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date: 16 October 2019

Macmillan, (Maurice) Harold, first earl of Stocktonfree

  • H. C. G. Matthew

(Maurice) Harold Macmillan, first earl of Stockton (1894–1986)

by Arnold Newman, 1954

Arnold Newman / Getty Images; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Macmillan, (Maurice) Harold, first earl of Stockton (1894–1986), prime minister, was born on 10 February 1894 at 52 Cadogan Place, London, the youngest of the three children (all boys) of Maurice Crawford Macmillan (1853–1936), publisher, and his wife, Helen Artie Tarleton (Nellie), née Belles (1856–1937), the only surviving daughter in the Methodist family of Joshua Tarleton Belles (1826–1896), surgeon, of Spencer, Indiana, USA, and his wife, Julia, née Reid (1836–c.1860). This was Nellie Belles's second marriage: her first husband, Mr Hill, a young painter, had died in November 1874, five months after their marriage. About 1876 she made her way to Paris, where she moved in artistic circles. In 1884 she married for the second time. Maurice Crawford Macmillan was the second son of Daniel Macmillan (1813–1857), co-founder of the publishing firm of Macmillan, and his wife, Frances Eliza, née Orridge (1821–1867). Following Daniel Macmillan's death, Maurice and his siblings were brought up in the household of their uncle, Alexander Macmillan (1818–1896), who established the firm as one of the leading London publishers [see Macmillan family].

Though both publishing and the United States were to be central to Macmillan's career, his mother seems to have made little of her Indiana connections, her son not visiting the state until 1956 when he was foreign secretary (on the other hand, childhood visits to Arran and the family croft, from which Daniel Macmillan had set out, aged ten and very much a 'lad o'pairts', made a strong impression on the youthful Harold). Nellie Macmillan certainly retained, however, the thrusting ambition for her children characteristic of some mid-western mothers, and was not afraid to make a fuss on their behalf. Her son recalled, 'This was sometimes embarrassing both to my father and us' (Winds of Change, 56). She was also strongly anti-Catholic. Her fluent French was passed to her sons. The young Harold suffered from an English diffidence which belied his American origins and the Scottish background he later made so much of, and at his dancing class he 'first experienced my distaste for any form of joint performance' (Winds of Change, 32). His retiring, distant father and dominant, omnipresent mother provided an unbalanced and rather uncertain parental background for a shy and sensitive child.

Macmillan attended Mr Gladstone's day school near Sloane Square from the age of about six until he was nine. The school was connected with Summer Fields, a preparatory school in Summertown, Oxford, which he attended from 1903 until 1906. From there he won a scholarship to Eton, the chief purpose for which Summer Fields existed.

Eton and Oxford

The young Macmillan had little of the inevitability of success about him. At Summer Fields he was always sent to bed early instead of doing evening preparation and in his first half at Eton he was near death from pneumonia. His body grew too fast, his heart was thought to be overstrained, and he left the school through ill health after three years, spending many months in bed. His lifelong hypochondria dated from this time, initially with justification. At Eton he none the less made important lifelong friendships, including with Henry Urmston Willink, Harry Frederick Comfort Crookshank, and Julian Lambart. He played in the Eton wall game in the year a goal was scored—an unusual event—but he was not a notably affectionate old boy, rarely visiting the college, even when his son was there.

Macmillan's parents were intent on his attending Oxford University and to this end he was privately tutored at home, first by (Alfred) Dilwyn Knox, who proved cold and unsympathetic, and then by his brother Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (sons of the bishop of Manchester). Ronnie Knox was an Eton and Balliol contemporary of Macmillan's eldest brother, Daniel. Harold Macmillan's relationship with Knox was among the most rewarding of his life. Knox was then an Anglo-Catholic, later to be ordained priest in the Church of England (he converted to Rome in 1917). He quickly moved into the moral role of a tutor and encouraged his charge to consider his religious beliefs, taking him to a neighbouring Anglo-Catholic church. ‘Catholic’ to Mrs Macmillan meant Roman Catholic (like many protestants she thought the Anglo-Catholic version more pernicious than the ‘real’ thing) and her reaction was sharp. It was perhaps the swifter for the intensity of the relationship which had developed between Macmillan and his tutor: the latter was, as he wrote in November 1910, 'by now extremely (and not quite unreturnedly) fond of the boy' (Waugh, 106; Evelyn Waugh's biography of Knox, published in 1959 when Macmillan was prime minister, described him and his mother as 'C' and 'Mrs C'). Knox was peremptorily dismissed. Macmillan won the Williams classical exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, a less glittering prize than his brother Daniel, who had earlier won the top scholarship: 'I jogged along behind; but, still, I jogged' (Horne, 1.21).

Macmillan matriculated from Balliol in October 1912. He took a first class in classical moderations in Trinity term 1914, but his war service prevented him taking Greats. His two years at Balliol and Oxford were a liberating experience for him, but not as liberating as for many, for his mother maintained a brooding and intrusive presence in his life. He took his first, vital steps into politics in the Oxford Union, being elected secretary in November 1913 and treasurer in March 1914 (president in June 1914 for the autumn term would have been the natural consequence). Given his diffidence about public speaking, this showed considerable political intention, an intention otherwise absent in his youth. He recorded as lifelong friends met at Oxford, Geoffrey Madan, Victor Mallet, Alan Herbert, Lord Cranborne (later fifth marquess of Salisbury), (Benedict) Humphrey Sumner, and Vincent Massey. But these were the survivors of the war: Macmillan and Sumner were the sole survivors of the scholars and exhibitioners of their year. Knox was Anglican chaplain at Trinity College, next door to Balliol, and their relationship resumed. Rather like that of W. E. Gladstone and A. H. Hallam at Eton a century earlier, it had an intense quality with sexual overtones but almost certainly without sexual fulfilment. Like J. H. Newman, Knox had a circle of which he was the dominant intellectual and emotional focal point; like Newman, when Knox ‘poped’ some followed and others did not. Macmillan, by then at war, was in the latter group, and he remained a devout Anglican for the rest of his life.

For Macmillan, those two years at Oxford later took on a golden hue. Though he always faced the future bravely and was not a nostalgic tory, his good fortune as a surviving representative of that jeunesse dorée impressed him throughout his life, suffused, perhaps, with the guilt which such survivors often felt. In the inter-war years he would only visit Oxford reluctantly: it was for him a 'city of ghosts' (Winds of Change, 98).

The First World War

Recovery from an operation for appendicitis in July 1914 prevented Macmillan immediately joining up, as he wished to do. He then joined the Artists' Rifles, drilling at the inns of court, and was commissioned second lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifle Corps. His mother got him transferred to the prestigious and clubbable Grenadier Guards in March 1915, and in July he joined its new battalion. He first saw action at the battle of Loos in September 1915, being wounded lightly in the head and seriously in the right hand. Such was his bravery on this occasion that, as a contemporary later recalled, 'during the next two years or so anything brave was described by the Guardsmen as “nearly as brave as Mr. Macmillan”' (The Times, 9 Jan 1987). After convalescence, he returned in April 1916 to the 2nd battalion, being stationed at the Ypres salient, and was lightly wounded on 19 July when encountering a German patrol during a reconnaissance mission to approach the German lines and listen. At the battle of the Somme in mid-September 1916 he was seriously wounded in the pelvis and left thigh, though without any bone being fractured, for the bullet was slowed by his water bottle. He lay for a day in a shell hole in no man's land: 'I had in my pocket Aeschylus's Prometheus in Greek. It was a play I knew very well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position … I read it intermittently'. He also feigned dead to deceive a German patrol (Macmillan, Winds of Change, 88). He was rescued at darkness by Company Sergeant-Major Norton, but had to make his own way, in a state of panic, to the dressing station, where his wounds were dressed but not drained, allowing abscesses to form. On his return to London his mother, sensing his imminent death, short-circuited medical protocol and, in Macmillan's opinion, saved his life. He spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital, and unable to return to France. The war left Macmillan with 'a limp handshake, a dragging gait, and sporadic pain' (DNB).

Macmillan and Clement Attlee are the only British prime ministers to have been seriously wounded in battle, and to both of them it gave compassion, resilience, and perspective. Macmillan realized he was lucky to be wounded; he wrote of his war: 'It was sharp. But it was short' (Winds of Change, 91). He admired those who had had to stick it out, despised the contempt for life which he believed some generals had shown, and also felt 'a certain contempt' (in both wars) for those who did not join up (Winds of Change, 99). He was initially supportive of Asquith's premiership—'Mr. Asquith's “Wait & see” is after all the watchword of Nelson, of Wellington & of Pitt. They waited for nearly 20 years, amid disloyalty & impatience at home, until the final moment came' (letter to his mother from the front, 29 April 1916, Bodl. Oxf., Macmillan MSS d 2/2, fol. 24)—but he readily transferred his loyalty to the Lloyd George coalition, believing that Asquith 'had tolerated too long the mistakes of the High Command', and that Lloyd George was 'the man who would get things done' (Winds of Change, 96–7). Despite his wounds, he found army life fulfilling, especially 'the knowledge one gets of the poorer classes' (Winds of Change, 100). His war service and war wounds were of great advantage to him in tory politics, for until the 1960s to have had ‘a good war’, and especially to have been wounded, counterbalanced many an intellectual and political eccentricity. Macmillan did not play the patriotic card; his body played it for him.

Marriage, publishing, and a start in politics

While convalescing, Macmillan broadened and deepened his already well-read mind (he was with Asquith one of the best-read twentieth-century prime ministers). Nevertheless, at the end of the war he had no wish to complete his studies at Oxford (he was awarded an MA for his war-shortened course in 1933), and little inclination to enter the family firm: he sought experience of the world by travel, and hoped the army might provide this. After a series of unsuccessful applications he joined, through his mother's influence, the staff of the ninth duke of Devonshire, then governor-general of Canada. In Canada, in what he recalled as a time 'of almost unalloyed enjoyment' (Winds of Change, 115), he wooed Lady Dorothy Evelyn Cavendish (1900–1966), the third of five daughters and fourth among the seven children of the duke and duchess of Devonshire. She was the first woman to whom Macmillan had been seriously attracted, and was his only love. Said by some to be a shrewd judge of character, she sought, perhaps, a wider intellect than the aristocratic youths among whom she grew up provided. He wrote to her on the eve of their wedding: 'I shall always be your lover', and remained true to his word (Horne, 1.57). His wife's position was to be very different.

Macmillan married into the Devonshires in a society wedding at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 21 April 1920—the bride's side packed with peers, the groom's with publishers and authors who wrote for Macmillans, including six OMs led by Thomas Hardy. After the marriage Macmillan left the army and entered the family firm as junior partner to his brother Daniel and cousin George. Authors for whom he was directly responsible included Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, J. G. Frazer, W. B. Yeats, Hugh Walpole, and Sean O'Casey. J. M. Keynes was a close friend and contemporary of Daniel Macmillan, and Harold recruited several distinguished economists including G. D. H. Cole and Lionel Robbins, and later, among many others, the historian Lewis Namier (who had graduated from Balliol the year before Macmillan arrived there).

There was thus a sharp contrast between Macmillan's professional and domestic milieux. Within the family, he became friendly with the duke of Devonshire, who enjoyed his conversation, but he was patronized by many of his aristocratic relatives and in the early years of his marriage was rather uneasy at Chatsworth. He bridged the gap somewhat by making himself into a competent shot and playing his part on the grouse moors. He lived during the week at his parents' home in Chester Square and at weekends at Birch Grove, the family home in Sussex, his wife usually living there rather than in London. In 1921 the Macmillans' first child, Maurice Victor (d. 1984) was born, followed by (Ann) Caroline in 1923 and by Catherine (d. 1991) in 1926. From 1930 their family included a third girl, Sarah (d. 1970). Birch Grove (which was rebuilt in 1926) was shared until their deaths in 1936 and 1937 with Maurice and Nellie Macmillan. Dorothy Macmillan's children remembered finding their mother sticking pins in a wax effigy of Nellie (Horne, 1.81).

Macmillan's interest in politics led him, and his family connections enabled him, to stand at the general election of 1923 as a Conservative (with protectionist overtones) for the industrial northern town of Stockton-on-Tees, an area with which he had hitherto no contact and of which he knew little. He was defeated by a margin of seventy-three votes in a seat traditionally Liberal but always closely contested. Benefiting from the collapse of the Liberal vote, he won the seat in 1924 with a majority of 3215. He was from the first an assiduous constituency MP, his archive being an unusually rich source for the north-east, and he developed a considerable affection for the people of Stockton. He remained an active partner in the family firm, and, like his publisher colleague John Buchan, attended the Commons from the mid-afternoon on. This somewhat distanced him from the increasing specialization of politics, and gave him independence of position. His business experience gave him authority when he wrote on business and the economy. Though he was keen for ministerial office, he had no need to toe the line, and he did not. He made his maiden speech on the budget on 30 April 1925, supporting its social innovations. Though he never seems to have considered joining any other party than the Conservatives, he was soon seen by the tories as something of a maverick. In 1927, with Robert Boothby, Oliver Stanley, and John Loder, he published Industry and the State: a Conservative View. Influenced in different ways by both Alfred Milner, who had died in 1925, and David Lloyd George, they sought a 'middle land' between 'unrestricted individualism' and socialism, with the chief branches of industry organized by self-regulating industrial associations (Ritschel, 39). Less systematic but similar views were held by many Conservatives in the inter-war period. Macmillan proposed to Winston Churchill (the chancellor of the exchequer) a scheme for alleviating industry by derating; Churchill took it up and it was enacted in the Derating Act, passed in February 1928, a very remarkable achievement for a young back-bencher. It also indicated what was to be Macmillan's position for the rest of the inter-war years: an ideas man, but not an executive politician.

Marital and political failure

1929 was a disastrous year for Macmillan. In the general election he lost his seat to the Labour candidate, Frederick Riley, and about the same time his wife embarked on an affair with the bisexual tory maverick, Robert Boothby. Sarah Macmillan, born in August 1930, was later claimed by Dorothy Macmillan to be Boothby's child (she was not recognized in Burke's Peerage as one of Macmillan's children; though she was registered by Dorothy Macmillan with Macmillan as the father, the birth was not registered until six weeks after the event, on the last legal day for registration; Sarah was not named on the certificate, nor by the standard procedure for later naming). Boothby accepted responsibility for Sarah, though with considerable doubts of his own. It may be that Dorothy Macmillan hoped her claim would encourage her husband to sue for divorce. Macmillan considered divorce (then a disaster for a politician) but, perhaps because of his mother's influence, and more certainly because of his religious convictions and his continuing love for his wife, did not pursue the matter: 'She filled my life; I thought in everything I did of her', he later told Alastair Horne in a poignant interview (Horne, 1.89). A modus vivendi was agreed, which lasted until Dorothy's death in 1966 (Boothby being briefly married to Dorothy's cousin in the interim): Dorothy was to be an impeccable and very effective political wife, Harold a celibate and unenquiring husband. For him it was a dismal lot, but one which in due course settled into something like convenience, bearable since he was not a strongly sexed man, and since he had the consolation of knowing, as he told Horne, that Boothby was 'a hopeless fellow' from whom his wife needed a degree of protection. Lady Dorothy's affair with Boothby was well known among the social and political élite, but was, remarkably, never publicized until after her death. With the start of her liaison, and a recurrence of trouble from his war wounds, Macmillan suffered 'what in fact seemed to have been a full-scale nervous breakdown' (Horne, 1.98). He was for several months in a sanatorium at Neu Wittelsbach, near Munich.

Planning and inter-party co-operation in the 1930s

In 1931 Macmillan easily recaptured Stockton at the general election in a straight contest with the Labour candidate (again Frederick Riley), and he held it in 1935 by a majority of 4068 in a three-cornered fight. He continued his publishing work and became one of those most prominent in seeking inter-party solutions to Britain's apparently intractable economic malaise. He had written to The Times on 27 May 1930 supporting Sir Oswald Mosley's famous memorandum on the economy and after Mosley's resignation from the Labour government had had close contact with him; he did not, however, join Mosley's New Party, though he sympathized with some of its economic objectives. Disillusioned with the National Government of 1931, which he had hoped would provide the sort of integrated approach he sought, he wrote Reconstruction: a Plea for a National Policy (1933) and formed, with Henry Mond, second Baron Melchett, the Industrial Reorganization League to promote 'industrial self-government' and 'orderly planning' of the economy (Ritschel, 195). The league received wide support from both industrialists and financiers. In 1934 Melchett introduced the Industrial Reorganization (Enabling) Bill in the Lords, and Macmillan introduced it in the Commons in 1935 (in 1934 he had carried a motion in its favour at the tory conference, against the platform's opposition). The bill was 'perhaps the one single instance of an attempt to legislate a corporatist economy in Britain' (Ritschel, 209), and it exposed the difficulties of genuinely integrating capital, labour, and government. Macmillan feared that inaction would make revolution possible and perhaps inevitable. He became associated with Reginald Clifford Allen, Baron Allen, a National Labour supporter. Their plans for a political journal failed but they published, together with A. Barratt Brown, principal of Ruskin College, Liberty and Democratic Leadership (1934) and Liberty and Democratic Leadership: a Further Statement (1934), advocating all-party agreement. Other pamphlets followed, such as Planning for Employment (1935), drafted by Macmillan, though in fact marking something of a retreat from central planning.

This movement reached its zenith in The Next Five Years: an Essay in Agreement (1935). As Daniel Ritschel has shown, this was in its specific recommendations much less corporatist than in its general tone. Macmillan tried unsuccessfully to encourage the National Government, of which he was still a supporter, to accept Lloyd George's ‘New Deal’ and he spoke from the platform when Lloyd George launched his council of action in July 1935. Lloyd George in return called for a parliament 'filled with Macmillans' (Ritschel, 277). Macmillan fought the 1935 election as one who both supported the National Government and pursued the objectives of the Next Five Years group. He voted against the government's Unemployed Insured Bill and kept in close touch with Keynes, whose General Theory had recently been published by Macmillans, and whose views, with some reservations, Macmillan commended to the Commons in May 1936. The group around Macmillan was in fact the best political base for Keynesianism, and Macmillan and G. D. H. Cole worked to advance the idea of a popular front against unemployment. But, as with the Derating Bill in the 1920s, sectional interests prevented united action, and the front collapsed.

Macmillan developed his ideas in The Middle Way, published in 1938. Whereas Keynes's General Theory aimed at a non-technical statement of a theoretical critique, The Middle Way tried to offer a reasoned programme of action, Keynesian in character—'a kind of popular version of some of Keynes's ideas' (Winds of Change, 490)—but with a much stronger emphasis on industrial policy than Keynes had offered. It was intended to offer a middle way politically as well as in terms of policy. It was much the most cogent work on the state and the economy published by any of those who became prime ministers in the twentieth century. It left Macmillan still uncertain in his intellectual and political relationship to his party, while, ironically, staking out much of what was to be the tory party's position after 1945. In the late 1940s the book's case against socialism and in favour of a managed capitalism seemed to many tories self-evidently sensible, though in 1938 many saw it as dangerously interventionist.

Foreign policy in the 1930s

Macmillan always favoured linking economic intervention with an interventionist foreign policy. This was one of the difficulties between himself, Clifford Allen, and many of the Labour members of his various groups in the 1930s, not in the case of hostility to the HoareLaval pact—he resigned the government whip when sanctions against Italy were dropped in June 1936 (the only back-bencher to do so), though he resumed it when Neville Chamberlain replaced Baldwin as prime minister in May 1937—but rather over policy towards Germany. In 1936 he established links with Churchill, despite his reservations about Churchill's views on India, and helped to organize the ‘Arms and the Covenant’ meeting at the Albert Hall on 3 December 1936. Baldwin's revival and Churchill's odd behaviour over the abdication of Edward VIII spoilt this movement, but from then on Macmillan moved on the fringes of the Churchill circle (though less directly involved in it than his wife's lover, Boothby). He was more directly associated with the group centred on Anthony Eden after February 1938, known by the whips as the glamour boys. Macmillan was a useful go-between with the Labour Party as it moved towards a more active anti-fascist position. He recalled: 'I thought, as did many with me, that we ought to have fought at Munich' (Winds of Change, 579). Hesitant up to that point—like most members he had cheered Chamberlain's announcement that Hitler had agreed to a four-power conference—and anti-interventionist on Spain, he now became 'a violent partisan' (Winds of Change, 583). He campaigned for national service and against Quintin Hogg in the Oxford by-election in October 1938, and wrote The Price of Peace, which was privately circulated. He was also active in the parliamentary committee on refugees and put up Jews fleeing from Germany and Czechoslovakia at Birch Grove. In 1939 he published Economic Aspects of Defence (with his earlier pamphlet as an appendix), in the compilation of which Thomas Balogh assisted. In March 1939, after Hitler's coup, he wrote to The Times (21 March) advocating 'a National Government on the broadest possible basis', a prelude to the Commons' motion of 29 March which marked the appearance of a tory anti-appeasement group willing to vote against the government.

The start of the Second World War thus found Macmillan in a curious position. His plans for domestic reform, the focus of his political efforts over fifteen years, had come to no direct effect; his recent association with Churchill was soon to bring him close to the heart of government. He had not acted accommodatingly in his economic reform proposals, in the sense that a less strident tone might well have brought him ministerial office, and his association with Churchill was likewise unrelated to short-term political ambition. But not for the last time, a quite dramatic political move placed him in line for power.

The Second World War

Churchill and Eden were at once given office by Chamberlain at the outbreak of war, but not their followers. Nevertheless Macmillan was chosen to lead, with the elderly David Davies, first Baron Davies, a fact-finding mission to Finland in January 1940. Finland had been invaded by Russia following the HitlerStalin pact, but defended itself effectively. Britain, which had entered the war to defend Poland from a similar sort of attack, was in an awkward position, since for the Finns Russia (not Germany) was the enemy power. Macmillan assessed the Finns' position as bad but not hopeless, and telegraphed Chamberlain and Churchill for support. Anglo-French support was promised, but arrived too late, and the possibility of the allies fighting Russia as well as Germany was avoided. In the Commons debate in March 1940, Macmillan wounded Chamberlain through the effectiveness of his criticism. He noticed that neither Churchill nor Eden was present, taking this to imply support for his criticism of the prime minister; but it might have implied embarrassment on their part at the victory of Russia as a necessary evil. He was one of forty-three Conservative MPs who voted against Chamberlain on 8 May 1940, leading to the end of his government.

In Churchill's coalition government Macmillan became parliamentary secretary to Herbert Morrison, minister of supply, a rather lowly appointment but one which reflected Macmillan's reputation as a go-between (Morrison being a Labour minister). His private secretary was John Wyndham (later first Baron Egremont), who was closely associated with him politically and personally until his death in 1972. Macmillan remained at supply until February 1942, with Sir Andrew Duncan and Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, also successively his ministers. Beaverbrook was not in the Commons, so Macmillan handled ministry business there from June 1941. He wisely felt that with Beaverbrook it was sensible to maintain 'a certain aloofness, for there were aspects of his character which I found distasteful' (The Blast of War, 85). Macmillan made a potentially difficult relationship work, and Beaverbrook, when they later had political differences, gave Macmillan an easy ride in his papers. The ministry gave Macmillan the opportunity (backed by government fiat) to introduce the planning he had so long advocated. He did this with some success, though he felt that top-level disputes, especially between Beaverbrook and Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour, unnecessarily complicated matters. His memorandum of 28 October 1941 led eventually to a restructuring of the department, and the creation of a new Ministry of Production, initially under Beaverbrook. Since Beaverbrook was not to have a parliamentary secretary, and since the Ministry of Supply was now to be downgraded in importance, Churchill agreed to find Macmillan a new post.

On 4 February 1942 Macmillan became under-secretary at the Colonial Office. It felt, he wrote, 'like leaving a madhouse in order to enter a mausoleum' (The Blast of War, 161). He was simultaneously sworn of the privy council, an unusual honour for a junior minister. With Lord Moyne and Lord Cranborne successively as his ministers, Macmillan continued to speak for his department in the Commons. Working with Cranborne was pleasant for Macmillan: they were already doubly connected by marriage and that year Maurice Macmillan married one of Cranborne's nieces. Macmillan dealt with colonial economic and trade questions and his energy generated a good deal of planned economic development in the colonies, especially in rubber and tin production. He oversaw conscripted labour in certain colonies. With others, he established the colonial research committee, the start of what under the Attlee government became a Fabian-led policy of colonial economic development.

To Macmillan's dismay he found himself in November 1942 with a new chief, Oliver Stanley, and with his own rather autonomous position, with its Commons responsibilities, potentially circumscribed. There was a possibility that Macmillan might be given a peerage, to speak for the Colonial Office in the Lords. However, on 22 December Churchill invited him to become minister resident at allied forces headquarters in Algiers, with a roving commission, not very clearly spelt out, to act as political adviser to the supreme allied commander, north Africa (General Eisenhower), and to represent the British government in the development of allied policy in north Africa and the Mediterranean by travelling in the area and liaising with the American and French generals. He was to report directly to Churchill rather than via the Foreign Office, an arrangement which Eden, as foreign secretary, resented. He immediately found himself an important go-between at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, with special responsibility for liaising between the French generals Giraud and de Gaulle, Macmillan having considerable sympathy for the position of the latter. Soon after, when taking off from Algiers for Cairo, Macmillan's plane crashed; he extricated himself from the burning fuselage, but with wounds to his legs, his face badly burnt, and his eyes saved only by his spectacles. A French admiral who had lost his hat remarked in shock, 'Ma casquette! J'ai perdue ma casquette'; Macmillan replied, showing the droll humour which was becoming his hallmark: 'I don't care a damn about your casquette. J'ai perdu my bloody face' (The Blast of War, 271). Macmillan in fact suffered from shock as well as his wounds, but recovered remarkably quickly, being back at work within a fortnight, against his doctor's advice. He was then also affected by delayed shock, and it was not until early March 1943 that he was fully operative, and he suffered periodically from depression for some time afterwards.

Macmillan's tasks in summer 1943 were to negotiate the incorporation of the portion of the French Vichy fleet under Admiral Godfroy with that of the allies, and to arbitrate further between de Gaulle, Giraud, Churchill, and Eisenhower. Both of these he did with skill, discreetly protecting the angular de Gaulle from his exasperated colleagues, and gaining in the process the respect and friendship of his French equivalent, Jean Monnet. On several occasions his diplomacy saved the day. The upshot was the recognition of de Gaulle and Giraud as joint leaders of the French committee of national liberation (a provisional government) and a certain irritation with Macmillan on the part of Churchill, who thought he was 'much too pro-French' and helpful to de Gaulle (The Blast of War, 442). Macmillan, in the midst of this, accompanied the king on his visit to Malta in June 1943, in which month he was also given a degree of responsibility for liaising on Italian as well as French policy. From July 1944 he was based at the palace of Caserta, near Naples. He successfully negotiated with the Italian exiles and, after the invasion of Italy, with the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, to gain agreement for a provisional government of Italy, led by Badoglio, one of whose members was Benedetto Croce, the historian, whom Macmillan had published in translation, and whom he went to visit at Sorrento. Macmillan was a strong supporter of operation Armpit (an advance on Austria through Trieste and the Ljubljana gap, with the effect of allowing immediate Anglo-American access to the Balkans and eastern Europe) and succeeded in gaining Churchill's enthusiasm for it; but the plan was rejected by the Americans in favour of operation Anvil (landings in the south of France to accompany those in Normandy). Macmillan believed that the American insistence on landings in southern France was a mistake which let the Russians dominate eastern Europe and was 'one of the sad turning points of history' (The Blast of War, 511).

Throughout this period Macmillan was able only indirectly to influence events and policies: his effectiveness depended on his capacity to persuade. His donnish manner and resolutely civilian appearance emphasized his oblique role in a central theatre of the war. He used the strengths and weaknesses of his position cannily, and, with the exception of his sally into grand strategy over operation Armpit, with a good deal of success (and on that, the defeat was ultimately Churchill's, not Macmillan's). He had become, as John Wyndham dubbed him, 'Viceroy of the Mediterranean' (DNB). He also developed a close relationship with General Alexander, and they disconcerted their London colleagues by frequently sending joint telegrams and reports.

On 10 November 1944, Churchill gave Macmillan executive authority, as acting president of the allied commission for Italy (though this was by no means a dictatorial role, for a chief purpose of the commission was gradually to hand over control to the provisional Italian government). He was also given responsibility for liaising between the Foreign Office and the army on Balkan and Greek questions. In Greece, British influence was by agreement with Russia to be predominant. It was Greece, rather than Italy, which in fact took up most of his time. Following the German withdrawal from Greece, he spent several weeks during the winter of 1944–5 in Athens, for much of the time under sniper fire in the besieged British embassy with Reginald (Rex) Leeper, the ambassador, and Osbert Lancaster, the press attaché. To prevent a communist victory, Macmillan controversially (and initially against the wishes of King George II) supported the appointment of Archbishop Damaskinos as regent, a proposal which annoyed but finally convinced Churchill during his visit at the end of December 1944.

Macmillan superintended the political arrangements for the German surrender in Italy on 29 April 1945, and on 26 May he ceased to be minister resident in the Mediterranean and acting president of the allied commission for Italy. During those last weeks of the war he was involved in a series of what became highly controversial issues. Though in Italy and Greece his chief political purpose had been to exclude the communists as far as possible from power in the post-war settlement, in Yugoslavia different conditions obtained: there, Tito and the communist partisans were firmly in control. In north-eastern Italy, Macmillan and Alexander went beyond their instructions in proposing two zones—the eastern one under Tito and the western one under allied military government, though with Yugoslav participation. The purpose was to avoid a further campaign in which British troops would have to fight against the Yugoslav partisans. Macmillan noted: 'Neither British nor American troops will care for a new campaign in order to save Trieste for the “Eyeties”. On the other hand, to give in completely may be a sort of Slav Munich' (Tides of Fortune, 12). After a period of considerable anxiety caused by the intransigence on the one hand of Tito and on the other of the American president, Macmillan and Alexander's proposal was eventually accepted, and formed the basis of the territorial settlement agreed in 1954.

It was in the context of possible further military action against the Yugoslavs that Alexander and Macmillan had to deal with the problematic fate of non-German troops who had been fighting for the Nazis, whether willingly or by compulsion. The surrender of Germany left large numbers of these in allied hands, as well as surrendered Germans. There was also the question of British prisoners formerly in German but now in Russian hands. The Yalta agreement established categories of troops to be returned to the Russians, with (as it transpired) an all too certain fate awaiting them. Macmillan discussed the question with General Charles Keightley, commander of 5th corps, at Klagenfurt on 13 May 1945. He advised General Keightley to hand over to the Russians about 40,000 'Cossacks and “White” Russians, with their wives and children', as he called them in his diary (War Diaries, 756). 'We have decided to hand them over', Macmillan noted, suggesting that the decision was a joint one, though technically he was the political adviser, Keightley the officer in charge (War Diaries, 757). Most of these were exchanges within the Yalta categories, but they included a considerable number, including White Russians, who fell outside them (notably through having left Russia before the Soviet Union was established). Also handed over to Tito, though Macmillan was only obliquely associated with the relevant decisions, were 'anti-partisans' (that is Yugoslavs, many of them Chetniks and Ustashi, who had supported the Germans). Macmillan, in the pressure of events in May–June 1945, was party to a process of prisoner exchange which the Anglo-American leadership soon attempted to stop. He may or may not have been aware of the likely fate of the prisoners, but he knew the importance of the Yalta agreement which determined allied policy and action, and he laid considerable personal emphasis on the importance of the simultaneous rapid recovery of British prisoners from the Russians. He was not duplicitous (the charge that he deceived his friend and close colleague Alexander has been disposed of by Alistair Horne), but his priorities were not those of close distinctions between the different domiciles of non-German troops who until a month before had been fighting with the Germans. Moreover, Macmillan advised the military; he was not responsible for giving orders, and it was not he who killed the troops who were handed over to the Russians or to the partisans. A little-noticed episode at the time and in the context of the Europe-wide unravelling of the Second World War, Macmillan's advice to Keightley and their decision to ‘hand them over’ was, more than thirty years later, to become a point of major controversy.

Macmillan's war thus had a curious circularity. In 1940 he had found himself advocating assistance to the Finns in their war against the Russians; by 1945 he found himself blocking the Russians as best he could 1000 miles to the south. In between, he had played a notable role in the defeat of German Nazism, by managing expertly the balance between military and political considerations in the Mediterranean and south-east Europe. He finished the war with his political reputation clearly enhanced within the political and military élite, though necessarily not much with the public, for his function was to work discreetly behind the scenes. He now stood in a powerful position in British politics: his pre-war experience had made him an important figure in the Keynesian approach to the economy which during the war gained much ground, and his wartime experience had given him great diplomatic experience and extensive contact with many of those who were to be central figures in the post-war world, particularly Eisenhower, Monnet, and de Gaulle. Together with R. A. Butler (whose career was the obverse of Macmillan's: a Foreign Office appeaser before the war and a domestic reformer during it), it would be fair to say that Macmillan by 1945 was one of Britain's best-equipped all-round tory politicians.

Post-war politics

Macmillan returned to Britain on 26 May 1945 and became secretary of state for air and for the first time a member of cabinet, in Churchill's caretaker government, pending the outcome of the general election held on 5 July, its result being announced on 26 July. In September 1944 Duff Cooper had offered to arrange for Macmillan to succeed him in his very safe seat, St George's, Westminster. After initially accepting privately, Macmillan, motivated by 'fondness' for his constituency and by a desire not 'to give up Stockton without even a fight', and encouraged by Lord Beaverbrook, eventually decided to stand again for Stockton (Tides of Fortune, 30). He nevertheless 'had little hope of success' (Tides of Fortune, 31). Beaverbrook had offered the assurance of a safe vacancy should Macmillan be defeated at Stockton, as indeed he was, heavily, by George Chetwynd. However, the death of Sir Edward Campbell (before the Stockton result was declared) created a safe vacant seat at Bromley, for which Macmillan was selected (Randolph Churchill withdrawing his candidacy). He was comfortably elected on 16 November 1945. He sat for Bromley, a predominantly middle-class suburban seat in south London, for which he never felt the same affection as for Stockton, for the rest of his time in the Commons. How far this change of constituency itself affected Macmillan's political style and domestic policy in the post-war years cannot be known: it certainly made easier the emergence of a tory gent, inter-war in style and dress, making speeches which sometimes seemed embarrassingly mannered. Although the policies of The Middle Way now had a much clearer run, the politician who had promoted them seemed, in style if not in substance, somewhat distanced from their modernizing intentions. This may have been an intentional insurance against right-wing tory hostility—Macmillan's toffishness emphasized what many Conservatives thought were impeccable tory qualifications to lead—but it may have reflected a genuine change in emphasis. The need to disguise the failure of his marriage—his wife's affair with Boothby continued—and the will needed to maintain his composure during an exhausting and often quite solitary war, may have made it impossible for him to avoid a fusion between political acting and his own character. The personality which Macmillan presented from the mid-1940s remained remarkably consistent for the rest of his life.

At that time the tory opposition did not mimic government with specifically assigned shadow ministers: Churchill as leader decided who should speak on which subject. Macmillan thus spoke for the opposition in both domestic and foreign policy debates. Churchill made R. A. Butler head of the Conservative Research Department, but Macmillan's writings were a fertile influence on it and he was involved in drafting the tories' Industrial Charter, published in May 1947, which committed the party to full employment and strategic control of the economy, and accepted the Labour government's nationalization of coal, the railways, and the Bank of England as irreversible. In his memoirs, published in 1969 at the end of a later Labour government, Macmillan wrote that nationalization was

pure State capitalism. However, I accepted the fact that this controversy must now be settled … the achievements of the Labour Party in this Parliament [1945–50] have stood … [but] as time has passed, this classical form of State capitalism seems out of date.

Tides of Fortune, 73–5

Though Macmillan became an effective political sniper in the late 1940s, he did not seriously question the new economic and welfare structure the Labour Party put in place—indeed his complaint with coal nationalization was that it was insufficiently radical in changing management practices with respect to the welfare of the staff. Despite his acceptance of Labour's achievement, Macmillan also argued that free enterprise still had a vital role to play, and that ‘socialism’ (as he believed the Labour Party to be promoting) was a dangerous threat. To meet it he suggested in 1946 that the tories and Liberals combine. He proposed a 'New Democratic Party' and suggested proportional representation in large cities (Horne, 1.298–9). These ideas—essentially a continuation of his 1930s tactics—were strongly disliked by some sections of his party, who wanted a free market rhetoric and only a tacit acceptance of Labour's achievements. Nevertheless he believed 'that with the exception of the extreme Right of the Conservative Party and the extreme Left of the Labour Party, there was a general acceptance of something like the Middle Way which I had preached so long' (Tides of Fortune, 81).

Macmillan's war years had placed him in a position where the vulnerability of Britain's position as a world power was increasingly apparent. But like most of his contemporaries he was slow to draw any conclusions from this. In the post-war world he initially sought no basic reappraisal of Britain's aims, though he visited India in February–March 1947 and did not dissent from the British government's policy—announced while he was returning to Britain—of an end to British rule by July 1948, though it was clearly bolder than he himself would have advocated. He followed Ernest Bevin (Labour's foreign secretary) and Churchill in their view of the USSR. Bevin was, in Macmillan's view, 'the strongest figure in the Labour Government' (Tides of Fortune, 137). Macmillan suspected that Churchill's ‘iron curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, might be an over-simplification—but, with respect to the facts, 'who could resist his battering-ram of argument?' (Tides of Fortune, 107). Macmillan argued in his memoirs that

following the example of India, Burma and Ceylon, the ‘wind of change’ soon began to blow rapidly through the whole Colonial Empire. The course, therefore, was already set by the time the Conservative Party came into power in 1951.

Tides of Fortune, 277

This was true, but the link between the end of the Indian empire and rapid decolonization elsewhere was not one made by most members of the Conservative Party (including, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Macmillan himself), nor, indeed, by most members of the Labour government.

Macmillan, influenced in part by his wartime discussions with Jean Monnet, was an early enthusiast for Churchill's united Europe movement (and was on its managing committee from 1947). He attended the congress of Europe at the Hague in 1948, from which developed the Council of Europe at Strasbourg, from 1949, of which he was a founder member, sitting on its consultative assembly for three years. He thought the British government's decision not to join the discussions in June 1950 which arose from the Schuman plan for a European coal and steel community marked 'a black week for Britain; for the Empire; for Europe; and for the peace of the world' (Tides of Fortune, 191). Schuman's initiative 'may well be a major turning-point in European history. It is certainly a turning-point in the fortunes of the Tory Party. This issue affords us the last, and perhaps only, chance of regaining the initiative' (Tides of Fortune, 193). But he did not at this stage see any incompatibility between this view and the belief that (as he put it in 1949) 'the Empire must always have first preference for us' (DNB).

300,000 houses

Churchill formed his third government in October 1951 following what Macmillan felt was a disappointingly narrow tory victory in the general election. Churchill appointed and announced his nine core cabinet posts before inviting Macmillan to be minister of local government and planning (the ministry also including housing), or failing that, president of the Board of Trade. Macmillan was not much attracted to either post but after some hesitation accepted local government and planning (which was renamed housing and local government). It was a high-risk choice, for the 1950 party conference had adopted the building of 300,000 houses a year as a Conservative government's target. This was difficult to achieve, and implied possible distortion of industrial investment, an increase in inflation, and even some effect on supplies for rearmament and the Korean war. Macmillan set about his task with relish; it was unusual for a minister to be given such a constructive role, the 300,000 target being seen as a major test of the government's effectiveness. It gave him the authority to badger the Treasury to an exceptional extent, a privilege of which Macmillan took persistent advantage. He set up regional housing boards, on the advice of Sir Percy Mills, reduced the mandatory proportion of new private (as opposed to municipal) houses from one in ten to one in two, reduced the minimum required size of houses, and introduced the sale of municipal houses. A new Town and Country Planning Bill was enacted in November 1954.

Energetically supported by his parliamentary secretary, Ernest Marples, and by the civil servant Dame Evelyn Sharp, Macmillan reached the annual target in December 1953, and in fact faced the prospect in 1954 of building too many houses. The building programme was accompanied by rent increases, proposed in his white paper 'Houses—the next step' in November 1953 and enacted in the Repairs and Rent Act (1954): its aim was the reduction of slum buildings by the raising of rents for houses in good repair—a controversial and politically sensitive matter. Macmillan came to think that Aneurin Bevan's criticism—that the additional rent would be insufficient inducement to landlords—was 'probably right … Nevertheless our plan broke the ice of rigid rent control' (Tides of Fortune, 458). The critics were indeed right: rents went up but landlords made little progress in slum clearance or housing improvement. The aftermath of this policy was the rent scandals of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which did the tories' reputation considerable harm. Rent questions apart, Macmillan's housing achievements were substantial: they showed what a determined government could achieve with a proactive domestic policy, if it so chose. Macmillan, aware of the tension between tory anti-state rhetoric and the policies of his ministry, presented the housing programme in the context of ad hoc wartime-style crisis management. But they were a peacetime achievement, even so, and Macmillan looked back on this period as 'in many ways the happiest and most rewarding of my time as a Minister' (Tides of Fortune, 373).

Macmillan's formidable task at housing to an extent marginalized him with respect to the government's other actions. He found Eden's caution over Europe depressing and he contemplated resigning in March 1952 when the cabinet showed little interest in the question; but he circulated a further paper on Europe in March 1953 opposing a federal Europe as against Britain's national interest. In September 1954 he successfully persuaded Eden to offer a way out of the impasse created by France's rejection of the European Defence Community (the 'Pleven plan') by means of a solution based on West Germany's adherence to the Brussels treaty—thus earning, temporarily at least, the gratitude of Britain's continental neighbours. Macmillan hoped for the Foreign Office, but, with Churchill prevaricating about his retirement and Eden ensconced in the Foreign Office until that time, there was no immediate prospect of it.

In October 1954 Churchill moved a reluctant Macmillan to the Ministry of Defence, a post whose holder the premier regarded as almost personally responsible to him. (Indeed, Churchill had held the post in conjunction with the premiership for the first six months of his administration.) Macmillan found himself rather in his wartime relationship to Churchill, but with the latter no longer at the height of his powers. Macmillan had already decided that Churchill ought to resign, and, especially after Churchill's second stroke in June 1953, had played a leading role in encouraging him to fix a date. He did so partly on the ground that in Eden there was a worthy successor being unfairly denied advancement. His approaches to Churchill were much more direct than those made to Gladstone in the somewhat analogous case of 1894. Nevertheless Macmillan's forthright behaviour did not diminish Churchill's respect for him. In the meantime, Macmillan encouraged a review of the over-bureaucratic structure of NATO and defended Britain's decision to develop her own hydrogen bomb. He had already become a convinced supporter of the independent British nuclear deterrent and of the view that its possession implied a considerable reduction in conventional forces.

Foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer

Churchill finally retired in April 1955. When Eden succeeded him as prime minister he put Macmillan in his own former position as foreign secretary, another post whose holder was seen as personally responsible to the prime minister—whether Churchill, Eden, or in due course Macmillan himself. The relationship between Eden and Macmillan was by no means as close as this appointment and Macmillan's earlier representations to Churchill about Eden seemed to suggest. Eden would have preferred Lord Salisbury as his foreign secretary but (remembering Chamberlain's unhappy experience after appointing Lord Halifax as foreign secretary in 1938) was unwilling to cause a row by having his foreign secretary in the Lords, or to shoulder the extra burden it might have meant for him in the Commons. (Ironically, Macmillan would later appoint a foreign secretary from the House of Lords, Lord Home.) Macmillan had worked in tandem with Eden at various points since 1942, but the relationship was by no means always easy, and Macmillan differed quite strongly with Eden on Europe, while admiring his diplomatic gifts. Serving as foreign secretary, with a premier whose only government experience was in the Foreign Office, was difficult.

As with defence, Macmillan's time at the Foreign Office—which he stated in his memoirs to be 'the summit of my ambitions' (Tides of Fortune, 582)—was uneasy. On almost all the issues, he found Eden had left a clear policy in place. Some such policies—for example, that Britain should play no part in the Messina conference from which derived the Spaak committee, which in turn designed the treaty of Rome—were not those Macmillan would have devised. He got the cabinet to agree that Britain should send a 'representative' to the meetings of the Spaak committee (Russell Bretherton; Macmillan would have preferred a ‘delegate’), but the critical moment was missed. In missing it, Macmillan was acting no differently from the rest of the Foreign Office, where questions such as those of Cyprus and Egypt seemed of central importance. Macmillan spent much time on the Cyprus question, and even more on Egypt, the traditional area of imperial strategic concern.

Macmillan was getting into his stride as foreign secretary when Eden—perhaps precisely because of that—moved him on 21 December 1955 to the chancellorship of the exchequer. Macmillan strongly resented this move, which could not but be seen as a comment on his tenure of the foreign secretaryship (though Eden emphasized how important it was that R. A. Butler should have a strong successor at the Treasury). Macmillan in return held out against Butler being given the title of deputy prime minister and, consequently, in favour of the establishment of his own claim to the premiership on a basis of parity with Butler (Eden's health was already unpredictable). This was his most decisive move towards the premiership, and it worked well; moreover, Butler, now merely lord privy seal and leader of the house, no longer had a government department.

The move to the exchequer to an extent unleashed Macmillan: Eden had no special standing on financial matters, and Macmillan was soon using an authoritative, even officious, tone in letters to Eden impossible during his Foreign Office days. Macmillan, in the budget due for March 1956, wished to increase taxation, including income tax, to reduce purchasing power. He wished to link this to cuts in government expenditure, particularly in defence (in line with his view that an independent nuclear deterrent made units such as Fighter Command redundant). Eden, however, prevented both of these. Macmillan's first (and it turned out only) budget, on 17 April 1956, was chiefly notable for the introduction of premium bonds (redeemable bonds whose interest was distributed by lot in the form of prizes) and the start of a vigorous ecclesiastical row over whether the government was encouraging gambling.


In 1956, Macmillan as chancellor found himself in a situation of exceptional complexity, involving the future relations of Britain with Europe and America, the traditional question of imperial suzerainty in Egypt, and that regular phenomenon of post-war Britain, a sterling crisis.

Macmillan, like almost everyone in British politics, underestimated the capacity and determination of the west European states to progress towards union. But he realized that, whatever the process under way was, Britain was not sufficiently part of it. He worked with Peter Thorneycroft (at the Board of Trade) to propose British association with the Spaak plan through an industrial free-trade area (thus preserving preferential access to the British market for Commonwealth agricultural products and raw materials). Just as this was being proposed, Egypt's nationalization of the Suez canal company in July 1956 (contrary to previous assurances) brought to the boil the long-simmering issue of what, if any, role Britain had in Egypt and in the running of the canal (the British military presence in Egypt had ended in June 1956, having lasted since 1882). Macmillan was a member of the Egypt committee established by Eden to deal with the situation, and took a forceful line in encouraging Eden to move towards military intervention. Macmillan seems to have been among the first to suggest encouraging Israeli involvement and though he had reservations about the tactical aspects of the initial invasion plans, he took the lead in August 1956 in developing them, so much so that Eden reined him in. Macmillan used analogies of Nasser with Hitler and Mussolini as energetically as any of the other tory leaders.

With the sterling reserves already depleted, Macmillan visited the USA at the end of September 1956, receiving an honorary degree from the University of Indiana and visiting his mother's home town of Spencer before proceeding to Washington. A conversation with President Eisenhower on 25 September was understood by Macmillan to have established that Eisenhower distrusted the United Nations and wished to 'get Nasser down' without UN permission being necessary (Riding the Storm, 134). Other accounts, by both British and Americans, later stated that Macmillan had seriously misunderstood Eisenhower's position. Roger Makins, who had been Macmillan's assistant at allied forces headquarters, Mediterranean, in 1943–4, and was now the British ambassador in Washington and the only witness to the conversation, recalled: 'I was expecting Harold to make a statement, say something important on Suez—but in fact he said nothing … Nor did Eisenhower say anything. I was amazed' (Scott Lucas, 211). Making the assumption of Eisenhower's sympathy was an important error, as Eden was emboldened and reassured by Macmillan's subsequent dispatch, and Macmillan himself failed to take the sort of financial precautions made by the French, Britain's ally in invasion. Macmillan's error was the more remarkable, given that his international career had been built on just this sort of diplomacy, and that Robert Murphy, the American diplomatist with whom he had worked for most of his time in north Africa, was among those he saw both in Washington and in London. Though the Americans may be blamed for not making clearer their hostility to British–French–Israeli military action, it was for the protagonists to be sure that they had clearance, or at least benevolent neutrality, especially as they were clients rather than equals of the USA in financial and military power.

When the Americans reacted strongly against the Anglo-French invasion (following Israel's co-ordinated attack on Egypt on 29 October), Macmillan moved quickly to reverse British policy. He belatedly requested a loan from the International Monetary Fund and urgently advised a ceasefire to gain it. 'First in, first out' was Harold Wilson's jibe (Riding the Storm, 163), to which there was no effective response. Macmillan recalled to Alistair Horne that Suez was 'a very bad episode in my life' (Horne, 1.447). So it undoubtedly was, but Macmillan had the capacity, and the political time, to learn lessons from it. Eden had neither.

Prime minister

Eden resigned the premiership through ill health on 9 January 1957, making no recommendation to the queen as to his successor, but suggesting she ask Lord Salisbury to consult with leading tories. With Lord Kilmuir, the lord chancellor, Lord Salisbury took soundings ('Well, which is it, Wab or Hawold?' (Earl of Kilmuir, Memoirs: Political Adventure, 1962, 285)) and on 10 January Macmillan, rather than the widely anticipated R. A. Butler, was summoned to Buckingham Palace and kissed hands on being appointed prime minister and first lord of the Treasury. (Among those whom Salisbury consulted was Churchill, who unhesitatingly supported Macmillan.) He took office in unpropitious circumstances, both for him and his party. He had held three major offices in as many years, with the quality of his performance quite severely questioned with respect to each, and especially the two most recent. His record on Suez was transparently bad, with both his diplomatic and his political judgement seriously questioned. His earlier reputation as a cross-party sort of person had been replaced, largely through his own political tone, by one of toffish arrogance, good-humoured but energetically partisan. His party had enjoyed the advantages of the post-war recovery and of the Labour Party's internal strife. It had won the general elections of 1951 and 1955 with increasing majorities. Yet the Conservative Party of the 1950s was ill at ease with respect to foreign, imperial, and Commonwealth policy, the very area in which it had always claimed special authority. The new prime minister's recent career was almost a personification of that unease.

Macmillan's distribution of cabinet posts was shrewd. Lord Salisbury was persuaded to stay on as lord president and leader of the House of Lords. Mindful that 'there would be plenty of gossips and ill-wishers who would try to make trouble between us' (Riding the Storm, 185), Macmillan offered Butler a free choice of post; he chose the home secretaryship. This enabled Macmillan to retain Selwyn Lloyd as foreign secretary. Peter Thorneycroft, a pro-European, was promoted from the Board of Trade to the Treasury. Duncan Sandys was made minister of defence, to oversee the necessary expenditure cuts. Julian Amery (Macmillan's son-in-law), hitherto an outspoken Suez rebel, was given a junior post, but charges of nepotism were deflected by the voluntary resignation of James Stuart (Macmillan's brother-in-law). The new prime minister put on a brave face to the Commons and to the public; with the party rallying to him, encouraged by the chief whip, Edward Heath (whom Macmillan retained), he avoided what some thought might be a rapid failure of his government.

The immediate post-Suez confusion in which Macmillan took office made long-term planning difficult and, though he had not discounted becoming premier, he was not prepared for the office in the sense that he would have been if in opposition. Mending fences was necessarily his first task, and it was some time before the grand reorientation of British policy which was to be his chief achievement became apparent, even to him. At the Bermuda conference with Eisenhower in March 1957, fair relations with America were restored. Macmillan probably deceived himself as to the extent that the Americans believed there was a 'special relationship' to restore; nevertheless Eisenhower agreed to pursue revision of the restrictive McMahon Act in order to resume the sharing of nuclear technology with Britain (agreements signed by Eisenhower and Macmillan on 3 November 1957 and ratified on 3 July 1958 enabled Britain to gain uniquely privileged access to American nuclear technology) and the USA moved towards taking direct responsibility in the Middle East—so that during the 1958 crisis involving Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, Britain and America acted in harmony. However, the wooing of the USA into the Middle East was in fact an admission that Britain, even with France, could not act without American backing.

A vital decision was the acceptance of the defence white paper drafted by Duncan Sandys and published in April 1957, which gave a greater emphasis to independent nuclear deterrence and made a consequent reduction in conventional forces (one result was the phasing out of national service). This had profound implications for Britain's foreign, economic, and scientific policies as well as for her defences, perhaps more than Macmillan at the time realized. It was also to have significant domestic political consequences. Though much British research was given over to nuclear development, with considerable distortion to the British scientific community, the British were not in fact in a position to implement Sandys's policy. Britain could make nuclear weapons, and had made important technical progress in the 1950s, but she lacked adequate means of getting them to the target area, especially as the effectiveness of the bomber force was by the later 1950s declining. The upshot was that Macmillan spent much time persuading the Americans to supply the means of delivering the nuclear weapons to their targets. His aim was to gain a British deterrent which was as independent as possible. He pursued this objective, ironically, at just the time that the American government became more favourable to sharing nuclear technology with Britain and when British policy became in practice dependent on the purchase of American systems.

Macmillan earned the gratitude of his party by refusing any inquiry into the Suez débâcle and in the debate on Suez in May 1957 only fourteen tories abstained in the Commons. Encouraging the dissidents was Lord Salisbury, who had resigned from the government in March 1957 over the release of Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. Despite family connections and a long friendship, Salisbury's resignation was accepted with some alacrity by Macmillan, in the same spirit that a previous Salisbury had ‘lanced a boil’ by gratefully accepting the resignation of Lord Randolph Churchill in 1887. Macmillan's acceptance of Salisbury's resignation emphasized his political strength, his 'unflappability', and his determination to pursue a bold course in colonial policy; it may also have represented, as Alistair Horne suggested, 'a triumph over all the slights and humiliations at the hands of Cecil and Cavendish grandees that Macmillan had suffered in the 1920s and 1930s—a kind of break with the past' (Horne, 2.39).

Letting Salisbury go was a risky tactic: the tory right was to be a vociferous though never very effective force throughout Macmillan's government. Much more serious was the resignation of the whole of his Treasury team on 6 January 1958 (Thorneycroft, the chancellor, Nigel Birch, the economic secretary to the Treasury, and J. Enoch Powell, the first secretary). Thorneycroft had demanded cuts of £153 million in the civil estimates for 1958. Some £100 million of spending cuts were agreed, but Macmillan thought it neither financially necessary nor politically possible to insist on the remainder (Eden had overruled him as chancellor on much the same grounds). Macmillan was committed intellectually and emotionally to economic expansion, in which he was encouraged by his private economic adviser, Sir Roy Harrod, who was even more expansionist than Keynes, whose friend and biographer he was. With some aplomb Macmillan famously dismissed the resignations as a 'little local difficulty' (he was leaving for a tour of the Commonwealth at the time). He later recorded it as his opinion that Thorneycroft had been led into resignation by Birch and Powell, who 'seemed to have introduced into the study of financial and economic problems a degree of fanaticism which appeared to me inappropriate' (Riding the Storm, 372). But to have dissident retrenchers as well as dissident imperialists in his party was becoming dangerous.

Macmillan, however, remained his party's best hope for a general election. Unemployment was at its lowest level since 1945 (though it was shortly to rise again) and Macmillan spoke the truth when he remarked on 20 July 1957 to a large meeting in Bedford, 'Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good' (The Times, 22 July 1957). The Labour opposition made such capital as they could with incidents such as the Hola camp episode (the deaths from beating of eleven Mau Mau prisoners in March 1959 in Kenya, which led to the setting up of an Africa committee of the cabinet and to considerable alarm on Macmillan's part; he later described it as 'an anxious, if minor, incident' (Riding the Storm, 735)). The Devlin report on riots in Nyasaland was a serious indictment of British policy, and was rejected by the government in July 1959, an alternative report being rapidly written and accepted. Already tarred with the brush of defending the Suez episode, Macmillan's government began to seem much more a defender of ‘imperial’ positions than was in the long run to prove the case. Though the opposition made some impact with these and other imperial issues—attempting to link them to the general charge of incompetence which Suez permitted—they were never likely to be issues which could damage the government in a fundamental way. Macmillan was an able television interviewee, and his public persona was if anything enhanced by his depiction as 'Supermac' by the left-wing cartoonist, ‘Vicky’. Sustained by the long 1950s boom, and well-led in the campaign by the prime minister, who chose the autumn rather than the spring to go to the country, the tories at the general election in October 1959 gained their highest-ever vote (13,749,830), and an increase in their majority from 58 to 100. This was a notable defeat for Labour, who—in the immediate aftermath of Suez—had expected to regain office.

Macmillan and Britain's reorientation in the world order

With his political flanks to left and right now apparently secure, Macmillan gained a breathing space. Between 1959 and 1961 occurred a series of decisions and initiatives of profound importance for Britain's place in the world. The extent to which these policy changes were intentionally related remains uncertain, but of their adjacent significance there can be no doubt. That Macmillan was already thinking in grand terms was shown by an all-day meeting he summoned at Chequers on 7 June 1959, to discuss 'what is likely to happen in the world during the next ten years': this led to the appointment of a committee 'to draw up a paper—for the use of the next Government' (diaries, 7 June 1959). The review, chaired by Norman Brook, was completed in February 1960, its report (drafted by Patrick Dean) circulated as 'Future policy study, 1960–1970' (TNA: PRO, CAB 129/100, C(60) 35, 24 Feb 1960). The report recognized that Britain was 'slipping backwards in relative economic power' and that her 'relative power in the world will certainly decline, though it does not follow that our status need necessarily do the same'. It anticipated that the Commonwealth would become 'less of an economic unit'. The general assumption of the report was that while Britain's economic and political power base was diminishing, she should none the less maintain 'a leading position among the Powers and a higher place in their counsels than our material assets alone would strictly warrant'. With respect to Europe: 'It is impossible to be sure that Western Europe will continue along its present path towards integration. Our tactics must, therefore, be adjusted to suit the needs of the moment'. Though the report was made for Macmillan rather than by him, its criteria and findings accorded closely with his views at this time. The pursuit of an influence and a status which were greater than the capacity to sustain them (or playing the cards above their value, as Macmillan described it) was an abiding objective of his years as prime minister, and his diaries frequently recorded the extent to which Britain was noticed as a participant, rather than the achievement of the policy objective.

The pursuit of status was not, however, a chief determinant of colonial policy. After the election Macmillan made Iain Macleod colonial secretary. There was a considerable fear that retention of colonies by force would open them to Soviet influence (the 1959–60 review considered the main area of future conflict would be in the under-developed world, requiring 'sustained and expensive' aid and political activity to keep such countries in the 'non-Communist world'). Under Alan Lennox-Boyd's tenure of the Colonial Office Ghana had become independent in 1957, and steps had been taken towards self government in Nigeria and elsewhere. Nevertheless Macleod greatly accelerated the movement towards independence of colonies and protectorates; Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda were released from gaol, and conferences arranging independence were almost forced on some of the colonies and protectorates involved. By the end of Macmillan's government most of British Africa bar Southern Rhodesia was independent within the Commonwealth. This was a remarkable achievement, and especially for a Conservative prime minister, whose party rhetoric had for so long rested on an imperial bass line. The complicating factor was the Central African Federation, and the possibility of the deterioration of Southern Rhodesia into a British Algeria. At the end of a long tour of rather surprised African nations in January–February 1960, Macmillan visited Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. In Southern Rhodesia he reiterated the government's support for the federation (finally dissolved during R. A. Butler's mission in 1964), but in South Africa, on Monday 3 February in Cape Town, he delivered a very carefully prepared and instantaneously famous speech, in which he told the South African parliament:

the most striking of all the impressions I have formed since I left London a month ago is of the strength of this African national consciousness. In different places it takes different forms, but it is happening everywhere. 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.

Pointing the Way, 156

The speech infuriated the Salisbury wing of the tory party, for whom 3 February was in every sense 'Black Monday', and led to the formation of the Monday Club. South Africa was effectively driven out of the Commonwealth at the prime ministers' meeting in March 1961, when (despite Macmillan's efforts to dissuade them) other member countries made clear that they would not allow South Africa to renew its membership, which it was obliged to apply to do following a plebiscite in favour of a republican constitution in October 1960.

Side by side with decolonization went two other streams of external policy: negotiations with the Soviet bloc and Britain's first application to join the European Common Market. Macmillan believed that he and Britain had a major role to play in the politics of nuclear détente—a role underpinned by Britain's status as a nuclear power, but also made more urgent by the difficulties encountered in maintaining that status. He devoted much energy to promoting the summit meeting held in Paris on 16 May 1960 and felt 'disappointment amounting almost to despair' when it broke down despite his series of personal interviews with the other participants (Pointing the Way, 213). Britain's chief nuclear weapon, the Blue Streak, was developed in the face of the hostility of the British chiefs of staff, but in February 1960 their opposition to its inflexibility led to the abandonment of its development. During his visit to Washington in March 1960 (chiefly to prepare the ground for the summit), Macmillan gained from Eisenhower an agreement that the USA would allow Britain to use either Skybolt missiles (fired from bombers) or Polaris missiles (fired from submarines). The British chose Skybolt, the Americans gaining in return a submarine base for Polaris submarines at Holy Loch in Scotland. Macmillan's search for a British nuclear deterrent was persistent, but the cancellation of Blue Streak made Britain dependent on American delivery systems, however much they might be presented as under British control. Perhaps ironically, given his emphasis on upgrading Britain's nuclear weapons, Macmillan took especial pride in negotiating an agreement for strict control of their testing, the nuclear test ban treaty being agreed on 10 August 1963, following an ambassadorial conference in Moscow (Kennedy had rejected Macmillan's wish for a summit meeting) and signed by Lord Home (who had replaced Lloyd as foreign secretary) on 10 October 1963.

Macmillan increasingly found himself stretched by three competing forces: the USA, the Commonwealth, and the European Economic Community (for, despite the experiment of the introduction of the European Free Trade Association in 1959–60, he perceived the gradual elimination of other possibilities). On 9 July 1960 he wrote in his diary:

Shall we be caught between a hostile (or at least less and less friendly) America and a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’—now under French but later bound to come under German control. Is this the real reason for ‘joining’ the Common Market (if we are acceptable) and for abandoning (a) the Seven [ European Free Trade Association or EFTA countries] (b) British agriculture (c) the Commonwealth? It's a grim choice.

Pointing the Way, 316

Macmillan had in his career recognized better than most the tension that these forces created. His difficulty, perhaps, was that he had a sentimental and a political sympathy for each of them. It was also the case that no leader of a large British party could have a sole commitment to any one of them.

In 1961 Macmillan developed close ties with the new American president, John F. Kennedy, skilfully avoiding the mistakes other tory leaders made when dealing with a Democrat in the White House and exploiting to the full his personal and family connections. Kennedy was a relative by marriage, as a brother-in-law of Dorothy Macmillan's late nephew, Lord Hartington. Macmillan sent as ambassador to Washington David Ormsby-Gore, the brother of Maurice Macmillan's wife, Katie, and an intimate long-term friend of Robert Kennedy, the president's brother. Macmillan's attempt to re-forge the ‘special relationship’ was thus underpinned by close personal relations.

Despite his success in restoring Anglo-American relations, Macmillan was haunted by the prospect that the EEC (now successfully established, and enjoying growth rates significantly higher than Britain's) would supplant Britain as America's key partner in Europe. EFTA, though much trumpeted as a 'bridge' to the EEC, was clearly not viewed as such by the six member countries of the latter, nor indeed by the United States, which regarded it as embodying all of the economic disadvantages and none of the political advantages of the EEC. It was therefore partly to maintain Britain's standing with America (and its usefulness to the Commonwealth), as well as to regain its influence in Europe, that Macmillan reluctantly came to the conclusion that Britain must attempt to join the European Communities (the European Coal and Steel Community and Euratom were not merged with the European Economic Community until 1967). He appears to have taken this decision by May 1960. In July that year he reshuffled his cabinet to ensure that pro-Europeans were in key positions—Sandys as secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, Christopher Soames as minister of agriculture, and Heath as lord privy seal, charged with the conduct of negotiations. Butler, the leading potential dissident, was later effectively neutralized by being given the task of liaising with the National Farmers' Union. Macmillan announced in the House of Commons on 31 July 1961 (just before the summer recess) that Britain would be seeking negotiations, and Britain's application was formally tabled on 10 August 1961.

In announcing his decision to the House of Commons, Macmillan emphasized that Britain would join the European Communities only if satisfactory arrangements could be made for the Commonwealth, EFTA, and British agriculture. These three issues dominated the subsequent negotiations, and the public debate in Britain. While Heath and Macmillan were upbeat in reporting the progress of negotiations in Brussels, it gradually became clear that the Europeans were in no mood to contemplate significant concessions. Future arrangements for the Commonwealth proved a particularly intractable and emotive issue. In 1956 Macmillan had gone on record as saying that Britain could never agree 'to our entering arrangements which, as a matter of principle, would prevent our treating the great range of imports from the Commonwealth at least as favourably as those from the European countries' (Hansard 5C, 26 Nov 1956, cols. 37–8). Nevertheless, with a few small exceptions, the most that the EEC countries would offer was a gradual imposition of the external tariff. The hostility of Commonwealth countries to any British application had been made clear during a tour of Commonwealth capitals undertaken by Heath, Sandys, and others in July 1961. The Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in London in September 1962 passed off better than Macmillan had feared, but nevertheless resulted in a communiqué expressing disquiet at the extent to which Commonwealth interests had not been met. The prime ministers' meeting was also the occasion for Gaitskell to come out against membership of the EEC on the terms then likely; and it emboldened Macmillan's opponents within the Conservative Party, who were increasingly well organized through the Anti-Common Market League.

Despite Heath's and Macmillan's willingness to compromise, the negotiations were also overshadowed by the antipathy of de Gaulle. Even before the announcement of Britain's application, Macmillan had been advised that de Gaulle was highly unlikely to agree to British membership. In de Gaulle's view, Britain was insufficiently 'European' and would, if admitted, use its influence within the EEC to derail the European project; in particular, he regarded Britain as akin to an American ‘Trojan horse’. His views were not altered by a series of personal discussions with Macmillan at the Château des Champs in June 1962. Macmillan then recorded: 'I am not at all sure how far de Gaulle and the French really feel it to be in France's interest to have us in' (At the End of the Day, 121). Nevertheless, he continued to hope that he could either win over or out-manoeuvre de Gaulle. In this he was undoubtedly over-optimistic.

Intervening, largely unexpectedly and certainly so with regard to the sphere of action (an attack on Berlin was considered more likely), was Khrushchov's attempt to site Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba. Kennedy kept Macmillan informed from early on in the crisis (though after he had taken 'my first decision on my own responsibility'). With Ormsby-Gore playing an active role in the discussions in the White House, Macmillan offered advice and support to Kennedy in phone calls, sometimes three a day and, shortly before Russia's climb-down in November 1962, telegraphed Khrushchov supporting the American demand that the missiles be taken out of Cuba. The upshot, Macmillan believed, was that 'We were “in on” and took full part in (and almost responsibility for) every American move' (At the End of the Day, 216). He perhaps overestimated Britain's standing with the USA, for whom Cuba was an essential national interest irrespective of the views of allies, but at the personal level Kennedy found his telephone discussions with Macmillan a helpful way of clearing his mind, given the variety of views about Cuba among the White House staff, and he was grateful for Britain's firm support.

The dominant tensions in British foreign policy again came into play between December 1962 and January 1963. Macmillan visited de Gaulle at Rambouillet, near Paris, on 15–16 December 1962; the talks left him with no doubt that de Gaulle intended to block Britain's application to join the EEC. Two days later, Macmillan met Kennedy in the Bahamas and after considerable difficulty persuaded the Americans to allow the British to change from Skybolt (which the Americans wished to phase out) to Polaris submarines, with a British right to use the weapons independently 'for supreme national interest' (At the End of the Day, 361). A month later (and undoubtedly influenced by this evidence of British dependence on America), on 14 January 1963, de Gaulle announced France's veto to Britain's EEC application, citing irreconcilable differences between the interests of Britain and those of the EEC member states. In public, Macmillan put on a brave face, suggesting that the negotiations had been broken off 'not … because the discussions were menaced with failure', but 'because they threatened to succeed' (At the End of the Day, 377). In his diaries, though, he recorded his despair: 'All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins … We have lost everything, except our courage and determination' (At the End of the Day, 367).

In the context of rapid, deliberate, and for the most part voluntary decolonization, Macmillan's government undertook a remarkable confluence of foreign policy initiatives. Frustrating though their pursuit often seemed at the time, Macmillan gained from them a quasi-independent nuclear deterrent which lasted the rest of the century, and, despite the failure of the first application, he set the United Kingdom on the road to Europe: the choice might be ‘grim’, but Macmillan's decision was not one from which any subsequent British cabinet, regardless of party, seriously dissented.

More local difficulties

A considerable portion of Macmillan's time was devoted to foreign and Commonwealth policy-making and activity, and his memoirs on the period of his government were largely about such questions. His peregrinations as prime minister recalled the constant movements and meetings of his war years. He probably travelled more during his premiership than any other British peacetime prime minister. At home his government was not noted for legislative proposals, and was chiefly concerned with administrative and economic matters. Macmillan had four chief domestic objectives: full employment, stable prices, a favourable balance of payments, and economic expansion. But to ride these horses he appointed what Robert Blake called 'two singularly mediocre chancellors of the exchequer [Derick Heathcoat Amory and Selwyn Lloyd]' (DNB). Macmillan's natural political tendency was to be expansionist, and in this he was encouraged by Sir Roy Harrod, who acted as an unofficial economic adviser. An incomes policy was established to try to maintain price stability while also encouraging growth. Unemployment rose from 500,000 to about 800,000, which genuinely shocked the prime minister as well as calling into question the tories' claim to be the party of prosperity. He became convinced, on not much evidence, that there was 'a real risk of a world deflation' (At the End of the Day, 89).

Lloyd was by this stage tired; he had allowed various aspects of domestic economic policy to go awry; and Macmillan resented having to take personal charge of incomes policy. Macmillan determined both to replace Lloyd and to use the occasion of his replacement for a thorough pruning of the dead wood in his government: he thought it better to introduce new ministers while his party was in power, even though it might soon lose it, and he blamed A. J. Balfour for not having done this in 1905. On 12–13 July 1962 he accordingly dismissed or accepted the resignations of the chancellor of the exchequer and six other cabinet members (one-third of his cabinet), followed by numerous junior ministers. Known immediately as 'the night of long knives', this was the most extensive reconstruction of a cabinet by a prime minister since MacDonald formed the National Government in 1931, but it did not provide the same bonus for the tory party. The party was confused, the public mocked, members of the government sensed panic in the prime minister, and the Labour opposition was considerably encouraged. Several ministers (notably Lord Kilmuir, the lord chancellor, and Lord Mills, minister without portfolio) had earlier asked to resign. It was also true that few of those sacked were missed. Macmillan nevertheless concluded that he 'was led into a serious error' by adding other changes to the essential one, the replacement of Selwyn Lloyd (At the End of the Day, 92). Coincidentally, Hugh Gaitskell's death in January 1963 produced in Harold Wilson an opposition leader whose gifts were well-suited to exploiting tory weaknesses. The sackings occurred at a time when a general anti-establishment feeling was gaining ground, reflected in the BBC programme That Was The Week That Was and in Peter Cook's satirical depiction of Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe. As Robert Blake remarked, 'It was not exactly pro-Labour, but it was certainly anti-Conservative' (DNB).

The reputation of Macmillan's government was thus already considerably eroded when he had to meet a series of spy and sex scandals. These culminated in the spring of 1963 with the ‘Profumo affair’, when the secretary of state for war first denied in the Commons 'any impropriety' with Christine Keeler (who, as Macmillan put it, 'was said to share her favours with the Russian Naval Attaché, a certain Ivanov'), and then admitted that he had lied to the Commons. Profumo resigned on 6 June 1963. The trial and suicide of Stephen Ward, supposedly Keeler's procurer, created a remarkable, febrile atmosphere, particularly in London, in the summer of 1963. Other governments had suffered bouts of scandals, but those of 1962–3 would have seemed fantastic in a novel, and indeed—as the makers of Scandal (1989) discovered—were hard to depict on screen.

Macmillan's old-fashioned manner, so carefully cultivated and so often effective, was now a liability, for it now seemed reality rather than an act. De Gaulle's veto of Britain's application for Common Market membership demanded serious national self-appraisal, but in spring and summer 1963 the wider context was quickly forgotten. Macmillan had set a fast pace throughout his government and was tired. He took a holiday in May 1963, but the Profumo affair spoiled it. The party conference due in October could not but be an embarrassing occasion. Preparing for it, Macmillan contemplated retiring. He told the queen he would announce both that there would be no election in 1963 (one was due in 1964) and that he would not lead his party at the next election.

The ground for his resignation early in 1964 was thus quite well prepared, when on 7 October 1963 Macmillan changed his mind: he would stay on to fight the next election. Next day, however, he was admitted to hospital for an operation on his prostate gland. Before entering hospital, he dictated a minute for Lord Home (coincidentally chairman of the conference as well as foreign secretary) to read to the imminent party conference, announcing his intention to resign. Despite pain and post-operative fatigue and trauma, Macmillan was determined to play an active and decisive role in selecting his successor. Senior party members were to take soundings and report to him: he would then make a recommendation to the queen. This reversed the procedure followed at the time of Eden's resignation (who resigned recommending that soundings be then taken), for it placed the sick premier at the centre of events. In circumstances of considerable drama Macmillan resigned on 18 October in his hospital bed, the queen unprecedentedly coming to receive his resignation and his advice (which was to send for Lord Home, as she then did). Macmillan need not have so precipitately resigned, for his health soon recovered. He appears to have believed that his prostate gland was cancerous (which his doctors had told him was at least possible). It may be that his operation caused him to return to his abandoned view of September 1963 (that he should resign) and that illness offered a convenient occasion. It was also a factor that both he, and Eden (in 1957), believed they should learn from the last months of Churchill's peacetime premiership and resign rather than linger in post. Macmillan's role in the choice of his successor was later much criticized, and was held by some to have denied Butler the premiership.

A long retirement

Macmillan did not stand for the Commons at the general election in October 1964. He declined the earldom traditionally offered to prime ministers on leaving the Commons (partly, at least, because he did not wish to stymy his son Maurice's political career), and also declined the Garter, but he recommended a barony for John Wyndham, his private secretary throughout his premiership (he wrote Wyndham's memoir for the Dictionary of National Biography, appositely comparing him to Montagu Corry, Disraeli's secretary). It is possible that Macmillan hoped in due course to return to office as leader of an all-party coalition.

One dignified office continued to be his. In 1960 he was elected chancellor of the University of Oxford in a stiff contest with Oliver Franks. Franks was the ‘official’ candidate of the university establishment, and Macmillan, though prime minister, stood as something of an outsider, his campaign being organized with ruthless cunning by H. R. Trevor-Roper (whom Macmillan had controversially appointed regius professor of modern history in 1957). While prime minister, Macmillan's activities as chancellor were necessarily circumscribed, but in his long retirement he transformed the office, being frequently present in the university and making amusing speeches. He dined in all the colleges and notably favoured several which were regarded as unfashionable. With his ability to recall the supposedly golden years of Oxford before the First World War he fascinated the young and the middle-aged. He proved an effective fund-raiser in the USA and elsewhere. In retirement he continued to travel widely, including to China in 1979.

Macmillan's other focus of activity was publishing. He remained active in the family firm, and his publishing nose remained as keen as ever. He had already taken over the chairmanship from his brother Daniel in 1963, and following his retirement from politics he oversaw a period of substantial expansion in Africa and in Asia, and the development of educational publishing. He was especially involved in promoting the New Grove Dictionary of Music and the Dictionary of Art. (On his death, the management of the firm largely passed to non-family directors and in 1995 the family sold its majority stake to the German publishers Holtzbrinck.) He also devoted much time to the preparation of his memoirs, published between 1966 and 1972. His journals and diaries, kept systematically from the early 1940s, were from the start intended to form the basis of memoirs: he had observed Churchill's habit of preserving documents especially for this purpose, but in his case a diary was the preferred method. The diaries were candid in a controlled way, and clearly intended for posterity. There were gaps, notably during the crucial period of the Suez crisis. Intended as three volumes, the memoirs spread into six, for the author was his own publisher. But the expansion should not be regretted: the volumes are an unusually candid account of a political life, in the sense that they follow very closely the contemporary diaries (even when the latter are not being quoted). Even more unusually for a prime minister's memoirs, they admit mistakes. He also published his War Diaries (1984) which, among others matters, set in context the meeting on 13 May 1945 which became the focus of intense scrutiny in the mid-1980s as a result of the allegations by Count Nicolai Tolstoy, summarized in his The Minister and the Massacres (1986), with respect to Macmillan's responsibility for the return of prisoners of war to the Soviet Union in 1945—a controversy which gave Macmillan intense private distress, though he made no public riposte. He also published The Past Masters: Politics and Politicians, 1906–1939 (1975), a nod towards Churchill's Great Contemporaries.

Unsurprisingly the diaries and consequently the memoirs are discreet about Macmillan's personal and family life. Though reconciled with his wife, especially from 1960 onwards—indeed, their later married years turned into something of an Indian summer—Macmillan was to the end scarred by her affair with Boothby. He even suggested to his biographer, Alistair Horne, that the Boothby affair played a part in his erratic behaviour at the time of his resignation (Horne, 2.542). Lady Dorothy's death in 1966 left Macmillan bereft. His son Maurice overcame alcoholism and his modest political success was a joy to his father. Sarah Macmillan was also an alcoholic. Whether or not he was her father, Macmillan showed her special affection and, after Lady Dorothy's death, devoted much time to helping Sarah and looking after her two adopted sons; she died in 1970.

Especially after the death of his wife, Macmillan saw Oxford, and London clubland, as places of conviviality, and he quite often appeared without much notice. When visiting Oxford he frequently stayed at nearby Garsington Manor with his friend the historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, or at All Souls with the warden, John Sparrow. He enjoyed the company of women 'who make me feel safe' (Horne, 2.606), including Ava Waverley, Ruth Wheeler-Bennett, Lady Diana Cooper, and Eileen O'Casey. The last—the widow of the playwright Sean O'Casey, and herself a noted actress—claimed after Macmillan's death that their friendship had included a romantic element (though of the nature of their relationship she gave varying accounts). Throughout his life Macmillan was shy in dealing with forceful women, and he made a mortal enemy of Dame Rebecca West after turning his back on her at a literary luncheon and speaking to Diana Cooper throughout.

Without membership of either house of parliament, Macmillan's political presence after 1964 was at best marginal. He assisted behind the scenes, but effectively ceased to be a force in national politics. He remained, however, an occasional presence through television programmes and after Margaret Thatcher's monetarist tendencies had become apparent (he was initially rather favourable to her leadership of the tory party and was consulted by her in the early stages of the Falkland crisis, recommending to her the establishment of a small war cabinet, as subsequently adopted) he used television with some effect to voice critical views (notably in The Way Ahead, made with Robert Mackenzie). He had accepted the Order of Merit in 1976, but no other public honours. However, on his ninetieth birthday, 10 February 1984, it was announced that he was to become earl of Stockton, the first hereditary peerage for a generation. (His son Maurice was by then extremely ill, and died a month later.) After his maiden speech on 13 November 1984 he became a frequent attender at the House of Lords, often making anti-monetarist comments. But it was in a speech to the Tory Reform Group on 8 November 1985 that his remark (subsequently repeated in the House of Lords) that the government's privatization policy amounted to 'selling the family silver' hit a raw nerve. It made no difference to government policy, but the remark stung, especially as it cleverly used the same simplistic language of domestic finance commonly employed by Mrs Thatcher to justify her policies.

Though Macmillan lived at Birch Grove in Sussex all his life, he played no special role in county life. The staff at Birch Grove had mostly served there most of their working lives; he was well known among them for endearing behaviour. In old age, he became something of a national treasure. He played the part well. A lone survivor of the wartime government, he had no difficulty, when he chose, in upstaging the pedestrian characters of British politics in the 1980s.

Despite his war wounds, his many operations, and his own fear of physical decline, Macmillan's body stood up remarkably well. But by 1985 he suffered not merely from the long-term afflictions which had kept him in pain for much of his adult life, and which in his latter years caused constant insomnia, but now also from pleurisy, shingles, and gout. His last Oxford appearance was in November 1986. On 29 December 1986 he died at Birch Grove. He was buried on 5 January 1987 next to his wife and Sarah in the nearby churchyard of St Giles, Horsted Keynes, Sussex. On 10 February 1987 a memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey. He was succeeded as second earl by his grandson, Alexander Daniel Alan Macmillan (b. 1943).

Iconography, biography, and assessment

Macmillan seemed a gift for an artist or cartoonist, but proved easier for the latter. His strong features, languid moustache, and fine head of hair gave him, especially in his later years, a powerful physical presence. The donnish element so obvious in wartime photographs (deliberately contrasting with the surrounding uniforms) was subsumed into the character of the ‘gent’ which Macmillan so sedulously exploited. Bryan Organ's double portrait for Oxford University (1980) brilliantly captures this aspect of his character, but other portraits, which include that of James Gunn (1962, Balliol College, Oxford) of Macmillan in his chancellor's robes, are for the most part pedestrian, as is the bust by Angela Conner (1973, NPG). The cartoons by Vicky depicted Macmillan in various guises, often on the ‘Supermac’ theme, and remain powerful images.

Though Macmillan's memoirs staked out the biographical ground on his own terms, he was the subject of a striking study, Macmillan: a Study in Ambiguity, by Anthony Sampson (1967). Macmillan chose Alistair Horne as his official biographer, and gave Horne many interviews which, together with the full version of the diaries, played a central part in Horne's well-researched two-volume life (1988–9), especially with respect to Macmillan's complex personal life. His was not the first prime-ministerial biography to be commissioned during the subject's lifetime, but it was unusual in the extent to which it was prepared with the help of the subject, particularly through extensive interviews. Several members of the Macmillan circle published recollections, including Lord Egremont (John Wyndham), Wyndham and Children First (1968), and Harold Evans, Macmillan's press secretary, Downing Street Diary: the Macmillan Years (1981). Numerous biographies and political studies followed, especially after the papers of the Macmillan government were made available to researchers at the Public Record Office under the thirty-year rule. Macmillan's private papers and diaries were deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, after the completion of Horne's biography.

Macmillan's premiership was a decisive period in terms of Britain's self-appraisal as a world power and the decisions consequent on that appraisal. But he took care to play down the extent of changes in British policy, and to disguise some of the more disquieting conclusions which arose. In personal terms, Macmillan tried to distance himself from the all-consuming embrace of professional politics. He read widely and was genuinely erudite on a wide range of subjects, often disguising his erudition until a suitable tactical moment in the conversation. His complex personality puzzled and sometimes unsettled his colleagues. His old-world manner was in some respects a perfect cover for modernization, but it was never clear how seriously either the manner or the modernization was to be taken.

Macmillan handed over to Lord Home, a man apparently in his own style of Conservatism. But this, like so much else that Macmillan did, was an uncertain message. Macmillan was not in fact a county tory, for all his love of the grouse moors and his Devonshire relations. In his two constituencies he represented working-class and then suburban Britain, and in doing so he followed the character of his century. He had a better grasp of economic issues than any prime minister of the century, with the possible exception of Harold Wilson; and, unlike Wilson, he combined wide reading and theoretical understanding with practical knowledge of the running of a business. He co-ordinated with skill, cunning, and a certain degree of deception Britain's retreat from world power status. He was sometimes unwilling to do more than hint to his party and his nation the direction in which he was leading, but this was perhaps because he saw that the Britons of his day could not and would not face the facts.


  • H. Macmillan, Winds of change, 1914–1939 (1966)
  • H. Macmillan, The blast of war, 1939–1945 (1967) [vol. 2 of autobiography]
  • H. Macmillan, Tides of fortune, 1945–1955 (1969) [vol. 3 of autobiography]
  • H. Macmillan, Riding the storm, 1956–1959 (1971)
  • H. Macmillan, Pointing the way, 1959–1961 (1972) [vol. 5 of autobiography]
  • H. Macmillan, At the end of the day, 1961–1963 (1973) [vol. 6 of autobiography]
  • H. Macmillan, War diaries: politics and war in the Mediterranean, January 1943 – May 1945 (1984)
  • Macmillan diaries, Bodl. Oxf.
  • A. Sampson, Macmillan: a study in ambiguity (1967)
  • G. Hutchinson, The last Edwardian at no. 10 (1980)
  • N. Fisher, Harold Macmillan (1982)
  • A. Horne, Macmillan, 2 vols. (1988–9)
  • J. Turner, Macmillan (1994)
  • R. Lamb, The Macmillan years, 1957–1963: the emerging truth (1995)
  • R. Aldous and S. Lee, eds., Harold Macmillan and Britain's world role (1996)
  • R. Aldous and S. Lee, eds., Harold Macmillan: aspects of a political life (1999)
  • J. Charmley, ‘Harold Macmillan and the making of the French committee of liberation’, International History Review, 4 (Nov 1982), 475–627
  • J. P. S. Gearson, Harold Macmillan and the Berlin wall crisis, 1958–62 (1998)
  • L. V. Scott, Macmillan, Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis (1999)
  • J. Tratt, The Macmillan government and Europe: a study in the process of policy development (1996)
  • D. Ritschel, The politics of planning (1997)
  • A. N. Porter and A. J. Stockwell, British imperial policy and decolonization, 1938–64, 2 vols. (1987–9)
  • I. Clark and N. J. Wheeler, The British origins of nuclear strategy, 1945–1955 (1989)
  • M. S. Navias, Nuclear weapons and British strategic planning, 1955–1958 (1991)
  • W. S. Lucas, Divided we stand: Britain, the US and the Suez crisis (1991)
  • J. Ramsden, The age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902–1940 (1978)
  • J. Ramsden, The age of Churchill and Eden, 1940–1957 (1995)
  • J. Ramsden, The winds of change: Macmillan to Heath, 1957–1975 (1996)
  • R. R. James, Bob Boothby (1992)
  • M. Gilbert, Plough my own furrow: the story of Lord Allen of Hurtwood (1965)
  • M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 7: Road to victory, 1941–1945 (1986)
  • E. Waugh, The life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959)
  • private information (2004) [David Dilks]


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., diaries and constituency corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lionel Curtis
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Ava, Viscountess Waverley
  • Bodl. RH, corresp. with Sir R. R. Welensky and few papers relating to Rhodesia
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with P. G. Buchan-Hepburn
  • Durham RO, corresp. with Lady Londonderry
  • Highclere Castle, Hampshire, letters to Lord Porchester
  • NL Scot., letters to Lord Tweedsmuir
  • NL Wales, letters to Desmond Donnelly
  • Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook
  • TNA: PRO, CAB 21, 103, 124, 127, 128, 129, 134
  • TNA: PRO, DO 35, 169, 182
  • TNA: PRO, FCO 7, 12
  • TNA: PRO, Foreign Office papers, FO 800/663–690
  • TNA: PRO, PREM 5, 11
  • TNA: PRO, T 199
  • U. Birm., corresp. with Lord Avon and Lady Avon


  • BFINA, Reputations, BBC 2, 14 March 1996
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage


  • BL NSA, current affairs recordings
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, news recordings


  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1947, NPG
  • A. Newman, photograph, 1954, NPG [see illus.]
  • V. Weisz (Vicky), cartoons, 1957–63
  • J. Gunn, oils, 1960, Carlton Club, London
  • J. Gunn, oils, 1962, Balliol College, Oxford
  • D. Levine, ink caricature, 1966, NPG
  • M. Gerson, photograph, 1967, NPG
  • A. Conner, bronze bust, 1973, NPG
  • B. Organ, double portrait, oils, 1980, Oxford University
  • G. Davies, caricature, plaster head, NPG
  • H. Powell, pencil drawing, Hertford College, Oxford
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.
  • portraits, repro. in R. Dudley Edwards, Harold Macmillan: a life in pictures (1983)

Wealth at Death

£51,114: probate, 1 June 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Bodleian Library, Oxford
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)