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Macmillan, Harold (1897–1986)



British prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

Harold Macmillan was born on 10 February 1894 into the prosperous family of publishers. He gained a first-class degree at Oxford in 1914 and then served on the western front, where he was wounded three times. His marriage in 1920 to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of the duke of Devonshire, was a step up the social scale but led to much distress, as from 1929 until her death she conducted an affair with Macmillan's friend and fellow member of Parliament (MP) Robert Boothby. In 1924 Macmillan became Conservative MP for the industrial town of Stockton, where poverty and unemployment affected him deeply. An intellectual figure on the Conservative left wing, he began to publish books advocating planning and a mixed economy. He was defeated at Stockton in 1929, and during the opposition period his loyalty seemed doubtful, especially due to his links with the Liberal politician David Lloyd George. He recovered Stockton in 1931 but was out of favor with the Conservative leadership and was left on the backbenches. As the decade advanced, his criticism widened from economic policy to foreign affairs, and he became a vocal critic of the appeasement of Nazi Germany. However, in this period he was an awkward speaker who rapidly bored his listeners, and he had little impact.

Churchill gave him junior office in 1940, and from 1942 to 1945 he was minister resident in North Africa. Macmillan was skillful in dealing with the various French factions and in liaising with the newly arriving American forces, working effectively with the U.S. commander, General Eisenhower. In later years there was controversy about Macmillan's part in the return of anticommunist prisoners of war to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia at the end of the war. After the Conservative defeat in 1945, Macmillan was a leading figure in the reappraisal of party policy, which was now moving in the direction he had previously advocated.

In 1951 Macmillan entered the cabinet as minister of housing, an important position as the pledge to build 300,000 new homes per year had been significant in the Conservative victory. Macmillan demonstrated drive and determination, and amid much publicity achieved the target in 1954. His success was rewarded by promotion to minister of defense in October 1954, although here his scope for initiative was restricted. When Anthony Eden became prime minister in April 1955 he appointed Macmillan to succeed him as foreign secretary, but again Macmillan found himself the subject of prime ministerial interventions. He was not as pliable as Eden wished, and in December 1955 he was moved aside to be chancellor of the exchequer. By this time Macmillan was clearly the third figure in the Conservative leadership, behind Eden and R. A. Butler. When Eden resigned after the disastrous Suez crisis, Macmillan's determined conduct led the rest of the cabinet to prefer him to Butler, and he became prime minister on 10 January 1957.

In the wake of Suez, the government was not expected to last, but Macmillan swiftly restored relations with the United States, and Conservative morale recovered under his firm leadership. Success and effort had transformed him into a confident and witty speaker, with a manner combining charm with calmness in a crisis. His cultivated and patrician style evoked the pre-1914 world, and this "Edwardian" image was an asset in the 1950s. With prosperity and living standards rising, the general election that Macmillan called in October 1959 saw the Conservative majority increased to a hundred. His visit to Moscow and presence at the Geneva conference in 1959 suggested that Britain still mattered in world affairs, while at the same time he increased the pace of decolonization. He seemed to have a golden touch, and a memorable cartoon depicting him as "Supermac" reflected his political dominance.

All this was to change after 1960, when economic stagnation, social changes, and political setbacks combined to make Macmillan seem elderly and outdated. His one success was the securing of the Polaris nuclear missile system from the United States at the Nassau conference in December 1962. However, the decision in 1961 to seek membership of the European Economic Community ended in the humiliation of the French president Charles de Gaulle's veto in January 1963. At home, the government's stock declined. A mishandled cabinet purge in July 1962 seemed to show that Macmillan was losing his grip, and his prestige was fatally damaged by errors of judgment in the Profumo scandal of 1963. His days already seemed numbered when sudden illness forced his resignation in October 1963; from his hospital bed, he maneuvered to ensure that Butler was not his successor. He accepted a peerage as earl of Stockton in 1984 and died on 29 December 1986.

See alsoAppeasement; Suez Crisis .


Primary Sources

Catterall, Peter ed. The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years, 1950–1957. London, 2003.

Macmillan, Harold. Memoirs. 6 vols. London, 1966–1973. Lengthy account with extracts from Macmillan's private diary.

Secondary Sources

Aldous, Richard, and Sabine Lee, eds. Harold Macmillan: Aspects of a Political Life. Basingstoke, U.K., 1999.

Davenport-Hines, R. P. T. The Macmillans. London, 1992. Collective family biography.

Horne, Alistair. Macmillan 1894–1956. London, 1988. First volume of official life.

——. Macmillan 1957–1986. London, 1989. Second volume of official life.

Turner, John. Macmillan. London, 1994. Excellent medium-length biography.

Stuart Ball

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