Harold Macmillan remains one of the more elusive of the leading politicians of his age. In part, that was an elusiveness of his own making: the great actor-manager was possessed of a natural gift, what Hailsham called his ‘beautiful acting’.
What was that act? It was the air of insouciance; things were either ‘fun’ or ‘a bore’. He gave the impression of being a prime minster that was not going to drown in a sea of papers of work himself into the ground. That impression was added to by his great wit. Both elements might be neatly summed up in his one liner about ‘going to bed with a Trollope’ or his remark about Mrs Thatcher in her pomp: ‘I do wish she would read’. The Macmillan of the grouse moor, ‘the government of chaps’, offered stability in a changing world. And, in his career, he had (until the last years of his government) a good deal of luck: not only had Britain ‘never had it so good’, but when the mud flew (notably from Suez), it never seemed to stick to Supermac.
Macmillan was both a more complex man, and a more interesting one, than the persona let on. He was one of four prime ministers to have fought in the Great War, and one of two to be seriously wounded (the other was Attlee). A phrase current in the Guards was ‘nearly as brave as Mr Macmillan’. He was, in fact, wounded twice: the wound to the hip at the Somme nearly killed him, and ended his war. His wounds left permanent marks on Macmillan, giving him a limp handshake, leaving him in frequent pain and giving him the somewhat shambling gait that became a part of the Macmillan persona. Famously, he claimed to have passed the time whilst spending an entire day wounded in his shell hole reading Aeschylus’ Prometheus, in the Greek, which he just happened to have with him. Yet, the impression of calm assurance should not be overdone. Once helped back behind the lines, he had to make his own way to the dressing station in a blind panic. His recovery was slow, painful and left him prone to bouts of introspection and melancholy. As well showing his courage, the war gave him compassion, a depth of character and a regard for the ordinary man that was to mark his politics.
On the face of it, his background was conventional enough for a Tory politician: Eton, and Oxford. In fact, he left Eton after three years, being dogged by ill health. That, and his near death in 1916, would leave him prone to hypochondria. He flourished at Oxford, where he made many lifelong friendships. Of the 28 Balliol men who went to war, only two came back: for Macmillan, Oxford was henceforth a ‘city of ghosts’.
After the war, Macmillan spent a happy ten months as ADC to the governor-general of Canada, the Duke of Devonshire. There, he wooed and married Devonshire’s daughter, Lady Dorothy Cavendish. Politically, it was a very good match. Devonshire was colonial secretary under Bonar Law, and the families Tory connections were second to none. Not only did the marriage give him access to that network, it also gave him his entre into politics. He was now a part of high society, though never quite fully part. He often found himself somewhat patronised by her family, and the Macmillan of the grouse moor was always, like so much about Macmillan, something of an act (though he taught himself to be a good shot).
Most poignantly, it was not a happy marriage. Macmillan always maintained his love for her, but it was not reciprocated. In 1929, Dorothy Macmillan began a long running and tempestuous affair with Bob Boothby, a fellow Tory MP. She made the running; for Boothby it may even have been a good cover for his bisexuality. Later, Dorothy claimed that the Macmillan’s last child, Sarah, was Boothby’s. Macmillan did contemplate divorce, but in 1930 that was tantamount to political suicide; furthermore, his love for her was genuine, as was his Christian faith. Thus, Macmillan became a celibate husband, his love henceforth unrequited. That it troubled him always, there can be no doubt.
Macmillan entered the family publishing business. He was unusually well read for a politician. At Macmillan and Sons, he personally handled the likes of Kipling, Hardy, Yeats, Hugh Walpole and Sean O’Casey. He had discernment too. Years later he would compare O’Casey to Hardy: both wrote a lot, perhaps too much, but what they wrote ‘came from a deep sincerity’. As prime minister he would famously quip that he liked to wake up to a Jane Austen and ‘go to bed with a Trollope’. Nor were his publishing interests merely literary. He brought economists such as Lionel Robbins on board, likewise the historian Lewis Namier.
Those tastes might give us something of Macmillan’s politics. Namier’s history of the 18th century politics saw politics as an elite contest framed by patronage, the greasy pole and sharp elbows. Whatever one might say of Macmillan in his pomp, he certainly did not lack an interest in the political dark arts. Interestingly, though, the Macmillan of the inter-war years was more of an ideas man. He set out his stall as a reformist, leftist Conservative, attracted to Keynesianism (his brother was a close friend of Keynes).
His outlook was also framed by his admiration for the ordinary working class men he had known in the trenches, and then by his time as MP for Stockton-on-Tees. Most importantly, as MP for Stockton, he saw the impact of industrial decline and unemployment close up. He was also the MP for a marginal seat. In 1923, when he failed to win the first time he stood, he lost to a Liberal: the seat had been Liberal since 1910 (it was one of the industrial seats that, in 1910, saw the Liberal vote go up; it had been Conservative in 1906). In 1929, he lost it to Labour, as he did again in 1945. The three occasions he won were all when a One Nation Conservatism that clearly identified Labour as socialist, and beat them.
Not that Macmillan, unlike Butler, could be described as Baldwinian. After entering parliament, he wrote a great deal. He was one of the co-authors of Industry and the State, which argued for a partnership between government and both sides of industry. He was also sympathetic to the proto-Keynesianism of Lloyd George’s Yellow Book. Nor was he without influence. The government’s de-rating measures were in part his idea, and he worked on them closely with the chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill. A series of pamphlets and books followed, culminating in the publication of The Middle Way, in 1938. Years later, Clement Attlee would describe the inter-war Macmillan as ‘a real left wing radical’ and believed that Macmillan had seriously considered crossing the floor and that, if he had, he would have led Labour at some point.
There were question marks from some over Macmillan’s loyalty to his party. He had shown some interests in Mosley’s economic thinking, both when he was in Labour and even at the time of the New Party. Between 1935 and 1937, he was strongly associated with the Next Five Years group, a cross party body with connections to the likes of Lloyd George. He voted against the government over the Unemployed Insured Bill. He stayed loyal to the Conservatives, though, in part thanks to political instinct and in part out of unfulfilled ambition.
What brought Macmillan into open conflict with his own government was appeasement. He openly opposed the Hoare-Laval Pact, and criticised the government’s lack of response to Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. He voted against the government in 1936 over Abyssinia, and resigned the Conservative whip. Though he took the whip again in 1937, though he momentarily wavered over Munich a year later; he became one of Chamberlain’s most active and outspoken critics. He grew closer to Churchill, more so to Eden. He voted against the government again in November 1938, and at the same time was talking to Labour’s Hugh Dalton about a ‘1931 in reverse’: dissident Conservatives joining with Labour to form an anti-appeasement national government.
It was never going to work, but it identified him as a coming man. When Churchill became prime minister, Macmillan became PPS to Herbert Morrison, the minister of supply. He would take the same role under Beaverbrook. This gave him a greater role in the House of Commons, as Beaverbrook was in the Lords. His careful handling of Beaverbrook paid political dividends too. They were by no means political soul mates, but years later Macmillan always got something of an easy ride from Beaverbrook’s newspapers.
Macmillan was then sent to North Africa, in an ill-defined role as minister resident in Algiers. Over the next few years Macmillan’s role broadened. At first, he was dealing with Vichy France. He then became the effective go between for Britain, the Free French and the Americans. By 1944, he was in charge of British affairs in the wider Mediterranean and, most of all, in Italy and the Balkans. This was, to say the least, a complicated business, and potentially combustible. Macmillan handled it with considerable aplomb, especially the potentially explosive relationship between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Italy. Below, he is with Eisenhower and Alexander, among others.
It had one particularly unfortunate outcome. Macmillan, as Allied Control Commissioner, was also called upon to advise the military commander, General Keightley. One of Keightley’s most pressing problems was prisoners of war. There were some 40,000 Yugoslav prisoners, as well as Ustachi (Croatian supporters of Nazi rule) and Chetniks (Serb opponents of Tito) on the run. There were also some 400,000 Germans who had surrendered, or were about to. Among them, were some 40,000 who were, in fact, Soviet citizens, mostly Cossacks and White Russians (anti-communists who had fled the revolution). The Red Army was on the Yugoslav border, and demanded that they be handed over. They were. Years later, Count Nikolai Tolstoy would accuse Macmillan of a war crime. In truth, as far as Macmillan saw it, he took a hurried decision to repatriate what were, in effect, Nazi forces.
Certainly, Macmillan was now well schooled in the arts of statesmanship, in what had proved to be an extremely difficult and delicate situation. He returned to domestic politics, to the Air Ministry in Churchill’s caretaker government. He lost his Stockton seat in the face of Labour’s 1945 landslide, but that defeat came with a considerable silver lining. Such was his status now, that he was given the ultra-safe seat of Bromley. The Conservative opposition did not have shadow cabinet posts as such. Thus, over the next six years Macmillan spoke from the opposition front bench on a range of topics. He had lacked a domestic profile: this gave him one. He was also closely involved, with Rab Butler, in the Industrial Charter, which redefined Tory policy largely in line with Macmillan’s own Middle Way. Macmillan was also closely involved in Churchill’s encouragement of moves towards greater European integration, notably in the creation of the United European Movement. This also saw Macmillan side with Churchill more than Eden, who was sceptical.
Macmillan had made himself a significant figure in the Tory front rank, but he was some way down the pecking order from Eden, or even Butler. Whilst older than both, he had the air of a young man in a hurry. His true position could be seen in the cabinet post Churchill gave him in 1951 (one he had to wait a week to find out about): Macmillan was now minister of housing and local government. Labour’s grand designs had ended in something of disappointment: shortages of labour, raw materials and cash had constrained the house-building programme. It was in a direct response to Labour’s perceived failure that, in 1951, Lord Woolton had settled on the figure of 300,000 houses per year (topping Labour’s previous promise of 200,000). Macmillan’s job was to deliver. The problem was that he had no direct control over house building, whether private or public. What he did do was take the lessons he had learned at the wartime ministry of supply and apply them to the peace: he even called the process ‘modified Beaverbrookism’. With the energetic help of his junior minister, Ernest Marples, and much political cajoling, it worked (you can read more here). Macmillan (seen inspecting a new house in 1953) had proved to be a successful minister of a major spending department.
It was to be his only long spell in any ministry. When Churchill reshuffled in 1954, Macmillan got the Ministry of Defence. From it, he became firmly convinced of two things. One was that Britain needed not only its own nuclear deterrent, but a modern one, which by 1954 meant a hydrogen bomb. The other thing he became sure of was the need for Churchill to name the date of his departure, and was pretty blunt in in so doing. When Eden became prime minister, Macmillan got the Foreign Office. It was a job he was pre-eminently qualified for, and wanted: he had always claimed it to be the ‘summit of my ambitions’. It was not, however, a happy experience. Just as Churchill had regarded defence policy as his personal remit, Eden regarded foreign affairs. You can read more about Macmillan’s brief interlude in the Foreign Office here.
In any event, politics conspired to see Macmillan moved on very quickly. Having delivered a pre-election budget designed to help ensure a Tory victory in the 1955 election, Butler was forced to reverse almost all his tax giveaways in the autumn. Eden was faced with a damaged chancellor. He was also faced with a damaged rival, and sought to take advantage of the fact. His solution was to move Macmillan to the Treasury. Macmillan didn’t want to go, but in the end had no choice. You can read more about Macmillan’s time at the Treasury here.
Macmillan may not have wanted to go, but in doing so he got lucky. In his short time there he was well regarded, which helped, but what really mattered was the he was not foreign secretary as the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956. Macmillan was intimately involved. When Nasser seized the Suez Canal, Macmillan was a member of the Suez Committee. He strongly supported the planned invasion: he was seen as a hawk, looking not merely to take the canal, but overthrow Nasser. Like Eden, he saw Nasser as an Egyptian Hitler or Mussolini. The appeasement analogy led both down a lethal political dead end.
When that dead end became all too apparent, especially Britain came under immense American pressure, Macmillan reversed his view completely. Thus, by the time the Anglo-French invasion was launched, Macmillan was already turning against it. There are several ways of interpreting Macmillan’s actions. One is that in changing his view, he was doing his job as chancellor, defending sterling. Another is that he allowed the sterling crisis to ferment without telling the cabinet the full truth, thus allowing Eden to dig himself in so deep he could not get out. Another is that by seeming to support Eden, until he appeared to have no choice but to advise withdrawal, he differentiated himself from Butler, whose duplicity was supposed. The famous Harold Wilson line about Macmillan’s Suez rings true: ‘first in, first out.’ Whatever, it was Eden that was holed below the waterline, and Butler was damaged too; meanwhile, Macmillan survived seemingly intact. And with that would come his chance.
Another way of looking at Macmillan’s conduct was that he had been far quicker than Eden to face reality. As such, he was far better equipped for the top job. Similarly, Butler was never fully trusted by his colleagues. Macmillan was hardly less clever or witty than Butler, and he was certainly more devious, but his persona hid it better. Butler’s sharp impatience with lesser men was not so well hidden. When it came to the dark arts of political manoeuvre, Macmillan was the sharper operator; again, he hid it well.
Looking back, Eden’s departure had the air of inevitability about it. It didn’t seem to at the time. Thus, when Eden resigned, the process of arriving at his successor was hurried. As it was, it was simple enough. The process involved the lord chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, and Lord Salisbury, Bobbetty Cecil to his friends, consulting leading Tories. As Kilmuir famously put it later on, Cecil asking, with his lisp: ‘well, is Wab or Hawold?’
For all bar three, it was Harold. Thus, Macmillan kissed hands. The great actor manager now had the top job.