20 July, 2008

Harold Macmillan


Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton was a British Conservative politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963.

Nicknamed 'Supermac', he did not use his first name and was known as Harold Macmillan before elevation to the peerage.

Macmillan was first educated at Summer Fields School and then at Eton but was expelled - according to Woodrow Wyatt - for buggery, though an alternative version is that he left due to illness. He also attended Balliol College, Oxford, although he only completed two years of his classics degree before the outbreak of the First World War.

Macmillan served with distinction as a captain in the Grenadier Guards during the war and was wounded on three occasions. During the Battle of the Somme, he spent an entire day wounded and lying in a slit trench with a bullet in his pelvis, reading the Classical Greek playwright Aeschylus in his original language.

Macmillan lost so many of his fellow students during the war that afterwards he refused to return to Oxford, saying the university would never be the same. He joined Macmillan Publishers as a junior partner in 1920, remaining with the company until his appointment to ministerial office in 1940.

Elected to the House of Commons in 1924 for Stockton-on-Tees, Macmillan lost his seat in 1929, only to return in 1931. He spent the 1930s on the backbenches, with his anti-appeasement ideals and sharp criticism of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain serving to isolate him.

During this time (1938) he published the first edition of his book The Middle Way, which advocated a broadly centrist political philosophy both domestically and internationally.

In the Second World War he at last attained office, serving in the wartime coalition government in the Ministry of Supply and the Colonial Ministry before attaining real power upon being sent to North Africa in 1942 as British government representative to the Allies in the Mediterranean. During this assignment Macmillan worked closely with US General Dwight Eisenhower, a friendship that would prove crucial in his later career.

He was the senior British Operational Officer responsible for Operation Keelhaul, also known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks, the forced and violent repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees from Russia and Yugoslavia to Tito's Yugoslavia in 1945. He is quoted as saying "Since these men will no longer be treated as prisoners, the Geneva Conventions will no longer apply."

Macmillan returned to England after the war and was Secretary of State for Air for two months in 1945. He lost his seat in the landslide Labor victory that year, but soon returned to Parliament in a November 1945 by-election in Bromley.

With the Conservative victory in 1951 he became Minister of Housing under Winston Churchill and fulfilled his conference promise to build 300,000 houses per year. He then served as Minister of Defense from October 1954. By this time he had lost the wire-rimmed glasses, toothy grin and brylcreemed hair of wartime photographs, and instead grew his hair thick and glossy, had his teeth capped and walked with the ramrod bearing of a former Guards officer - acquiring the distinguished appearance of his later career.

He then served as Foreign Secretary in April-December 1955 and Chancellor of the Exchequer 1955-1957 under Anthony Eden. Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party after Eden's resignation in January 1957, surprising observers with his appointment over the favourite, Rab Butler.

The situation with Suez was so desperate that when Macmillan became Prime Minister on 10 January he told Queen Elizabeth II he could not guarantee his government would last "six weeks".

Macmillan populated his government with many who had studied at the same school as him: he filled government posts with 35 former Etonians, 7 of whom sat in Cabinet.

Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in the October 1959 general election, increasing his party's majority from 67 to 107 seats. The successful campaign was based on the economic improvements achieved, the slogan "Life's Better Under the Conservatives" was matched by Macmillan's own remark, "indeed let us be frank about it - most of our people have never had it so good", usually paraphrased as "You've never had it so good".

A succession of prime ministers since the Second World War had been determined to persuade the Americans to share the secret of their nuclear weapons with Britain.

Macmillan was a force in the successful negotiations leading to the signing of the 1962 Partial Test Ban Treaty by the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. His previous attempt to create an agreement at the May 1960 summit in Paris had collapsed due to the U-2 Crisis of 1960.

Macmillan's One Nation approach to the economy was to seek high or full employment. This contrasted with his mainly monetarist Treasury ministers who argued that the support of sterling required strict controls on money and hence an unavoidable rise in unemployment. Their advice was rejected and in January 1958 the three Treasury ministers Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Birch, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Enoch Powell, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, resigned. Macmillan, away on a tour of the Commonwealth, brushed aside this incident as "a little local difficulty".

Macmillan brought the monetary concerns of the Exchequer into office; the economy was his prime concern. However, Britain's balance of payments problems led to the imposition of a wage freeze in 1961 and, amongst other factors, this caused the government to lose popularity and a series of by-elections in March 1962. Fearing for his own position, he organized a major Cabinet change in July 1962 - also named "the night of long knives" as a symbol of his alleged betrayal of the Conservative party. Eight junior Ministers were sacked at the same time. The Cabinet changes were widely seen as a sign of panic, and the young Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe said of Macmillan's dismissal of so many of his colleagues, "greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life".

Macmillan supported the creation of the National Incomes Commission as a means to institute controls on income as part of his growth-without-inflation policy. A further series of subtle indicators and controls were also introduced during his premiership.

Macmillan also took close control of foreign policy. He worked to narrow the post-Suez rift with the United States, where his wartime friendship with Dwight D. Eisenhower was key; the two had a productive conference in Bermuda as early as March 1957. The cordial relationship remained after the election of John F. Kennedy.

Macmillan's term saw the first phase of the African independence movement, beginning with the granting of independence to the Gold Coast, as Ghana, in 1957. His celebrated "wind of change" speech (February 1960) is considered a landmark in this process. Ghana and Malaya were granted independence in 1957, Nigeria in 1960 and Kenya in 1963. However in the Middle East Macmillan ensured Britain remained a force, intervening over Iraq in 1958 and 1960 and becoming involved in the affairs of Oman.

In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev twice interrupted a speech by Macmillan at the United Nations by shouting out "we will bury you" and pounding his desk. Macmillan famously replied, "I should like that to be translated if he wants to say anything".

Macmillan saw the value of rapprochement with Europe and sought belated entry to the European Economic Community (EEC). But Britain's application to join the EEC was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle (29 January 1963); in part due to de Gaulle's fear that "the end would be a colossal Atlantic Community dependent on America" and in part in anger at the Anglo-American nuclear deal.

He also explored the possibility of a European Free Trade Association (EFTA).


He was taken ill on the eve of the Conservative Party conference, diagnosed incorrectly with inoperable prostate cancer. Consequently, he resigned on 18 October 1963. He was succeeded by the Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home in a controversial move; it was alleged that Macmillan had pulled strings and utilized the party's grandees, nicknamed "The Magic Circle", to ensure that Butler was not chosen as his successor.

Macmillan initially refused a peerage and retired from politics in September 1964. He did, however, accept the distinction of the Order of Merit from the Queen. After retiring, he took up the chairmanship of his family's publishing house, Macmillan Publishers.

Macmillan died at Birch Grove, West Sussex, on 29 December 1986, aged 92 years and 322 days.

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