chosen this moment to remind us that Neville Chamberlain went to Munich—and look what happened then! But there is this difference. Chamberlain spoke for a Britain that was almost unarmed; Macmillan speaks for a Britain that is armed for the battle of arms or the battle of peace.
As with Chamberlain there may come a time when, looking back over their shoulders, people will say that Macmillan did another Munich. In my opinion such people will be nothing more than idiots howling at the moon.
The cold war of communism vs. freedom will not be thawed by the prime minister's visit, but Macmillan has demonstrated to the Russians that it is possible to have freedom with discipline under a democratic system.
The problems ahead are fraught with danger and embittered with ignorance but the prime minister of Britain has pierced the Iron Curtain and lit a candle in a darkening world.
At the beginning of this London Letter I posed the question as to whether there should be a committee to decide whether our parliamentary system ought to be altered so as to achieve a greater efficiency and a higher degree of democracy.
Certainly parliament should come under constant scrutiny to ensure that it keeps its procedure modern even though it is based on the wisdom of the past.
But let us be careful that we are not bemused by the efficiency of the totalitarian state. Autocracy, at any given moment. is more efficient than democracy. Yet in the end it is democracy that prevails because it is based on the freedom of the mind, the body and the spirit.
That is the message that Macmillan took to Moscow, it
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.