Tory Leaders We Have known: Harold Macmillan (part two)


You can read about Macmillan’s career up until he became prime minister here, and about his brief spells in the Foreign Office here, and as chancellor here.

Enoch Powell spoke of him as the ‘actor manager’; Lord Hailsham lauded his ‘beautiful acting’; Anthony Sampson wrote of him as a ‘study in ambiguity’. Things that were going well were ‘fun’, less happy moments ‘a bore’. Macmillan’s cabinet meetings were the stage for his sparkling wit. His official biographer, Alistair Horne, thought the style was very much the man. It is certainly true that his demeanour had a political point. The Tory gent on the grouse moor hid a man whose politics were as much liberal as conservative: or, as Peter Hennessy would have it, Whig. It also covered up his fierce intelligence, and his bookishness: ‘the English, they don’t like clever people’. In private, he was dismissive of anti-intellectualism, famously saying of Margaret Thatcher, ‘I do wish she would read a book.’

It also hid a very different man. Before speeches, he was almost physically sick. His personal life was famously troubled. He thought, and worried, deeply about Britain’s economy, and status in the world. He was prone to directly interfering, and intermittently sought to run both foreign and economic policy from number ten. And, rather than the steady as she goes act he put on, he undertook the wholesale redrawing of British foreign policy after Suez and sought to engineer the modernisation of its economy thereafter.

macmillan timeMost of all though, he was a political operator. Even this was often rooted in an inner vulnerability. Upon becoming prime minister, he feared his government might only last six weeks. He claimed to like both Eden and Butler, but ruefully observed that there were no friends at the top. Upon taking the top job, Macmillan set about what was to be one of several reshuffles. By making Butler home secretary, he was identifying him as his de facto deputy and likely heir, as well as promoting him. However, the Tory party at large has never liked moderate or reforming home secretaries. Meanwhile, the three ministers Macmillan believed had supported Butler went to the House of Lords pronto. The elbows were sharp from the start.

Macmillan seemed untouchable. Even the resignation of his entire Treasury team, after he refused spending cuts, seemed to leave him untouched. Macmillan would later see Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch as fanatics; at the time, it was spoken of as ‘a little local difficulty’. Macmillan’s position was in fact secure. After Suez, and Eden’s departure, the last thing the Tories needed was another leadership crisis. Furthermore, in 1957 and early 1958, Labour were ahead in the opinion polls: the Conservatives lost five seats on the trot in by-elections. By the second half of 1958, the Conservatives were ahead again. As ever with the Conservatives, at least until the 1990s, being a winner meant most: Macmillan offered the party its best chance of winning.

supermacIn 1959, he duly delivered a majority of 100: the Conservatives best result since 1935, and one they would not match again until 1983. What brought about the victory is instructive, and helps explain how Macmillan governed henceforth. In the first place, it was a personal triumph. After the crises of 1957, Macmillan’s air of cheerful, measured unflappability hit an appealing note. Vicky’s Supermac cartoon for the Evening Standard may have been a satirical critique of Macmillan’s ability to be elsewhere when the manure headed for the fan, but it also seemed to sum up a strength. He did rise above it.

In 1957, Macmillan had also made his ‘never had it so good’ speech. Reading it, it was a question as much as a claim and the implication was that the prosperity it identified might not be sustainable. But, it was sustainable for now, and it was very much the experience many Conservative voters had. As Trog put it, in the Spectator.


‘Well, gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight’ (The Spectator, 16 October 1959)

This came with another rider: ‘Life is better under the Conservatives: don’t let Labour ruin it.’ When Labour ran un-costed welfare proposals in their 1959 manifesto, the Conservatives leapt on them.


Macmillan had won his big victory, and his reward was a position of ascendancy in his party and in the country that looked unbreakable. He looked to use that position to continue the reorientation of British foreign policy he had begun after Suez: and it was very much his foreign policy. At its heart was the inevitable recognition, post-Suez, that Britain’s place in the world was reduced. In public, he made much of Britain’s world role. In private, he recognised the reality. Britain’s job now was to play its cards above their value, to maximise its status and influence. That fundamental acknowledgement has lay at the heart of British foreign policy ever since (at least until very recently).


To that end, and again recognising reality post-Suez, Macmillan acknowledged the end of empire. Privately, a review he initiated under the cabinet secretary also envisaged the loosening of the Commonwealth, economically at least. Most famously, in 1960, Macmillan made his famous ‘winds of change’ speech in Capetown: black African nationalism’s rise made independence inevitable. For many of his own backbenchers this uncomfortable truth aroused nothing but blind fury, but behind it lay a simple calculation. If independence was inevitable, then better it be on the West’s side than the Soviets.

Thus, underpinning one rational response to Suez was another, even more important one. Like Attlee and Bevin before him, he recognised the centrality of NATO and the relationship with the United States. Now, after Suez, its fundamental inequality was evident to all. Macmillan could have responded in a de Gaulle style huff (Eden might well have done so); instead, he bowed to circumstance and sought, before anything else, to repair the Anglo-American relationship.

He needed the Americans for another reason. Britain had no effective independent nuclear deterrent. By the late ‘fifties we were in a world of ICBMs, not bombs and jets. Britain’s own nuclear missile, Bluestreak, cost £60m and didn’t work. An American air launched system, Skybolt, was ordered: it didn’t work either. In the end, in the Nassau agreement, the Americans got Polaris bases and Britain brought Polaris. It wasn’t really independent, but at least it worked.

JFKWHP-KN-C19791It is also often stated that Macmillan turned on the charm when Kennedy came to power, and that the younger man was won over by the scion of the old world: Britain was, in Macmillan’s words, Greece to America’s Rome. In fact, Kennedy’s relationship with Macmillan was tetchier than is often supposed. Macmillan was consulted over Berlin and Cuba, and some belive he played a role in calming Kennedy. However, at the root of the tensions  was the EEC. By the ‘sixties, the EEC was thriving: the Americans increasingly saw it as the future, something Macmillan feared.

That was part of the logic behind Macmillan’s decision to apply for EEC membership. Apart from the judgement that it was in Britain’s geopolitical interests, which it was, Macmillan also believed it to be in Britain’s economic interests too. By the early 1960s, the British economy was showing signs of the problems that would bedevil it henceforth. Inflation was a constant threat. Sterling was vulnerable, and probably overvalued. British growth rates were historically good, but by the standards of the EEC they were low: half that of Italy or Germany and significantly lower than France (in Western Europe, only the Republic of Ireland had a lower growth rate). Britain’s productivity levels were low; its share of world export markets falling.

Those underlying problems manifested themselves in short-term problems. By the middle of 1962, inflation was running at over 5%. When he became chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd introduced the ‘pay pause’ to counter inflation (a ceiling on public sector pay). It was politically unpopular, and in November 1961, a deal between the Electricity Council and the unions broke it in any case. Meanwhile, unemployment was rising sharply.


Macmillan is often accused of either panic in the face of economic problems or cynical exploitation of ‘stop-go’ Keynesian economics for electoral purposes. There is some element of truth in both charges. The 1959 budget amounted to a pre-election giveaway, and Macmillan’s intervention saw that giveaway go from an income tax cut of 6d in the pound to 9d. In the face of unemployment, a Labour opinion poll lead and the Orpington by-election came Maudling’s ‘dash for growth’. In fact, a sober analysis of policy under Macmillan sees more caution than expansion. It should also be remembered that in the Macmillan years most of the primary economic indicators were better than under Wilson or Heath: inflation and unemployment were generally lower, the pound more secure and growth more sustained.

For Labour, these were the ‘wasted years’. Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ implied a fundamental critique of a British economy that had failed to modernise. For critics on the right, Macmillan’s Keynesianism ensured that the fundamental problems of the British economy remained unaddressed: we were paying ourselves more than we could afford, the trade unions were too powerful and the working classes featherbedded. Both criticisms have elements of truth, but they also miss some fundamental points. Both ignore the fact that the British economy was skewed by high levels of defence expenditure. They also forget the spectre that haunted Macmillan’s generation: the ‘thirties. And not just the ‘devil’s decade’: the fact that the British people had also endured the war, and austerity. If attempts to remedy fundamental problems were half-cocked (the NEDC), misconceived (the Beeching cuts to railways) or killed before birth (the EEC), it should never be forgotten that, as Macmillan had it, we had never had it so good: the years of the post-war consensus saw sustained economic growth, and an unprecedented rise in the living standards of ordinary people.

I have written elsewhere about Macmillan and Europe (see here). For Macmillan, EEC membership offered a way out of Britain’s economic and geopolitical fix. It was also deeply political; in anything Macmillan did, that element was ever-present. Indeed, the nuclear deterrent had the added advantage of deeply dividing Labour. So did Europe. It was more than that, however. By 1962, the shine had come off Macmillan and his government. The EEC represented, in Michael Fraser’s words, the deus ex machina: a game changer.


It failed. I have written about the idea of the establishment, and the sense that the ‘sixties saw the end of a political era, the ‘government of chaps’, here. The notion of the Macmillan government being dominated by the old Etonian guard can be overdone. He had, in fact, promoted new blood: notably the likes of Ted Heath, Enoch Powell and Ian Macleod. However, by 1962, the old air of patrician establishment was turning sour. At the same time, the government’s political troubles mounted. In 1962, Labour had a consistent lead in the opinion polls. Then, in the Orpington by-election, of March 14th 1962, a Conservative majority of 14,760 in 1959 was swept away by the Liberals: Eric Lubbock won by 7,855 votes, in a constituency next to Macmillan’s own. In June, the Tories lost Middlesbrough West to Labour.

p eye macBy July, Macmillan had decided on a reshuffle in the autumn. As part of it, he planned to sack his chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd: unemployment was rising, and the chancellor was damaged goods. He then made the mistake of discussing the idea with Rab Butler, who all too characteristically leaked the story to the Daily Mail. Macmillan then decided he had to sack Lloyd there and then and, in doing so, bring the wholesale reshuffle forward. In all, seven cabinet ministers were sacked, as were a number of juniors. It soon got the nickname of the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan had intended to refresh his government and look decisive: instead, Mac the Knife, or Super-Macbeth, looked either panicked or disloyal, or both. One Liberal remarked ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life’. The Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, called it ‘the act of a desperate man in a desperate situation’.


Then, the government was beset by scandal (again, read about it here). Vassall and Philby were the real deal. The ‘headless man’ was fun, and Profumo had the lot. All this came with the satire boom. The likes of Private Eye and Peter Cook pursued ‘the establishment’ mercilessly: Cook did a particularly wounding version of Macmillan as a befuddled old duffer.  Most of all, Profumo did Macmillan serious political damage, but primarily because it crystallised existing doubts and prejudices. There were mutterings on the backbenches, and even among ministers; the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee talked about the possibility of a new leader. Of the Treasury team that had resigned in 1958, Thorneycroft and Powell had made their peace and were back in government. Nigel Birch had done neither. In the Commons debate over Profumo, he called for Macmillan to go soon, and quoted Robert Browning: ‘Never glad confident morning again’. It stuck.

In the autumn of 1963, Macmillan wondered whether he could, or should, carry on. In September, he had told the queen that he didn’t intend to lead the party into the next election. By October 7th, he had changed his mind. Then, that night, he was beset by terrible pain: he had prostrate trouble. He decided to carry on at first, but when doctors told him he needed an operation, he changed his mind again. Ironically, he the operation would give him twenty years more of vigorous life.


He would slip into the role of elder statesman with a mix of the public ease and grace alongside the prickliness he had shown so often before. His private life continued to be complex. In her last years, Macmillan’s relationship with his wife grew closer, and he was bereft when she died in 1966. His son, Maurice, overcame alcoholism; his daughter, Sarah, did not. Both died before him, something he felt keenly. He sought solace in the company of women, in books, and in writing his six volumes of memoirs. Later, in 1985, shortly before his death, he criticised Margaret Thatcher.

His legacy remains elusive. He had a clearer eye than most about Britain’s changed position in the world, and he realised that if it was to project its power it would be through influence, status and what we now call soft power. He understood something of Britain’s underlying economic problems but, arguably, failed to do much about it. He was a moderniser who didn’t appear modern and who only fitfully modernised. There is at least some truth in the accusation that he was over fond of political manoeuvre; he was also remarkably fearful of losing office (even with a majority of 100). He once explained that he believed his son had not risen as far as he did in politics, because Maurice ‘wasn’t enough of a shit’, whereas he was. Certainly, by the ‘fifties he had developed the sharp elbows needed to reach the top and stay there. Whether, once there, he did enough is still open to question.

Here is Michael Cockerell’s brilliant documentary on the Night of the Long Knives.

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