Harold Macmillan

1957 - 1963

Harold Macmillan

Macmillan, (1894-1986) scion of the publishing house, graduated to politics via Oxford and World War I, in which he was seriously wounded. He then positioned himself on the extreme left of the Conservative party, expressing admiration for Lloyd George and publishing a book “The Middle Way” in 1938 which advocated extensive nationalization, government control of interest rates and replacement of the Stock Exchange by a National Investment Board. As his nanny is reputed to have said: “Mr. Harold is a dangerous pink.”

Having opposed Munich, Macmillan was given office by Churchill, spending most of the war as a successful Ministerial level liaison with General Eisenhower. Then in 1951 he became Minister of Housing, where he proceeded to degrade the housing stock, building poorly designed “council” houses and tower-block flats and becoming a hero by meeting a numerical target of 300,000 dwelling units (that’s all they were) in 1953. On Eden’s accession, he became first Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer, his occupation of the latter office being memorable for the institution of Premium Bonds, the first crack in the government’s discouragement of gambling which had persisted since Liverpool’s time.

Macmillan gained the prime ministership by deceit; he supported the Suez expedition, then at a crucial moment reversed himself, claiming as Chancellor that Britain’s foreign exchange reserves would not stand the strain. This act of treachery, both to his leader and his country, was worthy of his hero Lloyd George; it was however crowned with success.

The “customary process of consultation” by which Robert, 5th Marquess of Salisbury (1893-1972) asked each member of the Cabinet “Well, which is it to be, Wab (Butler) or Hawold?” has gone down in legend. The correct answer, of course was “Neither” – Salisbury himself would have been a much better choice.

As prime minister, Macmillan began by reflating the economy, firing his Chancellor of the Exchequer Peter Thorneycroft (1909-94) to do so. Since Britain was still bound by the Bretton Woods system and strangled by exchange controls, this worsened the series of foreign exchange crises over the next decade, made foreign exchange transactions even more ruinously expensive and complex for British companies and investors and condemned the country to a generation of debilitating inflation. Nevertheless, it enabled him to win an election on the slogan of “Never had it so good,” and that was his objective. When Barclays, worried about continued inflation, wanted to raise interest rates at an inconvenient moment, Macmillan threatened to nationalize the banks.

Macmillan’s unique policy among British prime ministers was de-colonization, which he undertook in the same way he had organized the building of council dwellings – very quickly, and without proper quality controls. The truly appalling economic performance of Britain’s African ex-colonies in 1960-2000, together with their improved performance in the 21st Century, suggests that a slower decolonization, with much more care taken over the selection of post-colonial governing classes and institutions, would have been a greatly preferable alternative, especially for the unfortunate victims of the thugs, Marxists, kleptocrats and dictators that succeeded British rule.

Finally, Macmillan reversed centuries of British globalism and applied to join the European Economic Community, the future European Union. Since Europe had economically approximately the same comparative advantages and disadvantages as Britain, there was little likely economic gain from doing so. Macmillan would have done much better to revive Imperial Preference links with the raw-material-rich former colonies to which he was so rapidly cutting all effective ties. To be fair, despite the “ever closer union” language in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, it was not yet obvious that Europe’s movers and shakers were aiming at more than an economic association. But President de Gaulle’s well-judged 1963 veto on British entry should have been taken as a wake-up call, after which a major strategic re-think would have been appropriate.

If we are to give Thatcher due credit for reviving the British economy, we must downgrade the prime ministers who caused it to get into such an appalling state, and Macmillan, Wilson and Heath are all prime candidates for such a downgrading. Overall, Macmillan is one of several 20th Century prime ministers who did more harm than good; like Balfour and the others, he should be ranked below, not above the short-term nonentities at the bottom of the list.

© 2024 Martin Hutchinson