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Harold Macmillan

Prime Minister 1958 - 64

When Harold Macmillan became prime minister in 1957, following the disastrous Suez Crisis, he set himself six objectives. The first of these, his top priority, was "to restore the confidence of the people in the government and themselves" (Harold Macmillan Riding the Storm P198). It is revealing that other aims, such as repairing relations with the United States after the Suez Crisis, getting the Suez Canal open again, controlling the economy, all came second to confidence. Macmillan saw himself not as an administrator so much as a figurehead of confidence, and his political nickname, the Great Entertainer is fitting in this respect.


Harold Macmillan was born 10th February 1893, grandson of the founder of Macmillan publishers. After Eton and Balliol College Oxford he served during World War One in the Grenadier Guards and was injured twice. The first injury was sustained at the Battle of Loos in 1915, the second on the Somme in 1916. His second injury, a shattered thigh, resulted in years of hospitalisation. Rehabilitation continued until 1920, when Macmillan went to Canada, working for a while for the governor general, whose daughter he married. This was followed by a career with the family publishing firm. He worked for Macmillans from 1920 to 1940, and 1945 - 51, handling the books of many of the firm's leading authors, such as Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. An interest in politics also drove the young man into a parallel political career. Entry to Parliament came in 1924 as Conservative MP for Stockton. In this early part of his life Macmillan was remarkably close to the Labour Party in his views. In his books Industry and the State (1927) and The Middle Way (1938) he described a moderate philosophy balancing collectivism with private enterprise. Later as prime minister he may have been a figurehead promoting a vague sense of confidence, but the young Macmillan was very much a detailed planner, advocating large scale organisation of industry to avoid inefficient use of resources and labour. Macmillan was an excellent practical leader, good at organising people so that they wanted to work together towards a goal. This was particularly true once World War Two started. Macmillan had never trusted Hitler and had been vocal in his opposition to any negotiation with him. This strengthened his position once it became clear that negotiation had been a mistake. Wartime also encouraged a "pulling together" ethic, and made large scale planning of industry necessary for the war effort. This in turn brought general attitudes around to Macmillan's rather left wing way of thinking. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, jobs were found for Macmillan at the Ministry of Supply, and then at the Colonial Office. This led on to the much more distinguished post of resident minister at Allied Headquarters in North Africa. Macmillan's career in Africa is widely described as highly successful. He had clear goals to work towards, and showed great organisational skills in achieving them. By the end of the war he was virtually running British operations in the whole of the Mediterranean area (see Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher Ch 13 - 14). The world had come to Macmillan, and as the war drew to a close people wanted to retain, at least for a while, the type of society they had got used to in wartime. People were now familiar with the idea of large scale industrial organisation, and valued the ethic of pulling together over free enterprise. Macmillan valued these things too, but he was a member of the Conservative Party, and these were not values naturally associated with the Conservative Party, which suffered a landslide defeat in the 1945 general election.

The Conservative Party spent the next six years in opposition, and to compete with Labour, the party instituted a number of changes designed to make it more generally attractive to voters. The Industrial Charter of 1947 called for policies to maintain full employment, improve social services, and continue strategic control of the economy. This change brought the party towards Macmillan, and when the Conservatives led by Churchill won the 1951 election, Macmillan was made minister for housing. Macmillan was now given a very clear goal to achieve - build 300,000 new houses a year - a target which had been dreamt up as an attractive election promise. Macmillan had to turn an election promise into reality. Showing the same single mindedness and talent for organisation he had demonstrated during the war, the 300,000 target was achieved during 1952 - 53. By 1956, 360,000 homes a year were being completed annually. Macmillan described his housing mission as "a crusade". But it was in achieving this crusade that we begin to see the value of the necessarily less focused politician who would eventually emerge to become prime minister. The goal of 300,000 homes was useful in itself, but it was also an election pledge which would sound impressive and get votes. As part of the bigger picture, Macmillan's great energy, determination and skill in actually achieving his housing target could be judged as unhelpful in the way it impinged on other needs. In December 1955 The Economist said that someone building 360,000 houses a year with gusto and success, while knowing it was causing problems with other priorities, cannot "be regarded as quite the ideal man to do the unpopular thing just because it is right" (quoted in Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher P140). In 1954 Macmillan became defense minister, and then when Anthony Eden took over from an ailing Churchill as prime minister in 1955, he moved on to foreign secretary. Now rising ever higher in government he began to find that leadership, especially at its upper levels, isn't necessarily about getting things done. As foreign secretary for example he found that carefully not doing anything was often the best course. Describing his experience as foreign secretary he said: "Nothing he can say can do very much good, and almost anything he may say may do a great deal of harm. Anything that he says that is not obvious is dangerous, whatever is not trite is risky. He is forever poised between the cliche and the indiscretion" (speech to House of Commons 27th July 1955 - quoted Fisher P150). Now giving the appearance of control was taking precedence over practicalities. It was better to smile confidently than actually risk saying anything.

This approach was to take over as events moved Macmillan towards the post of prime minister. Through 1956 the American and British governments were competing with the Soviets for influence in the Middle East. The Egyptian leader Nassar was offered large U.S. grants to help build the Aswan Dam on the Nile, promising great industrial and agricultural benefits. The Soviets were also offering money, and Nasser finally sided with them, and decided to nationalise the crucial Suez Canal running through Egyptian territory. Eden concocted a bizarre plan where Israel would invade Egypt. This would then allow Britain and France to invade the Canal Zone, in what would appear to be a policing operation, to keep Israel and Egypt apart and protect the canal from damage. The ensuing operation is usually described as one of the most shameful episodes in British history, particularly in the light of classified documents now released for viewing, as described by writers such as Richard Lamb (see The Failure of the Eden Government). The attitude of the government was to gloss over episodes such as the bombing of built up areas in Cairo, and indiscriminate naval shelling of Port Said. When the operation fell apart because of American opposition, you might expect someone who opposed the whole charade to come to the fore. This is not what happened. Deputy prime minister Rab Butler was always uneasy about the Suez operation, but in the wake of the disaster Butler seemed to be an embarrassment. The government, and the country as a whole, did not seem to want a man who could say "I told you so". They instead wanted someone who could make the whole embarrassing disaster go away. So Macmillan, who was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Suez operation, was chosen to replace Eden when he resigned in January 1957. Macmillan's top priority, as we know, was to restore confidence, and this he did by shielding the country from the reality of Suez. By April 1957 the Suez Canal had reopened, and the British government had to decide whether to boycott the canal or accept Egyptian terms of use. With the canal so useful there wasn't much doubt about what the decision would be. The challenge came in disguising this humiliation of having to bow to Egypt. So the end of petrol rationing, caused by the Suez Crisis, was announced on the day of the debate deciding on the British use of the canal. The day after the debate came the first successful British test of a hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island, an event designed to make Britain feel strong and influential once again.



Cold War display at the Imperial War Museum, London

From now on as prime minister Macmillan set about trying to catch that amorphous quality of confidence. During Macmillan's premiership there was much that could potentially damage confidence. Following on from the disaster of Suez, there were many other challenges to Britain's prominent position in the world. As Macmillan said in Cape Town on 3rd February 1960, a sense of national consciousness in British colonial territories was growing. "The winds of change" were blowing through Africa, blowing away the last of Britain's colonial empire. Confidence had to be maintained while this change took place. Britain had to go from world power to a country seeing itself as "plucky underdog," a transition it managed quite well. Retreat from empire was generally presented as a positive thing. Britain was to avoid the French and Portuguese experience of trying to hold onto an empire at any cost in Indo China, Angola and Mozambique. The second difficult issue of confidence involved Britain's development of the new and more powerful type of atomic weapon, the hydrogen bomb. It already seems clear that the test of this bomb on 15th May 1957 had been used to distract people from Suez. As Macmillan said himself not long before the detonation: "We have made a successful start. When the tests are completed as they soon will be, we shall be in the same position as the United States or Soviet Russia. We shall have made and tested the massive weapons. It shall then be possible to discuss on equal terms" (quoted in Duncan Crew's essay on Macmillan in The Prime Ministers). Today countries which already have nuclear weapons moralise about not letting other countries have them. But it has to be said that nations wanting nuclear weapons today are following Macmillan's confidence philosophy of 1957. It feels good to be amongst the nuclear big boys, and bizarrely the knock to confidence which could result from the small matter of potential annihilation is seen as less important.



Through the late 1950s the trick of maintaining confidence seemed to work. The economy was healthy, and with its latest type of nuclear weapons Britain felt, on balance, confident about its international position. Macmillan did his best to maintain a positive air even in trying circumstances. In January 1958 Chancellor Thorneycroft resigned rather than approve projected estimates for government expenditure. Macmillan cooly referred to these problems as "little local difficulties". In July 1958 British and American troops were landing in Jordan and Lebanon to support authoritarian governments there against rebellions amongst their people. According to Duncan Crew, Macmillan wrote in his diary of trying to hide his "sickening anxiety". But he hid it well, and managed to win the general election of 1959. Confidence was such that after this win there was a massive jump in stock prices. According to The Times reporting on the election, "buying orders broke all records" (quoted Fisher P222). This victory, however, marked a turning point. Confidence is amorphous and cannot be reliably controlled. Confidence can start to appear insincere, even dishonest. It is interesting that Macmillan's biographer Nigel Fisher seems to have been infected with a desire to gloss over the painful aspects of life - no mention is made by Fisher of what might be seen as embarrassing events in Macmillan's private life - his wife's long affair with close colleague Lord Boothby for example. There is no doubt that Macmillan had a talent for exuding confidence, and there is also no doubt that this is a valuable talent. But confidence has a life of its own, and eventually events started to move against the government. With the age of empire over, Britain was once again a small island, and this isolation threatened a decline of power and prosperity that no amount of positive thinking could conceal. Realising this Macmillan tried to overcome suspicion of a closer relationship with Europe, and applied for membership of the European Economic Community in 1961. But French president De Gaulle, irritated at British vacillation on Europe vetoed the request. Then in 1962 the Profumo Affair blew up. This huge political scandal had its origins in the summer of 1961, when defence minister John Profumo met a model named Christine Keeler at a pool party at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. Starting a relationship with her, Profumo was unaware that Keeler was also having a relationship with Yevgeny Ivanov, an official at the Soviet Embassy in London. Warned off by the head of MI5 Profumo ended the relationship with Keeler after only a few weeks. But once details leaked out there was a considerable scandal, which finished Profumo's career, and damaged the government's standing. The official report on the Profumo Affair was released on September 25th 1963. Within a month Macmillan had resigned due to ill health.

Macmillan knew that confidence was the key, but confidence cannot be legislated for. The closest we can perhaps get to legislated confidence is in the workings of religion. As Olga Soffer has pointed out, religions present a higher power in which we can have confidence without questioning competence. While in Britain we still have a monarch whose symbolic authority lies above everyday competence, the trick for prime ministers is harder to carry off. For a while they might be able to maintain a statesman-like air which puts them on a slightly higher plane, and many of them through history have looked for this kind of figurehead role. But in the end a prime minister is involved in the hurly burly of events. While monarchs reign on, prime ministers disappear from office.