Tillerscast 12: Macmillan’s Tories – Where did it all go Wrong?


So, what went wrong?

ONE – Prime ministers have sell-by dates

You can read about Macmillan as PM here

TWO – Macmillan was insecure

‘No friends at the top’; ‘A little local difficulty’; the black dog, Mac the knife

THREE – Labour were often in a stronger position than we remember

  • In the Conservative years, Labour were often ahead in the polls
  • By elections
    • 57/58 Lab won 4 from Cons
    • 62/64 Lab won 6
    • Labour were divided, but recovered
  • Gaitskell: the lost leader, best pm we never had?
  • Wilson: according to Peter Hennessey, the best opposition leader of the century

FOUR – The Liberals recovered


  • Jo Grimmond became leader in 1956
  • Recovery (see above)
  • May and June 1962: 21% in the polls
  • Orpington by-election, March 1962; Eric Lubbock, 7,885 Liberal majority on 26% swing


FIVE – There were policy problems

  • Economy: pay pause, sterling, rising unemployment
  • Europe
    • Rab Butler, as indiscreet as ever, told one journalist that ‘the engine had fallen out of the entire government strategy’; he told the young Antony Wedgwood Benn that it was ‘a much bigger shock for us than you chaps realised.’
    • The Conservative journalist Patrick Cosgrave acknowledged that Britain and Macmillan had been ‘humiliated in the eyes of the world’; worse still, the EEC application ‘represented Macmillan’s only hope of breaking out of a cycle of decline at home’.
    • It is worth quoting the views of Michael Fraser, the head of the Conservative Research Department, as given with hindsight:

Europe was to be our deus ex machina. It was to create a new contemporary political argument with insular socialism, dish the Liberals by stealing their clothes; give us something new after12-13 years; act as the catalyst of modernisation; give us a new place in the international sun. It was Macmillan’s ace, and de Gaulle trumped it. The Conservatives never really recovered.

You can read about Macmillan and Europe here

  • Policy problems
  • Underlying strengths?
    • Consumption, dash for growth
    • Immigration: the racist vote?
    • Party of government
    • Safety first
    • Nearly won under Home
  1. Politics


  • Macmillan was damaged goods: scandal, policy, Europe
  • The Night of the Long Knives
    • 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’.

p eye mac

  1. 1964: Wilson, Home and the Liberals


  • As the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Washad it, Home vs Wilson was Dull Alec vs Smart Alec.
  • Wilson
  • The Home question. You can read about Home as leader here
  • 1964
    • By polling day, a Labour score that had been as high as 50% in the polls was reduced to a vote of 44%, hardly more than in 1959.
    • The Conservative score had been as low as 34% in the dog days of Macmillan, and Hume managed to poll 43%. What he failed to do was to kill off a Liberal revival. After their sensational win at Orpington in 1962, the Liberal poll rating, which had been as high as 22%, had slipped back to single figures in 1964. In the end, though, an 11% LIBERAL vote was enough to give Labour victory

You can read about the 1964 general election here

The story of the Night of the Long Knives is told brilliantly here. WATCH


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