(Maurice) Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC (10 February 1894 – 29 December 1986) was a British Conservative politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963.
Nicknamed 'Supermac', in his premiership he advocated a mixed economy, championed the use of public investment to create expansion, and presided over an age of affluence marked by high growth and low unemployment. He restored the special relationship with the United States, decolonised much of Africa, ended National Service, strengthened the nuclear deterrent, and pioneered the Nuclear Test Ban with the Soviet Union, but his unwillingness to disclose United States nuclear secrets to France led to a French veto of the United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Macmillan replied: “Events, my dear boy, events”.
Macmillan was first educated at Summer Fields School and then at Eton but left during his first half after a serious attack of pneumonia. He also attended Balliol College, Oxford, although he only completed two years of the four-year course reading Greats before the outbreak of the First World War.
Macmillan served with distinction as a captain in the Grenadier Guards during the war and was wounded on three occasions. During the Battle of the Somme, he spent an entire day wounded and lying in a slit trench with a bullet in his pelvis, reading the classical Greek playwright Aeschylus in his original language.
Macmillan lost so many of his fellow students during the war that afterwards he refused to return to Oxford, saying the university would never be the same. He joined Macmillan Publishers as a junior partner in 1920, remaining with the company until his appointment to ministerial office in 1940.
The Macmillans had four children:
According to an obituary notice of Eileen O’Casey by Edward Marriott, published in the London Evening Standard on 18 April 1995: “It was the death of Sean O’Casey, in 1964. and of Dorothy Macmillan, two years later, that cemented Macmillan and Eileen’s intimacy. She became the light which illuminated his twilight years, eventually even replacing Dorothy in his affections.”
Macmillan’s biographer Garry O'Connor noted that “Eileen was the first woman whom Macmillan asked to sit in Lady Dorothy’s place at table in Birch Grove; he also took her out frequently to dine at Buck’s Club."
Eileen’s obituary in The Times (10 April 1995) records that: ...she became one of Harold Macmillan's closest friends. The two grew even closer after the death of their respective spouses. That Macmillan never proposed marriage was a source of bewilderment to outsiders, although Eileen was understanding about his shyness....Her relationship with Macmillan, which only ended with his death in 1986, was a source of comfort to her in old age. For his part, he relied completely on her honest, outspoken Irish perspective. She recalled one lunch when Lord Home asked Macmillan to accept a peerage: “Harold turned to me and said ‘What about that Eileen?’ I told him I thought it nicer to keep the name Harold Macmillan to the end of his days and said, ‘Titles are two-a-penny these days. Butchers and bakers and candlestick makers are all getting them.’ I got the impression that Alec Home was a bit annoyed with me.”
During this time (1938) he published the first edition of his book The Middle Way, which advocated a broadly centrist political philosophy both domestically and internationally.
In the Second World War he at last attained office, serving in the wartime coalition government in the Ministry of Supply and the Colonial Ministry before attaining real power upon being sent to North Africa in 1942 as British government representative to the Allies in the Mediterranean. During this assignment Macmillan worked closely with US General Dwight Eisenhower, a friendship that would prove crucial in his later career.
Macmillan was also the British resident 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 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 AFHQ directives by repatriating 4000 White Russian troops and 11,000 civilian family members who could not properly be regarded as Soviet citizens.
Macmillan returned to England after the war and was Secretary of State for Air for two months in 1945. He lost his seat in the landslide Labour victory that year, but soon returned to Parliament in a November 1945 by-election in Bromley.
With the Conservative victory in 1951 he became Minister of Housing under Winston Churchill and fulfilled his conference promise to build 300,000 houses per year. He then served as Minister of Defence from October 1954. By this time he had lost the wire-rimmed glasses, toothy grin and brylcreemed hair of wartime photographs, and instead grew his hair thick and glossy, had his teeth capped and walked with the ramrod bearing of a former Guards officer - acquiring the distinguished appearance of his later career.
He then served as Foreign Secretary in April-December 1955 and Chancellor of the Exchequer 1955-1957 under Anthony Eden. In the latter job he insisted that Eden's de facto deputy Rab Butler not be treated as senior to him, and threatened resignation until he was allowed to cut bread and milk subsidies. During the Suez Crisis, according to Shadow Chancellor Harold Wilson, Macmillan was "first in, first out": first very supportive of the invasion, then a prime mover in Britain's withdrawal in the wake of the financial crisis.
Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party after Eden's resignation in January 1957, surprising observers with his appointment over the favourite, Rab Butler. He was nicknamed Supermac by cartoonist Victor 'Vicky' Weisz. It was intended as mockery, but backfired, coming to be used in a neutral or friendly fashion. Weisz tried to label him with other names, including "Mac the Knife" at the time of widespread cabinet changes in 1962, but none of these caught on.
Macmillan populated his government with many who had studied at the same school as him: he filled government posts with 35 former Etonians, 7 of whom sat in Cabinet.
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".
Critics contended that the actual economic growth rate was weak and distorted by increased defence spending.
This decision led the British government and its armed forces to increase demands on the Windscale nuclear power plant to produce increasing amounts of material for the manufacture of such a weapon. As a result the safety margins of the radioactive materials inside the reactor were eroded. This contributed to the Windscale accident on the night of 10 October 1957, in which a fire engulfed the radioactive materials in the core of Windscale's reactor. Nuclear contaminants travelled up a chimney where a filter blocked some but not all of the contaminated material and a radioactive cloud spread over the British Isles and Europe. Scientists had warned of the dangers of such an accident for some time but Macmillan covered up the reasons for the accident, blaming workers for "an error of judgement" rather than pressure from his government to produce even more nuclear material.
Macmillan also acceded to Eisenhower's request to base 60 Thor missiles in Great Britain under joint control, and in late October 1957 the U.S. McMahon Act was eased to facilitate nuclear co-operation between the two governments. Following the cancellation of Blue Streak, the realisation of the limited utility of Blue Steel, and the unilateral cancellation of the joint Skybolt missile system by U.S. defence secretary Robert McNamara, Macmillan negotiated the purchase of Polaris missiles from the United States under the Nassau agreement in December 1962.
Macmillan was a force in the successful negotiations leading to the signing of the 1962 Partial Test Ban Treaty by the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. His previous attempt to create an agreement at the May 1960 summit in Paris had collapsed due to the U-2 Crisis of 1960.
Macmillan brought the monetary concerns of the Exchequer into office; the economy was his prime concern. However, Britain's balance of payments problems led to the imposition of a wage freeze in 1961 and, amongst other factors, this caused the government to lose popularity and a series of by-elections in March 1962. Fearing for his own position, he organised a major Cabinet change in July 1962 - also named "the night of long knives" as a symbol of his alleged betrayal of the Conservative party. Eight junior Ministers were sacked at the same time. The Cabinet changes were widely seen as a sign of panic, and the young Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe said of Macmillan's dismissal of so many of his colleagues, "greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life".
Macmillan supported the creation of the National Incomes Commission as a means to institute controls on income as part of his growth-without-inflation policy. A further series of subtle indicators and controls were also introduced during his premiership.
Macmillan's term saw the first phase of the African independence movement, beginning with the granting of independence to the Gold Coast, as Ghana, in 1957. His celebrated "wind of change" speech (February 1960) is considered a landmark in this process. Ghana and Malaya were granted independence in 1957, Nigeria in 1960 and Kenya in 1963. However in the Middle East Macmillan ensured Britain remained a force, intervening over Iraq in 1958 and 1960 and becoming involved in the affairs of Oman.
He also explored the possibility of a European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
However, the affair may have exacerbated Macmillan's ill-health. He was taken ill on the eve of the Conservative Party conference, diagnosed incorrectly with inoperable prostate cancer. Consequently, he resigned on 18 October 1963. He was succeeded by the Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home in a controversial move; it was alleged that Macmillan had pulled strings and utilised the party's grandees, nicknamed "The Magic Circle", to ensure that Butler was not chosen as his successor.
Macmillan initially refused a peerage and retired from politics in September 1964. He did, however, accept the distinction of the Order of Merit from the Queen. After retiring, he took up the chairmanship of his family's publishing house, Macmillan Publishers. He then brought out a six-volume autobiography; the read was described by his political enemy Enoch Powell as inducing "a sensation akin to that of chewing on cardboard". His wartime diaries, published after his death, were much better received.
Over the next 20 years or so Macmillan made the occasional political intervention, particularly after Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader and Macmillan's premiership came under attack from the monetarists in the party. Responding to a remark made by 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, it is because he was too big for them!"
Macmillan is commonly thought to have likened Thatcher's policy of privatisation to "selling the family silver". In fact what he did say (at a dinner of the Tory Reform Group at the Royal Overseas League on 8 November 1985) was that the sale of assets was commonplace amongst 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. Macmillan's speech was much commented on and a few days later Macmillan made a speech in the House of Lords to clarify what he had meant:
In 1984 he finally accepted a peerage and was created Earl of Stockton and Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden. In the last month of his life, he observed:
Macmillan died at Birch Grove, West Sussex, on 29 December 1986, aged 92 years and 322 days — the greatest age attained by a British Prime Minister until surpassed by James Callaghan on 14 February 2005. His son Maurice had become heir to the earldom of Stockton, but died suddenly a month after his father's elevation. Harold Macmillan's grandson became the 2nd Earl of Stockton.
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 Dorothy (Clare Higgins) who had made no secret of her adultery with the wayward Tory MP, Robert Boothby. The play was directed by Christopher Morahan.
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.
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