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The PM we shouldn’t write off Harold Macmillan wasn't flashy, but his achievements were far-reaching

"Does anyone remember me?"

July 19, 2019   5 mins

Next week, the UK’s new prime minister will be named. We know who it’s going to be. And with Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance his actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history – even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.


The current Tory leadership contest is sheer agony – especially for those of us able to call to mind the calibre of some of those who have steered the party and the country in times gone by. There’s one man, in particular, whose influence on Britain and the wider word was – and continues to be – immense. And yet his name isn’t lauded like say, Churchill or de Gaulle. History seems rather to have written him off. But without him, our lives might have been very different. I’m thinking of Harold Macmillan.

Let’s begin with his more trivial achievements – well, relatively trivial. In 1956, Macmillan, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was looking for ways to dampen down inflation by cutting consumption. In that year’s budget, he introduced a government-backed savings vehicle which paid out no interest but instead offered investors the chance to win a tax-free prize every month. Sixty or so years later, over 20 million people in the UK own well in excess of £30 billion worth of Premium Bonds.

A fair few of those people will also live in a house originally built in the years following the war. Some of those buildings, of course, went up during the pioneering Labour government that led Britain between 1945 and 1951. But even more of them were constructed under the Conservative government that followed it – and which ran the country for 13 years until 1964.

That government’s first Minister of Housing – the man to whom many believed Churchill had given a poisoned chalice by asking him to achieve the seemingly impossible target of 300,000 properties a year – was (yes, you’ve guessed it) Harold Macmillan. Via some judicious deregulation, he not only helped the construction sector reach the target but helped it do so far earlier than expected.

Before that success, many of his colleagues had written Macmillan off, regarding him, indeed, as something of a political oddity and a personal failure (his impressive military record in WWI and diplomatic role in WWII notwithstanding).

Westminster’s worst kept secret was that his wife had been conducting an affair with his Conservative colleague, Bob Boothby, since the 1930s. And during that decade, Macmillan himself had earned a reputation as a disturbingly unconventional thinker on economic and social policy, writing volumes such as The State and Industry (1932), Reconstruction: A Plea for a National Unity (1933), The Next Five Years (1935), and, perhaps most famously, The Middle Way (1938). All of them championed the idea that governments should take greater responsibility for the economy as well as, more generally, the welfare of the population as a whole.

Meanwhile, Macmillan’s family business, in which he played an active role, was publishing John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory – probably the most influential book on economics of the 20th century. It is credited with helping to convince post-war policy makers that, via the management of demand by fiscal and monetary means, they could prevent a return to the unemployment which blighted Britain (and other countries) in the thirties.

It became increasingly clear after 1945, that the Conservative Party was going to have to reconcile itself to the public’s demand for a more activist state – one that would provide both economic growth and increased social security. And so Macmillan’s long-held beliefs looked rather more prescient. So, too, did his opposition to appeasement, which, along with that of Churchill, Eden and others, later helped to avert the charge that the entire Conservative Party had effectively given Hitler what he wanted.

As a result, and given his successful ministerial record under Churchill, it came as no surprise that, in April 1955, Eden having finally managed to winkle the grand old man out of Number 10, Macmillan was named Foreign Secretary. Later that year, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Macmillan’s elevation to the Premiership just over a year later in January 1957, however, did come as something of a shock to those not in the know. It had a great deal to do with an event that is often quoted nowadays (in the same breath as Brexit) as one of the most disastrous and humiliating episodes for a British government in recent memory – the 1956 Suez crisis.

It might be going too far to assert that, without Macmillan, Eden would never have gone with the idea that Israel should invade Egypt in order to provide a pretext for Britain and France to snatch back the Suez Canal. But Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the plan, and his misplaced confidence that US President Dwight Eisenhower (whom he had got to know well during the war) would tolerate the operation, certainly did nothing to dissuade his colleagues from going ahead with it.

It is undoubtedly true, though, that it was Macmillan’s rapid realisation that the otherwise relatively successful intervention would have to be called off, not least in order to prevent a diplomatic disaster turning into economic chaos, which convinced those same colleagues to stop it in its tracks.

It was also Macmillan who, unlike, his rival Rab Butler, was able to convince his furious fellow Conservative MPs that the government could recover from the affair – one of the main reasons the party turned to him rather than Butler when Eden resigned.

Supermac – as he came to be dubbed – turned out to be right. Not only did he manage to repair relations with the US, later striking up a friendship with the much younger Jack Kennedy, but at the 1959 election – one unusual for being fought in the autumn rather than the spring or summer – he increased the Conservative Party’s overall majority to over 100.

This he did by persuading voters (who he famously said “had never had it so good”) that it was the architect and guarantor of their burgeoning consumer affluence, establishing the template later used to similarly devastating electoral effect by Margaret Thatcher in the loadsamoney 1980s. But he also did it by refusing to countenance the public spending constraints demanded by his supposedly proto-Thatcherite Treasury team, whose resulting resignation in January 1958, Macmillan, with his characteristic ‘unflappability’, dismissed as “a little local difficulty”.

In hindsight, this may have been unwise – though not nearly as unwise as his fateful decision in 1960 to commission Dr Beeching to write his report which resulted in the closure of a third of Britain’s rail network, cutting off hundreds of towns and villages from one of the most environmentally-friendly (if costly) forms of transport.

But it was surely in defence and foreign affairs that Macmillan made his biggest and most lasting contribution. He played a role in Cold War efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons but also secured the Polaris weapons system for the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. He effectively admitted that Britain’s imperial game was up and then set a course firmly for decolonisation with his ‘Winds of change’ speech in February 1960.

And, of course, after trying to establish the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as a counter to the EEC, Macmillan swiftly came to the realisation that the UK had no alternative but to join the bigger bloc, initiating its first of three eventually successful accession applications to what is now the EU.

Whether that 40-plus years of membership is about to end – and end in tears – who knows? What we do know, however, is that without Harold Macmillan, Britain and the world might well have looked very different.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.


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