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.