Iain Macleod, 1970
Conservative, under Heath
Iain Macleod was chancellor for just 34 days. His sudden death deprived Edward Heath of his most able minister. There is, inevitably, something of what might have been about him.
He was the son of a Scottish doctor, born in Skipton, Yorkshire. His parents’ families both hailed from the island of Lewis, and his father bought an estate there. Macleod’s romantic sense of Scottish identity never left him. He was not an outstanding student at Fettes, or Cambridge. He loved poetry, was an enthusiastic sportsman and a capable debater. He had no interest in student politics. Instead, he was an outstanding bridge player: he was one of the first players to use and popularise the Acol bidding system. He also developed something of a playboy lifestyle.
That changed with the war. He was wounded in France in 1940. He married in 1942. The raffish note never quite left him: he fired several shots at a friend when drunk in 1943. He landed in France on D-day. By then, he had been to Staff College: it was the making of him. It also saw him decide on a career in politics. Like many of his generation, he made his way into active politics via the Conservative Research Department and, in particular, the new parliamentary secretariat, created to arm a much diminished parliamentary party with primers for use in debates. He was very much on board with the new pro-Beveridge Toryism of the likes of Rab Butler. In 1948, Butler made him head of the Conservative Research Department.
He entered parliament in 1950. Like many of the party’s rising stars, he was a member of the One Nation group. In 1952, he gave a speech on the NHS, directly after Bevan. It was a tour de force, and Churchill was in the chamber (he had come to listen to Bevan, and was about to leave when MacLeod grabbed his attention). As a direct consequence, Churchill made him minister of health. At this time, it was not a cabinet post, but it was a large spending department and a startling promotion.
Ironically, Macleod’s health was not good: he suffered from a painful and degenerative arthritic condition of the spine. His wife Eve contracted polio and meningitis and from 1952 on, was forced to walk with the aid of sticks. As minister of health, his main job was to defend the NHS from hostile Conservatives.
When Eden became prime minister, he made Macleod minister of labour: he was now in the cabinet. He hoped to create a formal apparatus to regulate labour relations and introduce wage restraint, but this foundered thanks to opposition from the unions. Nonetheless, his handling of a busmen’s strike in London made Macleod a nationally known figure.
As a young minister, he was not involved in Suez, but the lessons he drew from it would inform his next post. Macleod was a member of the cabinet committee that planned the 1959 election. Macmillan then made him colonial secretary. It was his finest hour. Macleod, who had no background in imperial or foreign policy, quickly reached the conclusion that Macmillan would give voice to the following year in his ‘winds of change’ speech. Black African nationalism was not going away, and it was the government’s job to make an accommodation with it, and do so quickly, lest Black Africa succumb to the charms of communism.
To do this, he sought accommodation between differing nationalist, ethnic and white settler groups: the objective in each case being majority rule soon. In Kenya, Nysaland (modern day Malawi), Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Macleod came to terms with black nationalist leaders and opened the way for independence. By the time he left the colonial office, in 1961, the die was cast: black Africa was headed for independence and majority rule.
It earned him the undying hatred of Tory imperialists, in part because it was unpopular with white settlers. Throughout the post-war period, until South Africa abandoned apartheid in 1990, there was a substantial body of support on the Conservative right for white rule in Africa. Macleod was not their man.
That partly explains Macmillan’s decision to move him in 1961. He became leader of the House and party chairman (as well as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster). Once more, this came at a political cost. He was party chairman at time of the Orpington by-election and the Night of the Long Knives (he had pushed for a reshuffle); it was also the time of Profumo and Labour had a double-digit lead in the polls and winning by-elections in formerly Conservative seats.
Macleod (pictured in 1962, above, copyright National Portrait Gallery) had been seen as a future leader, but when Macmillan went, Macleod was at a low ebb politically and personally, his daughter was seriously ill. The contest was initially between Hailsham and Butler, then Butler and Home. Macleod had believed Home’s earlier assurances that he was not interested in the leadership: now he turned against him. When Home won, Macleod refused to serve under him.
He became editor of The Spectator. Famously, in 1964 he reviewed a book by Randolph Churchill on the recent leadership contest. In that review, he coined the phrase ‘magic circle’ and described Home’s succession as an establishment stitch-up. With a general election looming, it was hardly the act of a party loyalist.
In fact, years later it emerged that when initial soundings were taken, Macleod had backed Home. Lord Salisbury had once denounced Macleod as ‘too clever by half’, and it might be that Macleod saw himself as a possible dark horse, who might emerge if there was no consensus for either Butler or Hailsham. In truth, Butler was never going to win; neither was Macleod. Both had far too many enemies on their own backbenches. When Home went, Macleod didn’t run against Heath, knowing full well he wouldn’t win.
Home regarded Macleod’s article as an act of treachery, going so far as to believe that it was the cause of the party’s narrow defeat in 1964. That is surely over the top. What it did illustrate was Macleod’s mercurial side. He was an old friend of Maudling’s, but he backed Heath. Heath made him shadow chancellor.
From the front bench, he remorselessly attacked a government that was beset by economic crisis. He wowed the party conference. He was a brilliant orator, the best of his generation. He remained independently minded: he went against the party whip and voted against the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act because it broke promises made to East African Asians.
Nonetheless, Heath didn’t sack him. Whether he would have been a good chancellor or not we shall never know. Just 17 days after taking office, he had an emergency operation; 13 days after that he had a fatal heart attack. He was brilliant, perhaps too brilliant, and too sure of his own liberal convictions to win over a backbench party that contained its fair share of Colonel Blimps. His untimely death deprived party and country of its most gifted minister.