Harold Macmillan

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The Right Honourable
The Earl of Stockton
Harold Macmillan number 10 official.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
10 January 1957 – 18 October 1963
Monarch Elizabeth II
Deputy Rab Butler
Preceded by Sir Anthony Eden
Succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Leader of the Conservative Party
In office
10 January 1957 – 18 October 1963
Preceded by Sir Anthony Eden
Succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
20 December 1955 – 13 January 1957
Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden
Preceded by Rab Butler
Succeeded by Peter Thorneycroft
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
7 April 1955 – 20 December 1955
Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden
Preceded by Sir Anthony Eden
Succeeded by Selwyn Lloyd
Minister of Defence
In office
19 October 1954 – 7 April 1955
Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill
Preceded by Earl Alexander of Tunis
Succeeded by Selwyn Lloyd
Minister of Housing and Local Government
In office
30 October 1951 – 19 October 1954
Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill
Preceded by Hugh Dalton
Succeeded by Duncan Sandys
Secretary of State for Air
In office
25 May 1945 – 26 July 1945
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by Sir Archibald Sinclair
Succeeded by Viscount Stansgate
Minister Resident in Northwest Africa
In office
30 December 1942 – 25 May 1945
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by New post
Succeeded by Harold Balfour
Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies
In office
4 February 1942 – 30 December 1942
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by George Hall
Succeeded by The Duke of Devonshire
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply
In office
15 May 1940 – 4 February 1942
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by John Llewellin
Succeeded by Viscount Portal
Member of Parliament
for Bromley
In office
14 November 1945 – 16 October 1964
Preceded by Sir Edward Campbell
Succeeded by John Hunt
Member of Parliament
for Stockton-on-Tees
In office
28 October 1931 – 6 July 1945
Preceded by Frederick Fox Riley
Succeeded by George Chetwynd
In office
30 October 1924 – 31 May 1929
Preceded by Robert Strother Stewart
Succeeded by Frederick Fox Riley
Personal details
Born Maurice Harold Macmillan
(1894-02-10)10 February 1894
Belgravia, Middlesex, England
Died 29 December 1986(1986-12-29) (aged 92)
Chelwood Gate, East Sussex, England
Resting place St Giles' Church, Horsted Keynes
Nationality British
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Lady Dorothy Cavendish (m. 1920; died 1966)
Children Maurice Macmillan (deceased)
Caroline Faber
Catherine Amery (deceased)
Sarah Heath (deceased)
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Profession Publisher
Religion Anglican[1]
Civilian awards Order of Merit
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Rank UK-Army-OF2.gif Captain
Unit Grenadier Guards
Battles/wars First World War
Military awards Allied Victory Medal BAR.svg Victory Medal
British War Medal BAR.svg British War Medal

Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton OM PC FRS[2] (10 February 1894 – 29 December 1986) was a British Conservative politician and statesman who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963, nicknamed "Supermac" and known for his pragmatism, wit and unflappability.

Macmillan served in the Grenadier Guards during the First World War. He was wounded three times, most severely in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He spent the rest of the war in a military hospital unable to walk, and suffered pain and partial immobility for the rest of his life. After the war Macmillan joined his family business, then entered Parliament in the 1924 General Election, for the northern industrial constituency of Stockton-on-Tees. After losing his seat in 1929, he regained it in 1931, soon after which he spoke out against the high rate of unemployment in Stockton-On-Tees, and against appeasement.

Rising to high office during the Second World War as a protégé of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Macmillan then served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Churchill's successor Sir Anthony Eden. When Eden resigned in 1957 after the Suez Crisis, Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister. As a One Nation Tory of the Disraelian tradition, haunted by memories of the Great Depression, he believed in the post-war settlement and the necessity of a mixed economy, championing a Keynesian strategy of public investment to maintain demand and pursuing corporatist policies to develop the domestic market as the engine of growth. Benefiting from favourable international conditions,[3] he presided over an age of affluence, marked by low unemployment and high if uneven growth. In his Bedford speech in July 1957 he told the nation they had 'never had it so good',[4] but warned of the dangers of inflation, summing up the fragile prosperity of the 1950s.[5] The Conservatives were re-elected in 1959 with an increased majority on an electioneering budget.

In international affairs, Macmillan rebuilt the special relationship with the United States from the wreckage of the Suez Crisis (of which he had been one of the architects), and redrew the world map by decolonising sub-Saharan Africa. Reconfiguring the nation's defences to meet the realities of the nuclear age, he ended National Service, strengthened the nuclear forces by acquiring Polaris, and pioneered the Nuclear Test Ban with the United States and the Soviet Union. Belatedly recognising the dangers of strategic dependence, he sought a new role for Britain in Europe, but his unwillingness to disclose United States nuclear secrets to France contributed to a French veto of the United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community.[6]

Near the end of his premiership, his government was rocked by the Vassall and Profumo scandals, which seemed to symbolise for the rebellious youth of the 1960s the moral decay of the British establishment.[7] After his resignation, Macmillan lived out a long retirement as an elder statesman. He was as trenchant a critic of his successors in his old age as he had been of his predecessors in his youth.

Macmillan was the last British prime minister born in the reign of Queen Victoria, the last to have served in the First World War, and the last to receive an hereditary peerage.


Early life[edit]


Macmillan was born at 52 Cadogan Place in Chelsea, London, to Maurice Crawford Macmillan (1853–1936), a publisher, and his wife, the former Helen (Nellie) Artie Tarleton Belles (1856–1937), an artist and socialite from Spencer, Indiana.[8] He had two brothers, Daniel, eight years his senior, and Arthur, four years his senior.[9] His paternal grandfather, Daniel MacMillan (1813–1857), who founded Macmillan publishing, was the son of a Scottish crofter from Isle of Arran.[10]


Macmillan claimed to remember Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, but his memory seems to his biographer suspiciously similar to Philip Guedalla's account. He remembered Queen Victoria’s funeral, the Relief of Mafeking and the victory of the “gallant little Japs” against the Russians at Tsushima.[11][12]

Macmillan received an intensive early education, closely guided by his American mother. He learned French at home every morning from a succession of nursery maids, and exercised daily at Mr Macpherson's Gymnasium and Dancing Academy, around the corner from the family home.[13] From the age of six or seven he received introductory lessons in classical Latin and Greek at Mr Gladstone's day school, close by in Sloane Square.[14]

Macmillan attended Summer Fields School, Oxford (1903–06). He was Third Scholar at Eton College,[15] but his time there (1906–10) was blighted by recurrent illness, starting with a near-fatal attack of pneumonia in his first half; he missed his final year after being invalided out,[16][17] and was taught at home by private tutors (1910–11), notably Ronald Knox, who did much to instil his High church Anglicanism.[18] He won an exhibition to Balliol, but was less of a scholar than his older brother Dan.[15]

University and early political views[edit]

As a child, teenager and later young man, he was an admirer of the policies and leadership of a succession of Liberal Prime Ministers, starting with Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who came to power near the end of 1905 when Macmillan was only 11 years old, and then H. H. Asquith, whom he later described as having "intellectual sincerity and moral nobility", and particularly of Asquith's successor, David Lloyd George, whom he regarded as a "man of action", likely to accomplish his goals.[19]

He went up to Balliol College, Oxford (1912–14), where he joined many political societies. His political opinions at this stage were an eclectic mix of moderate Conservatism, moderate Liberalism and Fabian Socialism. He read avidly about Disraeli, but was also particularly impressed by a speech by Lloyd George at the Oxford Union Society in 1913, where he had become a member and debater. He was a protégé of the then President Walter Monckton, later a Cabinet colleague, and became Secretary then Junior Treasurer (elected unopposed in March 1914, then an unusual occurrence) of the Union and would, in his biographers' view, "almost certainly" have been President had the war not intervened.[20][21] He obtained a First in Honours Moderations, informally known as Mods (consisting of Latin and Greek, the first half of the four-year Oxford Literae Humaniores course, informally known as Greats), in Hilary Term 1914. With his final exams over two years away, he enjoyed an idyllic Trinity (summer) term at Oxford, just before the outbreak of the First World War.[22]

War service[edit]

In his memoirs Macmillan later told of how he was at a ball in London on the night of Sunday 28 June, at which "Mr Cassini’s band" played, and had emerged to hear newspaper vendors proclaiming the “Murder of the Archduke”. No such ball has been traced, and the Archduke’s murder was not announced in the British Press until 2 July. However, it has recently been suggested that Macmillan may have confused a similar ball which took place on the night of Monday 3 August, when speculation was rife about a German invasion of Belgium and British entry into the war.[23]

Volunteering immediately for active service in the First World War, Macmillan was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifle Corps.[24] He soon transferred to the Grenadier Guards and fought on the front lines in France, where the casualty rate was known to be high, as was the probability of an "early and violent death".[19] He served with distinction as a captain and was wounded on three occasions. Shot in the right hand and receiving a glancing bullet wound to the head in the Battle of Loos in September 1915, Macmillan was sent to Lennox Gardens in Chelsea for hospital treatment, then joined a reserve battalion at Chelsea Barracks from January to March 1916, until his hand had healed. He then returned to the front lines in France. Leading an advance platoon in the Battle of Flers–Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) in September 1916, he was severely wounded, and lay for ten hours in a slit trench, sometimes feigning death when Germans passed, and reading the classical playwright Aeschylus in the original Greek.[25] The then-Prime Minister Asquith's own son, Raymond Asquith, was a brother officer in Macmillan's regiment, and was killed that month.[26]

Macmillan spent the final two years of the war in hospital undergoing a long series of operations.[27] He was still on crutches on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.[28] His hip wound took four years to heal completely, and he was left with a slight shuffle to his walk and a limp grip in his right hand from his previous wound, which affected his handwriting.[29] As was common for contemporary former officers, he continued to be known as 'Captain Macmillan' until the early 1930s.

Macmillan saw himself as both a “gownsman” and a “swordsman” and would later display open contempt for other politicians (e.g. Rab Butler, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson) who, often through no fault of their own, had not seen military service in either World War.[30]

Canadian aide-de-campship[edit]

Of the 28 freshmen who started at Balliol with Macmillan, only he and one other survived the war.[31] As a result, he refused to return to Oxford to complete his degree, saying the university would never be the same;[32] in later years he joked that he had been "sent down by the Kaiser".[33] He served in Ottawa, Canada, in 1919 as ADC to Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire, then Governor General of Canada, and his future father-in-law.[34]


On his return to London in 1920 he joined the family Macmillan publishing firm as a junior partner, remaining with the company until his appointment to ministerial office in 1940.

Personal life[edit]


Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, on 21 April 1920. Her great-uncle was Spencer Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire, who was leader of the Liberal Party in the 1870s, and a close colleague of William Ewart Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Salisbury. Lady Dorothy was also descended from William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, who served as Prime Minister from 1756 to 1757 in communion with Newcastle and Pitt the Elder. Her nephew William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington married Kathleen, a sister of John F. Kennedy.

In 1929 Lady Dorothy began a lifelong affair with the Conservative politician Robert Boothby, an arrangement that scandalised high society but remained unknown to the general public.[35] The stress caused by this may have contributed to Macmillan's nervous breakdown in 1931.[36] He was often treated with condescension by his aristocratic in-laws and was observed to be a sad and isolated figure at Chatsworth in the 1930s.[37] Campbell argues that Macmillan's humiliation was first a major cause of his odd and rebellious behaviour in the 1930s then, in subsequent decades, made him a harder and more ruthless politician than a number of his rivals.[38]

The Macmillans had four children:

Lady Dorothy died on 21 May 1966, aged 65, after 46 years of marriage.

Macmillan was in close friendship in old age with Ava Anderson, Viscountess Waverley, née Bodley (1896–1973), the widow of John Anderson, 1st Viscount Waverley.[40] Eileen O'Casey, née Reynolds (1900–95), the actress wife of Irish dramatist Seán O'Casey, was another female friend, Macmillan publishing her husband's plays. Although she is said to have replaced Lady Dorothy in Macmillan's affections, there is disagreement over how intimate they became after the death of their respective spouses, and whether he proposed.[41][42][43][44]

Political career, 1924–51[edit]

Member of Parliament (1924–29)[edit]

Macmillan contested the depressed northern industrial constituency of Stockton-on-Tees in 1923. The campaign cost him about £200-£300 out of his own pocket.[45] The collapse in the Liberal vote let him win in 1924.[46] In 1927 four MPs, including Boothby and Macmillan, published a short book advocating radical measures.[46] In 1928 Macmillan was described by his political hero, and now Parliamentary colleague, David Lloyd George, as a "born rebel".[19][47]

Macmillan lost his seat in 1929 in the face of high regional unemployment. He almost became Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Hitchin in 1931[48] but the sitting MP, Guy Molesworth Kindersley cancelled his retirement plans, in part because of his own association with the anti-Baldwin rebels and his suspicion of Macmillan's sympathy for Oswald Mosley's promises of radical measures to reduce unemployment. Instead, the fortunate resignation of the new candidate at Stockton allowed Macmillan to be re-selected there, and he returned to the House of Commons for his old seat in 1931.[47]

Member of Parliament (1931–9)[edit]

Macmillan spent the 1930s on the backbenches. In March 1932 he published “The State and Industry” (not to be confused with his earlier pamphlet “Industry and the State”).[49] In September 1932 he made his first visit to the USSR.[50] Macmillan also published “The Next Step”. He advocated cheap money and state direction of investment. In 1933 he was the sole author of “Reconstruction: A Plea for a National Unity”. In 1935 he was one of 15 MPs to write “Planning for Employment”. His next publication, “The Next Five Years”, was overshadowed by Lloyd George’s proposed "New Deal" in 1935.[49] Macmillan Press also published the work of the economist John Maynard Keynes.[46]

Macmillan resigned the Conservative whip in protest at the lifting of sanctions on Italy after her conquest of Abyssinia. "Chips" Channon described him as the “unprepossessing, bookish, eccentric member for Stockton-on-Tees” and recorded (8 July 1936) that he had been sent a “frigid note” by Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin later mentioned that he had survived by steering a middle course between Harold Macmillan and (the extreme right-winger) John Gretton.[51]

The Next Five Years Group, to which Macmillan had belonged, was wound up in November 1937. His book “The Middle Way” appeared in June 1938, advocating a broadly centrist political philosophy both domestically and internationally. Macmillan took control of the magazine “New Outlook” and made sure it published political tracts rather than purely theoretical work.[49]

Macmillan supported Chamberlain’s first flight for talks with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, but not his subsequent flights to Bad Godesberg and Munich. After Munich he was looking for a “1931 in reverse”, i.e. a Labour-dominated coalition in which some Conservatives would serve, the reverse of the Conservative-dominated coalition which had governed Britain since 1931.[52] He supported the independent candidate, Lindsay, at the Oxford by-election. He wrote a pamphlet “The Price of Peace” calling for alliance between Britain, France and the USSR, but expecting Poland to make territorial “accommodation” to Germany (i.e. give up the Danzig corridor). In “Economic Aspects of Defence”, early in 1939, he called for a Ministry of Supply.[53]

Phoney War (1939-40)[edit]

Macmillan visited Finland in February 1940, then the subject of great sympathy in Britain as she was being attacked by the USSR, then loosely allied to Nazi Germany. He wore a white fur hat, later to be seen on a trip to the USSR in the late 1950s. His last speech from the backbenches was to attack the government for not doing enough to help Finland. Britain was saved from a potentially embarrassing commitment when the Winter War ended in March 1940 (Finland would later fight on the German side against the USSR).[54]

Macmillan voted against the Government in the Norway Debate, helping to bring down Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and tried to join in with Colonel Josiah Wedgwood singing Rule Britannia in the House of Commons Chamber.[55]

Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Supply (1940–42)[edit]

Macmillan at last attained office by serving in the wartime coalition government as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply from 1940. Channon commented (29 May 1940) that there was “some amusement over Harold Macmillan’s so obvious enjoyment of his new position”.[56]

Macmillan's job was to provide armaments and other equipment to the British Army and Royal Air Force. He travelled up and down the country to co-ordinate production, working with some success under Lord Beaverbrook to increase the supply and quality of armoured vehicles.[57]

Colonial Under-Secretary (1942)[edit]

Macmillan was appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1942, in his own words "leaving a madhouse to enter a mausoleum".[58] Though a junior minister he was a member of the Privy Council, and he spoke in the House of Commons for Colonial Secretaries Lord Moyne and Lord Cranborne. Macmillan was given responsibility for increasing colonial production and trade, and signalled the future policy direction when in June 1942 he declared:

The governing principle of the Colonial Empire should be the principle of partnership between the various elements composing it. Out of partnership comes understanding and friendship. Within the fabric of the Commonwealth lies the future of the Colonial territories.[59]

Macmillan predicted that the Conservatives faced landslide defeat after the war, causing Channon to write (6 Sep 1944) of “the foolish prophecy of that nice ass Harold Macmillan”. In October 1942 Harold Nicolson recorded Macmillan as predicting “extreme socialism” after the war.[60] Macmillan nearly resigned when Oliver Stanley was appointed Secretary of State in November 1942, as he would no longer be the spokesman in the Commons as he had been under Cranborne. Brendan Bracken advised him not to quit.[61]

Minister Resident in the Mediterranean (1942–45)[edit]

Macmillan (top row, left) with Allied military leaders in the Sicilian campaign, 1943; Maj-Gen Bedell Smith to his right. Front Row: General Eisenhower (then Supreme Commander, Mediterranean), Air Chief Marshal Tedder, General Alexander, Admiral Cunningham

After Harry Crookshank had refused the job, Macmillan attained real power and Cabinet rank late in 1942 as British Minister Resident at Algiers in the Mediterranean, recently liberated in Operation Torch. He reported directly to the Prime Minister instead of to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Oliver Lyttelton had a similar job at Cairo, whilst Robert Murphy was Macmillan's US counterpart.[61] Macmillan built a rapport with US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean (SACMED), which proved helpful in his career,[62] and Richard Crossman later recalled that Macmillan’s “Greeks in the Roman Empire” metaphor dated from this time (i.e. that as the USA replaced Britain as the world's leading power, British politicians and diplomats should aim to guide her in the same way that Greek slaves and freedmen had advised powerful Romans).[63] At the Casablanca Conference Macmillan helped to secure US acceptance, if not recognition, of the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle.[64]

Macmillan was badly burned in a plane crash, trying to climb back into the plane to rescue a Frenchman. He had to have a plaster cast put on his face. In his delirium he imaged himself back in a Somme casualty clearing station and asked for a message to be passed to his mother, now dead.[65]

Together with Gladwyn Jebb he helped to negotiate the Italian armistice in August 1943, between the fall of Sicily and the Salerno Landings. This caused friction with Eden and the Foreign Office.[66] He was based at Caserta for the rest of the war. He was appointed UK High Commissioner for the Advisory Council for Italy late in 1943.[67] He visited London in October 1943 and again clashed with Eden. Eden appointed Duff Cooper as Ambassador to France (still under German occupation) and Noel Charles as Ambassador to Italy to reduce Macmillan’s influence.[68] In May 1944 Macmillan infuriated Eden by demanding an early peace treaty with Italy (at that time a pro-Allied regime under Badoglio held some power in the southern, liberated, part of Italy), a move which Churchill favoured. In June 1944 he argued for a British-led thrust up the Ljubljana Gap into Central Europe (Operation “Armpit”) instead of the planned diversion of US and Free French forces to the South of France (Operation Dragoon). This proposal impressed Churchill and General Alexander, but did not meet with American approval. Eden sent out Robert Dixon to abolish the job of Resident Minister, there being then no job for Macmillan back in the UK, but he managed to prevent his job being abolished. Churchill visited Italy in August 1944. On 14 September 1944 Macmillan was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Allied Central Commission for Italy (in succession to General Macfarlane). He continued to be British Minister Resident at Allied Headquarters and British Political adviser to "Jumbo" Wilson, now Supreme Commander, Mediterranean. On 10 November 1944 he was appointed Acting President of the Allied Commission (the Supreme Commander being President).[69]

Macmillan visited Greece on 11 December 1944. As the Germans had withdrawn, British troops under General Scobie had deployed to Athens, but there were concerns that the largely pro-communist Greek resistance, EAM and its military wing ELAS, would take power (see Greek Civil War) or come into conflict with British troops. Macmillan rode in a tank and was under sniper fire at the British Embassy. Despite the hostility of large sections of British and American opinion, who were sympathetic to the guerillas and hostile to what was seen as imperialist behaviour, he persuaded a reluctant Churchill, who visited Athens later in the month, to accept Archbishop Damaskinos as Regent on behalf of the exiled King George. A truce was negotiated in January 1945, enabling a pro-British regime to remain in power, as Churchill had demanded in the Percentages agreement the previous autumn.[70][71]

Macmillan was also the minister advising General Keightley of V Corps, the senior Allied commander in Austria responsible for Operation Keelhaul, which included the forced repatriation of up to 70,000 prisoners of war to the Soviet Union and Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia in 1945. The deportations and Macmillan's involvement later became a source of controversy because of the harsh treatment meted out to Nazi collaborators and anti-partisans by the receiving countries, and because in the confusion V Corps went beyond the terms agreed at Yalta and Allied Forces Headquarters directives by repatriating 4000 White Russian troops and 11,000 civilian family members, who could not properly be regarded as Soviet citizens.[72][73][74]

Air Secretary (1945)[edit]

Macmillan toyed with an offer to succeed Duff Cooper as MP for the safe Conservative seat of Westminster St George's.[48] Criticised locally for his long absence, he suggested that Lady Dorothy stand for Stockton in 1945, as she had been nursing the seat for five years. She was apparently willing. However, it was thought better for him to be seen to defend his seat, and Lord Beaverbrook had already spoken to Churchill to arrange that Macmillan be given another seat in the event of defeat.[75]

Macmillan returned to England after the European war, feeling himself 'almost a stranger at home'.[76] He was Secretary of State for Air for two months in Churchill's caretaker government, 'much of which was taken up in electioneering', there being 'nothing much to be done in the way of forward planning'.[77]

Opposition (1945-51)[edit]

Macmillan indeed lost Stockton in the landslide Labour victory of 1945, but returned to Parliament in the November 1945 by-election in Bromley. In his diary Harold Nicolson noted the feelings of the Tory backbenchers: "They feel that Winston is too old and Anthony (Eden) too weak. They want Harold Macmillan to lead them."[78]

Although Macmillan played an important role in drafting the “Industrial Charter” (“Crossbencher” in the Sunday Express called it the second edition of “The Middle Way”) he now, as MP for a safe seat, adopted a somewhat more right-wing public persona, defending private enterprise and fiercely opposing the Labour government in the House of Commons.[79]

Political career, 1951-7[edit]

Housing Minister (1951–54)[edit]

With the Conservative victory in 1951 Macmillan became Minister of Housing under Churchill, who entrusted him with fulfilling the pledge to build 300,000 houses per year (up from the previous target of 200,000 a year), made in response to a speech from the floor at the 1950 Party Conference. Macmillan thought at first that Housing, which ranked 13 out of 16 in the Cabinet list, was a poisoned chalice, writing in his diary (28 October 1951) that it was “not my cup of tea at all … I really haven’t a clue how to set about the job”. It meant obtaining scarce steel, cement and timber when the Treasury were trying to maximise exports and minimise imports.[80] 'It is a gamble—it will make or mar your political career,' Churchill said, 'but every humble home will bless your name if you succeed.'[81]

By July 1952 Macmillan was already criticising Butler (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) in his diary, accusing him of “dislik(ing) and fear(ing) him”; in fact there is no evidence that Butler regarded Macmillan as a rival at this stage. In April 1953 Beaverbrook encouraged Macmillan to think that in a future leadership contest he might emerge in a dead heat between Eden and Butler, as the young Beaverbrook (Max Aitken as he had been at the time) had helped Bonar Law to do in 1911.[82] In July 1953 Macmillan considered postponing his gall bladder operation in case Churchill, who had just suffered a serious stroke whilst Eden was also in hospital, had to step down.[83]

Macmillan achieved his housing target by the end of 1953, a year ahead of schedule.[84]

Defence Minister (1954–55)[edit]

Macmillan was Minister of Defence from October 1954, but found his authority restricted by Churchill's personal involvement.[85] In the opinion of The Economist: 'He gave the impression that his own undoubted capacity for imaginative running of his own show melted way when an august superior was breathing down his neck.'[86]

A major theme of his tenure at Defence was the ministry's growing reliance on the nuclear deterrent, in the view of some critics, to the detriment of conventional forces.[87] The Defence White Paper of February 1955, announcing the decision to produce the hydrogen bomb, received bipartisan support.[88]

“It breaks my heart to see the lion-hearted Churchill begin to sink into a sort of Petain”, Macmillan wrote in his diary as the Prime Minister’s mental and physical powers visibly decayed. Macmillan was one of the few ministers brave enough to tell Churchill to his face that it was time for him to retire.[89]

During the Second World War Macmillan's toothy grin, baggy trousers and rimless glasses had given him, as his biographer puts it, "an air of an early Bolshevik leader".[90] By the 1950s he had had his teeth capped, grew his hair in a more shapely style, wore Savile Row suits and walked with the ramrod bearing of a former Guards officer, acquiring the distinguished appearance of his later career.[91] Campbell writes “there has been no more startling personal reinvention in British politics”.[92] He very often wore either an Old Etonian or a Brigade of Guards tie.[93]

Foreign Secretary (1955)[edit]

Macmillan was Foreign Secretary in April–December 1955 in the government of Anthony Eden, who had taken over as prime minister from the retiring Churchill. Returning from the Geneva Summit of that year he made headlines by declaring: 'There ain't gonna be no war.'[94] Of the role of Foreign Secretary Macmillan observed:

Nothing he can say can do very much good and almost anything he may say may do a great deal of harm. Anything he says that is not obvious is dangerous; whatever is not trite is risky. He is forever poised between the cliché and the indiscretion.[94]

Chancellor of the Exchequer (1955–57)[edit]


Macmillan was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in December 1955. He had enjoyed his eight months as Foreign Secretary and did not wish to move. He insisted on being “undisputed head of the home front” and that Eden's de facto deputy Rab Butler, whom he was replacing as Chancellor, not have the title "Deputy Prime Minister" and not be treated as senior to him. He even tried (in vain) to demand that Salisbury, not Butler, should preside over the Cabinet in Eden’s absence. Macmillan later claimed in his memoirs that he had still expected Butler, his junior by eight years, to succeed Eden, but correspondence with Lord Woolton at the time makes clear that Macmillan was very much thinking of the succession. As early as January 1956 he told Eden’s press secretary William Clark that it would be “interesting to see how long Anthony can stay in the saddle”.[95]

Macmillan planned to reverse the 6d cut in income tax which Butler had made a year previously, but backed off after a “frank talk” with Butler, who threatened resignation, on 28 March 1956. He settled for spending cuts instead, and himself threatened resignation until he was allowed to cut bread and milk subsidies, something the Cabinet had not permitted Butler to do.[96]

One of his innovations at the Treasury was the introduction of premium bonds,[97] announced in his budget of 17 April 1956.[98] Although the Labour Opposition initially decried them as a 'squalid raffle', they proved an immediate hit with the public, with £1,000 won in the first prize draw in June 1957.


In November 1956 Britain invaded Egypt in collusion with France and Israel in the Suez Crisis. According to Labour Shadow Chancellor Harold Wilson, Macmillan was 'first in, first out':[99] first very supportive of the invasion, then a prime mover in Britain's humiliating withdrawal in the wake of the financial crisis caused by pressure from the US government.[100] Since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, relations between Britain and Egypt had deteriorated. The Egyptian government, which came to be dominated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, was opposed to the British military presence in the Arab World. The Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Nasser on 26 July 1956 prompted the British government and the French government of Guy Mollet to commence plans for invading Egypt, regaining the canal, and toppling Nasser. Macmillan wrote in his diary: "If Nasser 'gets away with it', we are done for. The whole Arab world will despise us ... Nuri [es-Said, British-backed Prime Minister of Iraq] and our friends will fall. It may well be the end of British influence and strength forever. So, in the last resort, we must use force and defy opinion, here and overseas".[101]

Macmillan threatened to resign if force was not used against Nasser.[102] He was heavily involved in the secret planning of the invasion with France and Israel. It was he who first suggested collusion with Israel.[103] On 5 August 1956 Macmillan met Churchill at Chartwell, and told him that the government's plan for simply regaining control of the canal was not enough and suggested involving Israel, recording in his diary for that day: "Surely, if we landed we must seek out the Egyptian forces; destroy them; and bring down Nasser's government. Churchill seemed to agree with all this."[104] Macmillan knew President Eisenhower well, but misjudged his strong opposition to a military solution. Macmillan met Eisenhower privately on 25 September 1956 and convinced himself that the US would not oppose the invasion,[105] despite the misgivings of the British Ambassador, Sir Roger Makins, who was also present. Macmillan failed to heed a warning from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that whatever the British government did should wait until after the US presidential election on 6 November, and failed to report Dulles' remarks to Eden.

The treasury was his portfolio, but he did not recognise the financial disaster that could result from US government actions. Sterling was draining out of the Bank of England at an alarming rate, and it was getting worse. The canal was blocked by the Egyptians, and most oil shipments were delayed as tankers had to go around Africa. The US government refused any financial help until Britain withdrew its forces from Egypt. When he did realise this, he changed his mind and called for withdrawal on US terms, while exaggerating the financial crisis.[106] On 6 November Macmillan informed the Cabinet that Britain had lost $370m in the first few days of November alone.[107] Faced with Macmillan's prediction of doom, the cabinet had no choice but to accept these terms and withdraw. The Canal remained in Egyptian hands, and Nasser's government continued its support of Arab and African national resistance movements opposed to the British and French presence in the region and on the continent.[106]

In later life Macmillan was open about his failure to read Eisenhower's thoughts correctly and much regretted the damage done to Anglo-American relations, but always maintained that the Anglo-French military response to the nationalisation of the Canal had been for the best.[108] D.R.Thorpe rejects the charge that Macmillan deliberately played false over Suez (i.e. encouraged Eden to attack in order to destroy him as Prime Minister), noting that Macmillan privately put the chances of success at 51-49.[109]

Succession to Eden[edit]

Britain’s humiliation at the hands of the USA caused deep anger amongst Conservative MPs. After the ceasefire a motion on the Order Paper attacking the USA for “gravely endangering the Atlantic Alliance” attracted the signatures of over a hundred MPs.[110] Macmillan tried, but failed, to see Eisenhower (who was also refusing to see Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd) behind Butler’s and Eden’s back. Macmillan had a number of meetings with US Ambassador Winthrop Aldrich, in which he said that if he were Prime Minister the US Administration would find him much more amenable. Eisenhower encouraged Aldrich to have further meetings. Macmillan and Butler met Aldrich on 21 November. Eisenhower spoke highly of Macmillan (“A straight, fine man, and so far as he is concerned, the outstanding one of the British he served with during the war”).[111][112]

On the evening of 22 November 1956 Butler, who had just announced British withdrawal, addressed the 1922 committee (Conservative backbenchers) with Macmillan. After Butler's downbeat remarks, ten minutes or so in length, Macmillan delivered a stirring thirty-five minute speech described by Enoch Powell as “one of the most horrible things that I remember in politics … (Macmillan) with all the skill of the old actor manager succeeded in false-footing Rab. The sheer devilry of it verged upon the disgusting.” He expounded on his metaphor that henceforth the British must aim to be “Greeks in the Roman Empire”, and according to Philip Goodhart’s recollection almost knocked Butler off his chair with his expansive arm gestures. Macmillan wrote “I held the Tory Party for the weekend, it was all I intended to do”. Macmillan had further meetings with Aldrich and Winston Churchill after Eden left for Jamaica (23 November) whilst briefing journalists (disingenuously) that he planned to retire and go to the Lords.[113][114] He was also hinting that he would not serve under Butler.[115]

Butler later recorded that during his period as acting Head of Government at Number Ten, he noticed constant comings and goings of ministers to Macmillan’s study in Number 11 next door – and that those who attended all seemed to receive promotions when Macmillan became Prime Minister. Macmillan had opposed Eden’s trip to Jamaica and told Butler (15 December, the day after Eden’s return) that younger members of the Cabinet wanted Eden out.[116] Macmillan argued at Cabinet on 4 January that Suez should be regarded as a “strategic retreat” like Mons or Dunkirk. This did not meet with Eden’s approval at Cabinet on 7 January.[117]

His political standing destroyed, Eden resigned on grounds of ill health on 9 January 1957.[118] At that time the Conservative Party had no formal mechanism for selecting a new leader, and the Queen appointed Macmillan Prime Minister after taking advice from Churchill and the Marquess of Salisbury, who had asked the Cabinet individually for their opinions, all but two or three opting for Macmillan. This surprised some observers who had expected that Eden's deputy Rab Butler would be chosen.[119] The political situation after Suez was so desperate that on taking office on 10 January he told the Queen he could not guarantee his government would last "six weeks" – though ultimately he would be in charge of the government for more than six years.[120]

Prime Minister (1957–63)[edit]

Macmillan with Indian Minister and head of Indian delegation Ashoke Kumar Sen and wife Anjana, daughter of Sudhi Ranjan Das

First government, 1957–59[edit]

From the start of his premiership, Macmillan set out to portray an image of calm and style, in contrast to his excitable predecessor. On his first evening as Prime Minister he took the Chief Whip Edward Heath for oysters at the Turf Club. He silenced the klaxon on the Prime Ministerial car, which Eden had used frequently, and advertised his love of reading Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. On the door of the Private Secretaries’ room at Number Ten he hung a quote from The Gondoliers: “Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot”.[121]

Macmillan filled government posts with 35 Old Etonians, seven of them in Cabinet.[122] He was also devoted to family members: when Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire was later appointed (Minister for Colonial Affairs from 1963 to 1964 amongst other positions) he described his uncle's behaviour as "the greatest act of nepotism ever".[123]

He was nicknamed Supermac in 1958 by the cartoonist Vicky (Victor Weisz). It was intended as mockery but backfired, coming to be used in a neutral or friendly fashion. Vicky tried to label him with other names, including "Mac the Knife" at the time of widespread cabinet changes in 1962, but none caught on.[124]


Besides Foreign Affairs, the economy was Macmillan's other prime concern. His One Nation approach to the economy was to seek high or full employment, especially with a General Election looming. This contrasted with the Treasury ministers who argued that support of sterling required spending cuts and, probably, a rise in unemployment. Their advice was rejected and in January 1958 the three Treasury ministers - Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Birch, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Enoch Powell, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and seen as their intellectual ringleader - resigned. D.R.Thorpe argues that this, coming after the resignations of Labour ministers Aneurin Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson in April 1951 (who had wanted higher expenditure), and the cuts made by Butler and Macmillan as Chancellors in 1955-6, was another step in the development of "Stop-Go economics", as opposed to prudent medium-term management.[125] Macmillan, away on a tour of the Commonwealth, brushed aside this incident as 'a little local difficulty'. He bore no grudge against Thorneycroft and brought him and Powell, of whom he was more wary, back into the government in 1960.[126]

This period also saw the first stirrings of more active monetary policy. Bank rate, which had been kept low since the 1930s, was hiked in September 1958.[125]

Domestic Policies[edit]

During his time as prime minister, average living standards steadily rose[127] while numerous social reforms were carried out. The 1956 Clean Air Act was passed during his time as Chancellor; his premiership saw the 1957 Housing Act, the 1960 Offices Act, the 1960 Noise Abatement Act,[128] the Factories Act 1961, the introduction of a graduated pension scheme to provide an additional income to retirers,[129] the establishment of a Child's Special Allowance for the orphaned children of divorced parents,[130] and a reduction in the standard work week from 48 to 42 hours.[131]

Foreign policy[edit]

Macmillan being welcomed by Prempeh II in January 1960

Macmillan took close control of foreign policy. He worked to narrow the post-Suez Crisis (1956) rift with the United States, where his wartime friendship with Eisenhower was key; the two had a productive conference in Bermuda as early as March 1957.

In February 1959 Macmillan visited the Soviet Union. Talks with Nikita Khrushchev eased tensions in East-West relations over West Berlin and led to an agreement in principle to stop nuclear tests and to hold a further summit meeting of Allied and Soviet heads of government.[132]

In the Middle East, faced by the 1958 collapse of the Baghdad Pact and the spread of Soviet influence, Macmillan acted decisively to restore the confidence of Persian Gulf allies, using the Royal Air Force and special forces to defeat a revolt backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt against the Sultan of Oman, Said bin Taimur, in July 1957;[133] deploying airborne battalions to defend Jordan against Syrian subversion in July 1958,;[134] and deterring a threatened Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by landing a brigade group in July 1960.[135]

Macmillan was a major proponent and architect of decolonisation. The Gold Coast was granted independence as Ghana, and the Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1957.

Nuclear weapons[edit]

First successful British H-bomb test – Operation Grapple X Round C1, which took place over Kiritimati

In April 1957 Macmillan reaffirmed his strong support for the British nuclear weapons programme. A succession of prime ministers since the Second World War had been determined to persuade the United States to revive wartime co-operation in the area of nuclear weapons research. Macmillan believed that one way to encourage such co-operation would be for the United Kingdom to speed up the development of its own hydrogen bomb, which was successfully tested on 8 November 1957.

Macmillan's decision led to increased demands on the Windscale and (subsequently) Calder Hall nuclear plants to produce plutonium for military purposes.[136] As a result, safety margins for radioactive materials inside the Windscale reactor were eroded. This contributed to the Windscale fire on the night of 10 October 1957, which broke out in the plutonium plant of Pile No. 1, and nuclear contaminants travelled up a chimney where the filters blocked some, but not all, of the contaminated material. The radioactive cloud spread to south-east England and fallout reached mainland Europe. Although scientists had warned of the dangers of such an accident for some time, the government blamed the workers who had put out the fire for 'an error of judgement', rather than the political pressure for fast-tracking the megaton bomb.[137][138]

Concerned that public confidence in the nuclear programme might be shaken and that technical information might be misused by opponents of defence co-operation in the US Congress, Macmillan withheld all but the summary of a report into the fire prepared for the Atomic Energy Authority by Sir William Penney, director of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.[139] While subsequently released files show that 'Macmillan's cuts were few and covered up few technical details',[140] and that even the full report found no danger to public health, but later official estimates acknowledged that the release of polonium-210 may have led directly to 25 to 50 deaths, and anti-nuclear groups linked it to 1,000 fatal cancers.[141][142]

On 25 March 1957 Macmillan acceded to Eisenhower's request to base 60 Thor IRBMs in England under joint control to replace the nuclear bombers of the Strategic Air Command, which had been stationed under joint control since 1948 and were approaching obsolescence. Partly as a consequence of this favour, in late October 1957 the US McMahon Act was eased to facilitate nuclear co-operation between the two governments, initially with a view to producing cleaner weapons and reducing the need for duplicate testing.[143] The Mutual Defence Agreement followed on 3 July 1958, speeding up British ballistic missile development,[144] notwithstanding unease expressed at the time about the impetus co-operation might give to atomic proliferation by arousing the jealousy of France and other allies.[145]

1959 general election[edit]

Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in the 1959 general election, increasing his party's majority from 67 to 107 seats. The campaign was based on the economic improvements achieved; the slogan "Life's Better Under the Conservatives" was matched by Macmillan's own remark, '"indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good,"[146] usually paraphrased as "You've never had it so good." Such rhetoric reflected a new reality of working-class affluence; it has been argued that "the key factor in the Conservative victory was that average real pay for industrial workers had risen since Churchill's 1951 victory by over 20 per cent".[147]

The Daily Mirror, despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on its front page after his win.[148]

Second government, 1959–63[edit]


Britain's balance of payments problems led Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd to impose a seven-month wage freeze in 1961[149] and, amongst other factors, this caused the government to lose popularity and a series of by-elections in March 1962, of which the most famous was Orpington on 14 March.[150] Butler leaked to the Daily Mail on 11 July 1962 that a major reshuffle was imminent.[151] Macmillan feared for his own position and later (1 August) claimed to Lloyd that Butler, who sat for a rural East Anglian seat likely to suffer from EEC agricultural protectionism, had been planning to split the party over EEC entry (there is no evidence that this was so).[152]

In the reshuffle known as the 'Night of the Long Knives' Macmillan sacked eight Ministers, including Selwyn Lloyd. The Cabinet changes were widely seen as a sign of panic, and the young Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe said of Macmillan's dismissals 'greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life'. Macmillan was openly criticised by his predecessor Lord Avon, an almost unprecedented act.[153]

Macmillan supported the creation of the National Incomes Commission (NIC) to institute controls on income as part of his growth-without-inflation policy. The NIC was founded in October 1962. However, largely due to employers and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boycotting it, the NIC proved to be ineffectual. Instead, the National Economic Development Council (NEDC) was created.[149] A further series of subtle indicators and controls was introduced during his premiership.

Foreign policy[edit]

British decolonisation in Africa.

In the age of jet aircraft Macmillan travelled more than any previous Prime Minister, apart from Lloyd George who made many trips to conferences in 1919-22.[154]

The special relationship with the United States continued after the election of President John F. Kennedy, whose sister Kathleen Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington had married William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, the nephew of Macmillan's wife. He was supportive throughout the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and Kennedy consulted him by telephone every day. The British Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore was a close family friend of the President and actively involved in White House discussions on how to resolve the crisis.

Macmillan's first government had seen the first phase of the sub-Saharan African independence movement, which accelerated under his second government. His 'wind of change' speech in Cape Town on his African tour in February 1960 is considered a landmark in the process of decolonisation.

Macmillan felt that if the costs of holding onto a particular territory outweighed the benefits then it should be dispensed with. After securing a third term for the Conservatives in 1959 he appointed Iain Macleod as Colonial Secretary. Macleod greatly accelerated decolonisation and by the time he was moved to Conservative Party chairman and Leader of the Commons in 1961 he had made the decision to give independence to Nigeria, Tanganyika, Kenya, Nyasaland (as Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia).[155]

Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons and British Somaliland were granted independence in 1960, Sierra Leone and Tanganyika in 1961, Trinidad Tobago and Uganda in 1962, and Kenya in 1963. Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1963. All remained within the Commonwealth but British Somaliland, which merged with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia.

Macmillan's policy overrode the hostility of white minorities and the Conservative Monday Club. South Africa left the multiracial Commonwealth in 1961 and Macmillan acquiesced to the dissolution of the Central African Federation by the end of 1963.

In Southeast Asia, Malaya, Sabah (British North Borneo), Sarawak and Singapore became independent as Malaysia in 1963.

The speedy transfer of power maintained the goodwill of the new nations but critics contended it was premature. In justification Macmillan quoted Lord Macaulay in 1851:

Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free until they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water until he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty until they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever.[156]

Skybolt crisis[edit]

Macmillan and John F. Kennedy confer in 1961

Macmillan cancelled the Blue Streak ballistic missile in April 1960 over concerns about its vulnerability to a pre-emptive attack, but continued with the development of the air-launched Blue Steel stand-off missile, which was about to enter trials. For the replacement for Blue Steel he opted for Britain to join the American Skybolt missile project. From the same year Macmillan permitted the US Navy to station Polaris submarines at Holy Loch, Scotland, as a replacement for Thor. When Skybolt was unilaterally cancelled by US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Macmillan negotiated with President Kennedy the purchase of Polaris missiles under the Nassau agreement in December 1962.


Macmillan worked with states outside the European Economic Community (EEC) to form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which from 3 May 1960 established a free-trade area. Macmillan also saw the value of rapprochement with the EEC, to which his government sought belated entry, but Britain's application was vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle on 29 January 1963. De Gaulle was always strongly opposed to British entry for many reasons. He sensed the British were inevitably closely linked to the Americans. He saw the EEC as a continental arrangement primarily between France and Germany, and if Britain joined France's role would diminish.[157][158]

Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963)[edit]

Macmillan's previous attempt to create an agreement at the May 1960 summit in Paris had collapsed due to the 1960 U-2 incident. He was a force in the negotiations leading to the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty by the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. He sent Lord Hailsham to negotiate the Test Ban Treaty, a sign that he was grooming him as a potential successor.[159]

President Kennedy visited Macmillan's country home, Birch Grove, on 29–30 June 1963, for talks about the planned Multilateral Force. They never met again, and this was to be Kennedy’s last visit to the UK. He was assassinated in November, shortly after the end of Macmillan's premiership.[160]

End of Premiership[edit]

D.R. Thorpe writes that from January 1963 “Macmillan’s strategy lay in ruins” leaving him looking for a “graceful exit”. The Vassall Affair turned the press against him.[161]

Profumo affair[edit]

The Profumo affair of 1963 permanently damaged the credibility of Macmillan's government. In the ensuing Parliamentary debate he was seen as a pathetic figure, whilst Nigel Birch declared, in the words of Browning on Wordsworth, that it would “Never (be) Glad Confident Morning Again”.[162] He survived a Parliamentary vote with a majority of 69, one fewer than had been thought necessary for his survival, and was afterwards joined in the smoking-room only by his son and son-in-law, not by any Cabinet minister. However, Butler and Maudling (who was very popular with backbench MPs at that time) declined to push for his resignation, especially after a tide of support from Conservative activists around the country.


By the summer of 1963 Conservative Party Chairman Lord Poole was urging Macmillan to retire.[159] The full Denning report into the Profumo Scandal was published on 26 September 1963.[163]

Macmillan had a meeting with Butler on 11 September and was careful to keep his options open (retire now, retire in the New Year, or fight the next election). He talked the matter over with his son Maurice and other senior ministers. Over lunch with Lord Swinton on 30 September he favoured stepping down, but only if Hailsham could be shoehorned in as his successor. He saw Butler on the morning of 7 October and told him he planned to stay on lead the Conservatives into the next General Election, then was struck down by prostate trouble on the night of 7–8 October, on the eve of the Conservative Party conference.[164][165]

Macmillan was operated on at 11.30am on Thursday 10 October. Although it is sometimes stated that he believed himself to have inoperable prostate cancer, he in fact knew it was benign before the operation.[166] Macmillan was almost ready to leave hospital within ten days of the diagnosis and could easily have carried on, in the opinion of his doctor Sir John Richardson.[167] His illness gave him a way out. Whilst recovering in hospital, he wrote a memorandum (14 October) recommending the process by which "soundings" would be taken of party opinion to select his successor, which was accepted by the Cabinet on 15 October.[168]

Enoch Powell claimed that it was wrong of Macmillan to seek to monopolise the advice given to the Queen in this way. In fact, this was done at the Palace’s request, so that the Queen was not being seen to be involved in politics as had happened in January 1957, and had been decided as far back as June when it had looked as though the government might fall over the Profumo scandal. Ben Pimlott later described this as the “biggest political misjudgement of her reign”.[169]


Macmillan was succeeded by Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home in a controversial move; it was alleged that Macmillan had pulled strings and utilised the party's grandees, nicknamed 'The Magic Circle', who had slanted their "soundings" of opinion amongst MPs and Cabinet Ministers to ensure that Butler was (once again) not chosen.[170]

He finally resigned, receiving the Queen from his hospital bed, on 18 October 1963. He felt privately that he was being hounded from office by a backbench minority:

Some few will be content with the success they have had in the assassination of their leader and will not care very much who the successor is.... They are a band that in the end does not amount to more than 15 or 20 at the most.[171]

Historians' assessments of Macmillan's premiership[edit]

C. P. Snow wrote to Macmillan that his reputation would endure as, like Churchill, he was “psychologically interesting”.[172]

Horne, his official biographer, concedes that after his re-election in 1959 Macmillan’s premiership suffered a series of major setbacks.[173]

Campbell argues that Macmillan is remembered as having been “a rather seedy conjuror”, famous for Premium Bonds, Beeching’s cuts to the railways, stop-go economics (Selwyn Lloyd’s Pay Pause, followed by the Maudling boom), and the Profumo Scandal. In the 1980s the aged Macmillan was seen as “a slightly pathetic figure”.[174]

Dominic Sandbrook writes that Macmillan’s final weeks were typical of his premiership, “devious, theatrical and self-seeking” although not without droll wit and intelligence. Macmillan is best remembered for the “affluent society”, which he inherited rather than created in the late 1950s, but chancellors came and went and by the early 1960s economic policy was “nothing short of a shambles”, whilst his achievements in foreign policy made little difference to the lives of the public. By the time he left office, largely unlamented at the time, he was associated not with prosperity but with “anachronism and decay”.[175]

D.R.Thorpe writes that by the early 1960s Macmillan was seen as “the epitome of all that was wrong with anachronistic Britain. This was an unfair charge.” “The essence of his persona was as elusive as mercury.” He was not a member of "the Establishment" - in fact he was a businessman who had married into the aristocracy and a rebel Chancellor of Oxford. “He had style in abundance, (and) was a star on the world stage”. Thorpe argues that despite his 1960 “Winds of Change” speech, he was largely pushed into rapid independence for African countries by Maudling and Macleod.[176]

Richard Lamb argues that Macmillan was “by far the best of Britain’s postwar Prime Ministers, and his administration performed better than any of their successors”. Lamb argues that it is unfair to blame Macmillan for excessively quick African independence (resulting in many former colonies becoming dictatorships), or for the Beeching Plan (which was accepted by Labour in 1964, although Macmillan himself had reservations and had asked civil servants to draw up plans for extra road-building), and argues that had he remained in power Macmillan would never have allowed inflation to get as far out of hand as it did in the 1970s.[177]

John Turner (1994) praised Macmillan’s conduct of foreign affairs.[175]

Retirement, 1963–86[edit]

Macmillan initially refused a peerage and retired from politics in September 1964, a month before the 1964 election, which the Conservatives narrowly lost to Labour, now led by Harold Wilson.[178]

Oxford chancellor (1960–86)[edit]

Macmillan had been elected Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1960, in a campaign masterminded by Hugh Trevor-Roper, and held this office for the rest of his life, frequently presiding over college events, making speeches and tirelessly raising funds. According to Sir Patrick Neill QC, the vice-chancellor, Macmillan 'would talk late into the night with eager groups of students who were often startled by the radical views he put forward, well into his last decade.'[179]

Return to publishing[edit]

In retirement Macmillan took up the chairmanship of his family's publishing house, Macmillan Publishers, from 1964 to 1974. He brought out a six-volume autobiography:

  1. Winds of Change, 1914–1939 (1966) ISBN 0-333-06639-1
  2. The Blast of War, 1939–1945 (1967) ISBN 0-333-00358-6
  3. Tides of Fortune, 1945–1955 (1969) ISBN 0-333-04077-5
  4. Riding the Storm, 1956–1959 (1971) ISBN 0-333-10310-6
  5. Pointing the Way, 1959–1961 (1972) ISBN 0-333-12411-1
  6. At the End of the Day, 1961–1963 (1973) ISBN 0-333-12413-8

Macmillan’s biographer acknowledges that his memoirs were considered “heavy going”.[180] Reading these volumes was said by Macmillan's political enemy Enoch Powell to induce 'a sensation akin to that of chewing on cardboard'.[181] Butler wrote in his review of “Riding the Storm”: “Altogether this massive work will keep anybody busy for several weeks”.[182]

Macmillan's wartime diaries were better received.

  • War Diaries: Politics and War in the Mediterranean, January 1943 – May 1945 (London: St. Martin's Press, 1984) ISBN 0-312-85566-4

Since Macmillan's death, his diaries for the 1950s and 1960s have also been published:

  • The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950-57 (London: Macmillan, 2003) ISBN 0-333-71167-X
  • The Macmillan Diaries Vol II: Prime Minister and After: 1957-1966 (London: Macmillan, 2011) ISBN 1-405-04721-6

Macmillan burned his diary for the climax of the Suez Affair, supposedly at Eden’s request, although in Campbell’s view more likely to protect his own reputation.[183]

London Clubs[edit]

Macmillan was a member of many clubs. He became President of the Carlton Club in 1977 and would often stay at the club when he had to stay in London overnight. Within a few months of becoming President he merged the Carlton and Junior Carlton. He was also an active member of Buck's and Pratt's. He also once commented that White's was 75% gentlemen and 25% crooks, the perfect combination for a club.[184]

Political interventions[edit]

Macmillan made occasional political interventions in retirement. Responding to a remark made by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson about not having boots in which to go to school, Macmillan retorted: 'If Mr Wilson did not have boots to go to school that is because he was too big for them.'[185]

Macmillan accepted the Order of Merit in 1976.[186] In October of that year he called for 'a Government of National Unity' including all parties, which could command the public support to resolve the economic crisis. Asked who could lead such a coalition, he replied: "Mr Gladstone formed his last Government when he was eighty-three. I'm only eighty-two. You mustn't put temptation in my way."[187] His plea was interpreted by party leaders as a bid for power and rejected.

Macmillan still travelled widely, visiting China in October 1979, where he held talks with senior Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.[188]

Relations with Margaret Thatcher[edit]

Macmillan became critical of Margaret Thatcher, pictured in 1975.

Macmillan found himself drawn more actively into politics after Margaret Thatcher became Conservative leader in February 1975,[189] and Prime Minister in May 1979 when the Tories ended Labour's five-year rule with an election win,[190] and the record of his own premiership came under attack from the monetarists in the party, whose theories she supported. In a celebrated speech he wondered aloud where such theories had come from:

Was it America? Or was it Tibet? It is quite true, many of Your Lordships will remember it operating in the nursery. How do you treat a cold? One nanny said, 'Feed a cold'; she was a neo-Keynesian. The other said, 'Starve a cold'; she was a monetarist.[191]

On Macmillan's advice in April 1982 Thatcher set up a small War Cabinet to manage the Falklands War.[192] On his advice she excluded the Treasury from this body.[193] She later said: 'I never regretted following Harold Macmillan's advice. We were never tempted to compromise the security of our forces for financial reasons. Everything we did was governed by military necessity.'[194]

Macmillan finally accepted a peerage and on 24 February 1984 he was created Earl of Stockton and Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden.[195] He took the title from his former parliamentary seat on the edge of the Durham coalfields, and in his maiden speech in the House of Lords he criticised Thatcher's handling of the coal miners' strike and her characterisation of striking miners as 'the enemy within'.[196] He received an unprecedented standing ovation for his oration, which included the words:

It breaks my heart to see—and I cannot interfere—what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser's and Hitler's armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing. Then there is the growing division of Conservative prosperity in the south and the ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.[191]

As Chancellor of Oxford University, Macmillan condemned its refusal in February 1985 to award Thatcher an honorary degree. He noted that the decision represented a break with tradition, and predicted that the snub would rebound on the university.[197]

Macmillan is widely supposed to have likened Thatcher's policy of privatisation to 'selling the family silver'. His precise quote, at a dinner of the Tory Reform Group at the Royal Overseas League on 8 November 1985, was on the subject of the sale of assets commonplace among individuals or states when they encountered financial difficulties: 'First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.' Profitable parts of the steel industry and the railways had been privatised, along with British Telecom: 'They were like two Rembrandts still left.'[198]

Macmillan's speech was much commented on, and a few days later he made a speech in the House of Lords, referring to it:

When I ventured the other day to criticise the system I was, I am afraid, misunderstood. As a Conservative, I am naturally in favour of returning into private ownership and private management all those means of production and distribution which are now controlled by state capitalism. I am sure they will be more efficient. What I ventured to question was the using of these huge sums as if they were income.[199]

Death and funeral[edit]

The Macmillan family graves in 2012 at St Giles' Church, Horsted Keynes. Macmillan's grave is on the right.

Macmillan died at Birch Grove, the Macmillan family mansion on the edge of Ashdown Forest near Chelwood Gate in East Sussex, four days after Christmas in 1986. His age was 92 years and 322 days— the greatest age attained by a British Prime Minister until surpassed by James Callaghan on 14 February 2005. His grandson and heir Alexander, Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden, said: 'In the last 48 hours he was very weak but entirely reasonable and intelligent. His last words were, "I think I will go to sleep now".'[200][201]

On receiving the news, Thatcher hailed him as 'a very remarkable man and a very great patriot', and said that his dislike of 'selling the family silver' had never come between them. He was 'unique in the affection of the British people'.[202]

Tributes came from around the world. US President Ronald Reagan said: 'The American people share in the loss of a voice of wisdom and humanity who, with eloquence and gentle wit, brought to the problems of today the experience of a long life of public service.'[179] Outlawed African National Congress president Oliver Tambo sent his condolences: 'As South Africans we shall always remember him for his efforts to encourage the apartheid regime to bow to the winds of change that continue to blow in South Africa.'[179] Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal affirmed: 'His own leadership in providing from Britain a worthy response to African national consciousness shaped the post-war era and made the modern Commonwealth possible.'[179]

A private funeral was held on 5 January 1987 at St Giles' Church, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex, where he had regularly worshipped and read the lesson.[203] Two hundred mourners attended,[201] including 64 members of the Macmillan family, Thatcher and former premiers Lord Home and Edward Heath, Lord Hailsham,[200] and 'scores of country neighbours'.[203] The Prince of Wales sent a wreath 'in admiring memory'.[200] He was buried beside his wife and next to his parents and his son Maurice, who had died in 1984.[203]

The House of Commons paid its tribute on 12 January 1987, with much reference made to his book The Middle Way.[204] Thatcher said: 'In his retirement Harold Macmillan occupied a unique place in the nation's affections', while Labour leader Neil Kinnock struck a more critical note:

A public memorial service, attended by the Queen and thousands of mourners, was held on 10 February 1987 in Westminster Abbey.[205]

Titles from birth to death[edit]

  • Harold Macmillan (10 February 1894 – 29 October 1924)
  • Harold Macmillan, MP (29 October 1924 – 30 May 1929)
  • Harold Macmillan (30 May 1929 – 4 November 1931)
  • Harold Macmillan, MP (4 November 1931 – 1942)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Macmillan, MP (1942 – 26 July 1945)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Macmillan (26 July 1945 – November 1945)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Macmillan, MP (November 1945 – 15 September 1964)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Macmillan (15 September 1964 – 2 April 1976)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Macmillan, OM (2 April 1976 – 24 February 1984)
  • The Right Honourable The Earl of Stockton, OM, PC (24 February 1984 – 29 December 1986)

Cabinets (1957–63)[edit]

For a full list of Ministerial office-holders, see Conservative Government 1957–64.

January 1957 – October 1959[edit]


  • March 1957 – Lord Home succeeds Lord Salisbury as Lord President, remaining Commonwealth Relations Secretary.
  • September 1957 – Lord Hailsham succeeds Lord Home as Lord President, Home remaining Commonwealth Relations Secretary. Geoffrey Lloyd succeeds Hailsham as Minister of Education. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Reginald Maudling, enters the Cabinet.
  • January 1958 – Derick Heathcoat Amory succeeds Peter Thorneycroft as Chancellor of the Exchequer. John Hare succeeds Amory as Minister of Agriculture.

October 1959 – July 1960[edit]

July 1960 – October 1961[edit]

October 1961 – July 1962[edit]

July 1962 – October 1963[edit]

Note: In a radical reshuffle dubbed "The Night of the Long Knives", Macmillan sacked a third of his Cabinet and instituted many other changes.

Dramatic and comedic portrayals[edit]

Beyond the Fringe (1960–66)[edit]

During his premiership in the early 1960s Macmillan was savagely satirised for his alleged decrepitude by the comedian Peter Cook in the stage review Beyond the Fringe.[206] 'Even when insulted to his face attending the show,' a biographer notes, 'Macmillan felt it was better to be mocked than ignored.'[207] One of the sketches was revived by Cook for television.

Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981)[edit]

Macmillan appears as a supporting character, played by Ian Collier, in the 1981 miniseries Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years produced by Southern Television for ITV.

A Letter of Resignation (1997–98)[edit]

Set in 1963 during the Profumo scandal, Hugh Whitemore's play A Letter of Resignation, first staged at the Comedy Theatre in October 1997, dramatises the occasion when Macmillan, staying with friends in Scotland, received a political bombshell, the letter of resignation from Profumo, his war minister.

Edward Fox portrayed Macmillan with uncanny accuracy, but the play also explores the involvement of MI5 and the troubled relationship between Macmillan and his wife (Clare Higgins) who had made no secret of her adultery with the wayward Tory MP, Robert Boothby. The play was directed by Christopher Morahan.

Eden's Empire (2006)[edit]

Macmillan was played by Kevin Quarmby in Gemma Fairlie's production of James Graham's play Eden's Empire at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2006.

Never So Good (2008)[edit]

Never So Good is a four-act play by Howard Brenton, a portrait of Macmillan against a back-drop of fading Empire, two world wars, the Suez crisis, adultery and Tory politics at the Ritz.

Brenton paints the portrait of a brilliant, witty but complex man, tragically out of kilter with his times, an Old Etonian who eventually loses his way in a world of shifting values.

The play premiered at the National Theatre in March 2008, directed by Howard Davies with Jeremy Irons as Macmillan.

Additional reading[edit]

Honours and awards[edit]

In 1984 he received the Freedom medal.


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Cited texts[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
John Llewellin
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply
Succeeded by
The Viscount Portal
Preceded by
George Henry Hall
Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies
Succeeded by
The Duke of Devonshire
Preceded by
Sir Archibald Sinclair
Secretary of State for Air
Succeeded by
The Viscount Stansgate
Preceded by
Hugh Dalton
as Minister of Local Government and Planning
Minister of Housing and Local Government
Succeeded by
Duncan Sandys
Preceded by
The Earl Alexander of Tunis
Minister of Defence
Succeeded by
Selwyn Lloyd
Preceded by
Sir Anthony Eden
Foreign Secretary
Preceded by
Rab Butler
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Peter Thorneycroft
Preceded by
Sir Anthony Eden
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
11 January 1957 – 19 October 1963
Succeeded by
The Earl of Home
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Robert Strother Stewart
Member of Parliament for Stockton-on-Tees
Succeeded by
Frederick Fox Riley
Preceded by
Frederick Fox Riley
Member of Parliament for Stockton-on-Tees
Succeeded by
George Chetwynd
Preceded by
Sir Edward Campbell
Member of Parliament for Bromley
Succeeded by
John Hunt
Party political offices
Preceded by
Sir Anthony Eden
Leader of the British Conservative Party
Succeeded by
The Earl of Home
Diplomatic posts
New title Minister Resident in Northwest Africa
Succeeded by
Harold Balfour
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Halifax
Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Succeeded by
Roy Jenkins
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl of Stockton
Succeeded by
Alexander Macmillan