contaminated material

Harold Macmillan


(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”.

Early life

Harold Macmillan was born at 52 Cadogan Place in Chelsea, London, to Maurice Crawford Macmillan (1853-1936) and Helen (Nellie) Artie Tarleton Belles (1856-1937). His paternal grandfather, Daniel MacMillan (1813-1857), was the son of a Scottish crofter who founded Macmillan Publishers.

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.


Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of Victor Cavendish, 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 1756-1757 in communion with Newcastle and Pitt the Elder. Her nephew William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington married Kathleen, a sister of John F. Kennedy. Between 1929 and 1935 Lady Dorothy had a long affair with the Conservative politician Robert Boothby, in full public view of Westminster and established society. Boothby was widely rumoured to have been the father of Macmillan's youngest daughter Sarah. The stress caused by this may have contributed to Macmillan's nervous breakdown in 1931. Lady Dorothy died on 21 May 1966, aged 65.

The Macmillans had four children:


On 26 November 1950, Lady Dorothy's brother Edward Cavendish, the 10th Duke of Devonshire had a heart attack and died in the presence of John Bodkin Adams, the suspected serial killer. Thirteen days before, Edith Alice Morrell, another patient of Adams, had also died. Adams was tried in 1957 for her murder but controversially acquitted. Political interference has been suspected and indeed, the case was prosecuted by a member of Macmillan's cabinet, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller. Home office pathologist Francis Camps linked Adams to a total of 163 suspicious deaths.

Eileen O’Casey

Eileen (née Eileen Kathleen Reynolds), the actress wife of Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, had a close relationship with Harold Macmillan, who had published her husband’s plays.

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.”

Political career (1924-1957)

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

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

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

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.

Prime Minister (1957-1963)


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

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

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".

Election victory (1959)

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

Critics contended that the actual economic growth rate was weak and distorted by increased defence spending.

British nuclear deterrent

In April 1957 Macmillan reaffirmed his strong support for the British nuclear deterrent. A succession of prime ministers since the Second World War had been determined to persuade the United States to revive wartime co-operation with the United Kingdom in the area of nuclear weapons research. Macmillan believed that one way to encourage nuclear co-operation would be for Britain to develop its own hydrogen bomb.

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

Macmillan brought the monetary concerns of the Exchequer into office; the economy was his prime concern. However, Britain's balance of payments problems led to the imposition of a wage freeze in 1961 and, amongst other factors, this caused the government to lose popularity and a series of by-elections in March 1962. Fearing for his own position, he 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.

Foreign policy

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

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


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

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

Retirement and death (1963-1986)

The Profumo affair of spring and summer 1963 permanently damaged the credibility of Macmillan's government. He survived a Parliamentary vote with a majority of 69, one less 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. Nonetheless, 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.

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:

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.

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:

"Sixty-three years ago ... the unemployment figure (in Stockton-on-Tees) was then 29%. Last November ... the unemployment (there) is 28%. A rather sad end to one's life."

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.

Titles from birth to death

  • Harold Macmillan, Esq (10 February 1894 – 29 October 1924)
  • Harold Macmillan, Esq, MP (29 October 1924 – 30 May 1929)
  • Harold Macmillan, Esq (30 May 1929 – 4 November 1931)
  • Harold Macmillan, Esq, 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)


For a full list of Ministerial office-holders, see Conservative Government 1957-1964.

January 1957 - October 1959


  • March 1957 - Lord Home succeeds Lord Salisbury as Lord President, remaining also 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

July 1960 - October 1961

October 1961 - July 1962

July 1962 - October 1963

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

Portrayals in the theatre

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 Harold Macmillan, staying with friends in Scotland, received a political bombshell, a 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 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.

Never So Good is a four-act play by Howard Brenton, a portrait of Harold Macmillan set 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 was premiered at the National Theatre in March 2008, directed by Howard Davies with Jeremy Irons as Macmillan.

Additional Reading


  • Theatre Record (1997 for Hugh Whitemore's A Letter of Resignation; 2008 for Howard Brenton's Never So Good)

External links


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