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Harold Macmillan

(1894—1986) prime minister

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Prime minister. Anglo‐American by birth, Macmillan proceeded from Eton to Balliol College, Oxford, where he secured a first in classical moderations. During the war he was badly injured. After the war he served as ADC to the governor‐general of Canada before going into the family publishing firm.

Macmillan was elected as member for Stockton at his second attempt in 1924. In Parliament he associated himself with a group of progressive Tories, styled the YMCA, but his career suffered a blow when he lost his seat in the 1929 general election. He won it back in 1931. The publication of The Middle Way in 1938 showed Macmillan's commitment to a mixed economy and considerable government intervention. Macmillan was also at odds with the foreign policy of the National Government and resigned the Conservative whip for the last year of Baldwin's premiership.

When Churchill became premier in May 1940 Macmillan's ministerial rewards were initially small. But in 1942 he made his first major political advance with his appointment as minister of state for north Africa. Macmillan took easily to his new authority and struck up a good working relationship with General Eisenhower.

Macmillan lost his Stockton seat again in the general election of 1945, but was soon returned to Parliament following a by‐election in Bromley. As minister of housing after 1951 Macmillan achieved credit as the man who fulfilled the Conservative pledge to build 300,000 houses in a single year. He served briefly as minister of defence, but became foreign secretary when Eden succeeded to the premiership in 1955. Too forceful in this post for Eden's liking, he was transferred to the Exchequer after six months.

An ardent proponent of the Suez adventure in 1956, its failure provided Macmillan with his opportunity. Though it was he who pressed the financial necessity of bringing the operation to an end, his earlier enthusiasm ensured the backing of the Conservative right. To the surprise of many he was preferred to Butler when ill‐health forced Eden's resignation in January 1957.

As prime minister Macmillan displayed political skills which few had anticipated. Against the odds, he restored party morale after Suez and led the Conservatives to a third successive electoral victory in 1959. By 1960 Macmillan stood at the height of his power. The nickname ‘Supermac’ encapsulated the public's acclaim. But then problems arose. The collapse of the summit conference of 1960 was a particular blow which helped persuade Macmillan to seek British admission to the European Common Market. This quest ultimately met with the veto of General de Gaulle. Meanwhile difficulties mounted on the domestic front. Many sensed panic when Macmillan dismissed a third of his cabinet, including the chancellor, in the famous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in July 1962. Thereafter the government was beset by a series of sex and spy scandals. Illness precipitated Macmillan's resignation at the time of the Conservative Party conference in October 1963.

Macmillan was a complex individual. An external self‐confidence was matched by inner doubts, exacerbated no doubt by his wife's long‐standing affair with Robert Boothby. The years of his premiership remain controversial. For some they represent a period of unprecedented prosperity; for others a time when a blind eye was turned to underlying problems in the British economy.


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