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The best PM we never had

We've had three hundred years of British premiers — but did the right person always win?

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April 7, 2021

Iain Macleod was the last Chancellor to die in office. He lasted 30 days, 17 of which were spent in recovery from a stomach operation. When he had his fatal heart attack, at 23:35 on July 20, 1970, it cast a dark omen over the already fragile Edward Heath government.

“At the graveside, I felt an orphan,” recalled Patrick Jenkin, economic secretary to the Treasury. With no wife to share his grief, his political companion now gone, Heath retreated into Number 10 to heave his great shoulders into his beloved piano. The sudden emptiness of the stage was palpable.

A playboy and a gambler, intellectually nimble, emotionally available, the best orator of his intake, decisive, demotic, and definitely not for U-turning, Macleod was everything Heath was not. He made his mark within two years of arriving in the Commons, in 1952, facing off against Nye Bevan. To have a debate on the National Health Service without the right hon. Gentleman,” he told Labour’s Health Secretary, “would be like putting on Hamlet with no one in the part of the First Gravedigger.”

 

Amid the laughter, watching from the front bench, Churchill leaned over to an aide: “Who is that man? Put him in the government.” When he was told that Macleod was too young to be eligible, Churchill shot back that he was too eligible to be too young. Macleod was immediately made Minister of Health.

By 1959, Harold Macmillan came calling with an even bigger job: Colonial Secretary. Macleod must have seemed perfectly suited — after all, hed never set foot in a single British colony. Indeed, his pre-war life had consisted mainly of playing bridge. At university, hed only skated by, preferring to play cards for money, winning staggering sums. In 1932, while holding down a full-time job as a rep for a playing cards manufacturer, he won eight times his annual salary on the tables. Years later, he wrote a book, Bridge Is An Easy Game, which popularised a bidding system called Acol, still in use today.

Today, though, we live in a world where 77% of British politicians flunked the most basic test of coin-toss statistical logic. Most of them as the debate about the race report has most recently shown — continually mistake correlation for causation. Macleod was that rarest of things: a politician who could not only add up, but discern noise from signal. The kind who might have started an inquiry into social inequality by asking the most obvious question, And what other variables have you controlled for?”

But leadership is more than calculation — it is character, and foresight. Macleod showed he had both during his short but significant stint in the Colonial office. In 1959, the winds of change were whispering through Africa. Soon, they would blow. The tide of black nationalism could not be held back, Macleod quickly concluded. There were two options: go slowly, listening to the mitherings of the Tory Right, and end up fighting endless, bloody rear-guard actions, or: get out cleanly, quickly and on Her Majesty’s own terms. Summing up the situation, he thus resolved to make himself “the last Colonial Secretary. He failed — but not for want of trying.

Cutting loose the absent-minded baggage of Empire was not as simple as getting a few signatures. West Africa, perhaps; but over in East Africa, the situation was complicated by the existence of large white and Indian minorities, fearful of what black majority rule would mean for them. One by one, Macleod pulled the thorns from the bears’ paws, deploying all his bridge-building and -playing skills to skirt round the tyranny of the majority. To take one example, in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Macleods plan was, by his own lights, incredibly devious and tortuous”. It involved:

a Legislative Council with 16 African members to 14 Europeans, and a legislative council of 45 members, 15 of whom would be elected by a largely African electoral roll, 15 by a largely European roll, 14 by both rolls jointly (with a further stipulation that successful candidates had to gain at least 10 per cent of the African votes and 10 per cent of the European ones).”

By such devices, Britain avoided the consequences endured by a neighbouring de-colonising power. France invested blood and treasure in an Algerian conflict often called “its Vietnam” (it also sunk blood and treasure in Vietnam — French Indo-China — culminating in national embarrassment at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.) In our country, there was no equivalent of the retaliatory Paris Massacre of 1961, nor an OAS-style colonial terror campaign on our doorstep. This is the tale we now tell, but it was hardly inevitable. History is full of politicians whose frog boiled. The one unsolved case in Macleod’s inbox — Rhodesia — is the paradigm for what happens if you continue to drive with the handbrake on.

As with F. W. de Klerk — the last of Africa’s colonial liberators — it was often not the freedom fighters on the far side of the table who formed Macleod’s real opposition: it was his own team. In the early 1960s, the Conservatives were still run by the grouse moors gang of Macmillan. Many were horrified by Macleod’s hastehe endured whispering campaigns, and open sniping. The Marquess of Salisbury famously called him too clever by precisely half”. Macleods decisive speed seems to have out-flanked them for a while. Until, in 1961, a panicked Macmillan replaced him with the more emollient Reginald Maudling.

Macmillan was not entirely wrong in his decisionAny Greatest PM Who Never Was list must first contend with why they never was, and it was not only his propensity for fatal heart attacks that kept Macleod out. A bit like his one-time friend Enoch Powell, Macleod never could wait till he saw the whites of their eyes. Often hailed as “the cleverest Tory of his generation”, the list of fools he would not suffer gladly went on and on. His offhand manner climaxed with a disastrous stint as Party chairman, where he alienated the party’s many unpaid volunteers by stipulating that local constituency workers would have to switch roles every few years. Yet it was precisely this steely sense of principle that also marked him out.

Two years on, when Macmillan was in turn sent packing, for health reasons, Macleod again showed a depth of character required in the top job — while rendering those heights beyond his grasp. He pointblank refused to serve under Alec Douglas-Hume, whom he considered too reactionary. Then, in 1964, almost absent-mindedly, he blew the gaff on his own party, in a 4000-word book review for The Spectator. Douglas-Humes election had been a stitch-up, Macleod wrote: with no process existing for a leadership election, bar informal “soundings”, all the Earls and Lords and posh nobs had seen to it that one of their own took over.

Macleods piece detonated the era of the squires from the shires. Amid the smoke, the coming meritocracy began to peep through. A year later the informal “magic circle” system was dead, proper elections were held, and the grammar schoolboy Heath was put in charge, with grammar schoolgirl Thatcher charging along behind. This was central to Macleodism. The state was responsible, in his eyes, for bringing everyone up to the starting line, but never averaging out their talents. Young people should have more equal opportunities of proving themselves unequal,” as he put it, and he was intellectually prepared for all downsides such a definition brings.

Today, we are led by safetyists on both sides of the House, who refuse to choose between equality justice and equity justice — between corona and the economy, between house prices and housing — a maddening mobius strip of directly contradictory promises. We could do with a mind that has mapped the sharpest edges of its own political compass.

In truth, Macleods failing health — partly a consequence of war wounds that left him with a gammy leg and physically unable to turn his head — meant he could never have taken over at Number 10. Despite being only 56, he was circling the plughole. In private, hed told colleagues hed do perhaps three years as Chancellor, then retire to the Lords.

But the prospect of a charismatic challenger to that flesh tombstone, Heath, is a tantalising counterfactual at a pivotal moment. In 1956, Macleod had been put in charge of the Department of Labour by Anthony Eden, who reckoned that negotiating with union bosses would be excellent training, should he ever arrive at the top. By 1974 and the Three-Day Week, that skill set had come to eclipse the whole of British politics. Had his health held, there’s a decent chance Macleod could have overthrown his boss, and brought a more civil, more nimble pax to the class war — avoiding the brutal endgames of the Thatcher era, moderating the pain of the monetarist project.

Fifty years later, his message to the 2019 intake is that a bit of vision — getting out ahead of events — is what real leadership is about. After all, the devil you know can easily be the worst devil of all.