Harold Macmillan served as Conservative Prime Minister of Britain from 1957 until 1963, in a career full of controversy.

He had entered Parliament as MP for Stockton in 1924, and later also served as MP for Bromley from 1945 to 1964.

In 1951 he became Minister for Housing, and managed to increase house-building to 354,000 in 1954. The Conservative party in 1951 had called for 300,000 houses a year to be built annually; the total that year was just over 200,000, and falling. The new figure for 1954 was seen as a triumph for Macmillan.

Macmillan was made foreign secretary in 1955, and later that year became chancellor of the exchequer. In 1956, he introduced Premium Bonds to the country. 1956 was also to see the start of the Suez crisis which was to have such an impact on Macmillan’s career.

Egypt attempted to nationalise the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956. Israel launched an attack on the area in a bid to gain land, and British and French troops moved in on 31 October, after Egypt ignored an ultimatum to withdraw from the Canal.

The British cabinet was split, and international condemnation followed. President Eisenhower of the US was furious, and put pressure on Britain to withdraw. Furthermore, Macmillan as chancellor was in an awkward position. Britain needed a loan of a billion dollars form the US if the pound was not to be devalued. America refused without a ceasefire in the Suez, and Britain was forced to back down on 8 November. Anthony Eden the British prime minister was worn out from the strain of the crisis, and took a brief period of rest in Jamaica before resigning on 9 January, 1957. Macmillan was named his successor.

In February 1959, Macmillan visited Moscow for talks with Soviet leaders.

An election was called for October of that year, and the Tory party won a majority of 102, running on the famous slogan “You’ve never had it so good”.

British colonial power diminished rapidly during Macmillan’s time as prime minister, as many former colonies, including Cyprus, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya gained varying degrees of independence. In 1960 he spoke in Cape Town, South Africa, saying, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Needless to say, South Africa’s premier, Hendrik Verwoerd, was not the most enthusiastic supporter of this statement, being head of a country still locked in the evils of apartheid.

Macmillan was also a strong defender of Britain’s nuclear weapons. March 1960 saw him reaching agreement with US leaders on a nuclear test ban treaty to be put to the USSR. CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament also came to prominence at this time, with so-called “ban-the-bomb” protests in London and elsewhere. Macmillan, however, purchased US Polaris missiles in 1962.

Macmillan’s fortunes began to fade with a disastrous by-election result at Orpington in March 1962, and in July he carried out a brutal purge of his cabinet, known as “the Night of the Long Knives” after a brutal act by Hitler with rather more sinister consequences, in which he sacked seven senior colleagues, including his chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, the lord chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, and the minister of defence, Harold Watkinson. Overnight, Macmillan’s nickname changed from “Supermac” to “Mac the Knife”.

In January 1963 President de Gaulle of France dashed Macmillan’s hopes of joining the EEC, and his fate was sealed when the Profumo scandal broke in June. John Profumo, the secretary of state for war had become involved with Christine Keeler, a call girl who also “entertained” a Soviet naval attaché. Profumo resigned in June.

Macmillan’s spirits and health began to fail and he was forced to go into hospital. In October he resigned, and was succeeded by Alec Douglas Home, a relatively unknown aristocrat.

Macmillan was later created 1st Earl of Stockton in 1984. He died in 1986.

The Hutchinson Encyclopedia (Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1997 edition)
Chronicle of Britain (Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992)

Node what you don't know

Following the Suez Crisis in 1956, and Anthony Eden’s resignation a year later, the Conservative party was in crisis. It seems probable that had a general election taken place at that point, a Labour victory would ensued. However, in the 1959 election, the Conservatives managed a convincing victory. It would seem that for this we mainly have to look to the leadership of Harold Macmillan. How did he achieve this quite miraculous recovery?

Perhaps at the most basic level, Macmillan was possessed of an affable, if at times haughty charm. While a charismatic leader is certainly always a boon to a party, the way in which Macmillan’s character was perceived is particularly important here. After the debacle of Suez, his Edwardian gentility lent the Conservatives an air of dependability, a characteristic which they have often promoted to their advantage. However, in spite of his antiquated persona, he was also seen by many as a supremely modern politician. His acceleration of the dismantling of Empire and his role in Britain’s membership of the EEC were both forward looking policies of great acumen. Indeed, his development of a relationship with Eisenhower (as he later would with Kennedy), gave him the distinction of being a capable world politician, something which Eden had sorely lacked. It is important to note his skill with the use of television. The irony of presenting his aristocratic image upon the flagship cultural invention of the age was not lost on some, but his talent for broadcast was an invaluable asset to the Conservative party.

Another of Macmillan’s qualities was his desire to be a “one nation Conservative”. His mixture of typical right wing economic pragmatism and a more compassionate spending policy could be labelled “consensus Toryism”. These policies enabled him to appeal to both the middle and working classes, and thus regain the losses that had been made to the Labour party. His willingness to embrace many Keynesian policies allowed him to expand the public sector in a way that a Conservative would not normally. Additionally, although perhaps less admirably, he also employed the old Conservative tactic of manufacturing a small economic boom prior to the election. By decreasing taxes, there was a greater sense of affluence and prosperity in the country, which obviously led to greater confidence in the government. Truth be told, he may have also been the recipient of good fortune, as he benefited from the economic upswing of the late fifties. In his famous phrase, “Our people have never had it so good”, he encapsulated the feeling that quality of life was genuinely rising in the nation. The increasing prevalence and affordability of consumer goods quite simply made people feel better about their lives.

Macmillan’s ambiguity, his mixture of right and left, old and new was in fact an astonishingly useful characteristic. He managed to battle, very effectively, the extremes of his party. While he himself was notably old-fashioned in such matters, he subdued the imperialist, anti-American backbenchers, as well as out manoeuvring those who criticised his economic policy. Indeed, I feel that it is the complexity of his political mind and persona that helped the Conservative party to recover by 1959.

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