Original Content Series: Harold Macmillan - Eminent Churchillian

David Semple July 20, 2020

Harold Macmillan was the last British prime minister born during the Victorian era and the first to realize that Britain was no longer a great power. The past is indeed a foreign country. 

William F Buckley, on his television show Firing Line, said that Macmillan ‘tried to govern as a conservative from the left of center. I think he failed. I regret his failure but that does not diminish from the grandeur of him as a human being.’ Macmillan had bad luck during his seven years as prime minister. The Suez affair (betrayed  by United States president Dwight Eisenhower) and the escort girl, Christine Keeler, marked his reign. At one point he could say that people had never had it so good. Then he had to face the continuous economic crises that beset the UK during its imperial sunset. 


William F Buckley

The First British Empire came to an end with the American Revolution in 1776. The Second British Empire ended with the independence of India, which was divided into three nations, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. After winning the general election of 1951, prime minister Winston Churchill wanted to retain the African and West Indian Empire and invest in its development. Harold Macmillan made his views clear at the time. What lay ahead for Britain, said Macmillan, was a choice between ‘the slide into a shoddy and slushy Socialism (as a second-rate power), or the march to the Third British Empire.’ 

The Suez Crisis changed everything. The United States had been putting pressure on the UK to grant independence to its colonies since the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Suez made the Americans more determined than ever to force the UK to dispose of its colonies. Macmillan presided over the premature end to what was left of the empire in Africa during his seven years as prime minister January 1957-October 1963.


Macmillan with Charles de Gaulle

At a meeting with Charles de Gaulle at the beginning of the 1960s, Harold Macmillan (diary, March 13th 1960) and the French president pondered the future prospects of Europe and Germany. Britain was not a member of the European Economic Community, which at the time was dominated by France and West Germany. Macmillan, who at first resisted joining the EEC (‘the Six’), was now pondering whether Britain, which was disposing of its imperial assets at breakneck speed, should stop competing with the Six through the British-dominated European Free Trade Association (‘the Seven’) and make the decision to apply for membership of the EEC.

In 1960, Britain looked tired compared to the fast growing economies of the Six. Most of its trade was with the Commonwealth. The EEC countries enjoyed the inevitable economic recovery of nations that had been completely destroyed by the military campaigns of the Second World War. American Marshall Aid helped France, West Germany and Italy to rebuild their economies to comparative levels of strength to those enjoyed during the pre-war era. Britain, which had the temporary advantage of being the second largest economy in the world at the end of the war, found itself reduced to its pre-war status behind Germany and the United States. After a second industrial revolution during the 1950s, France and Italy, for the first time in centuries, now looked more successful than Britain.

In the 1950s, Britain suffered the difficult task of rebuilding its antiquated industrial infrastructure, whereas France, Germany and Italy started rebuilding from the conditions of complete economic collapse. Sadly, Britain had not adjusted well to the expensive operation of running a cradle-to-grave welfare state; a welfare state which was constructed at the expense of investing in economic reconstruction. To Harold Macmillan, Britain looked relatively unsuccessful when compared to the post-war economic miracle on the continent. However, the post-war recovery of the continental powers had nothing to do with the creation of the EEC. The project envisioned in the Treaty of Rome, signed three years earlier in 1957, was a political project, designed to bring an ‘ever closer union’ which would eventually become a United States of Europe, not an economic project. And this was a problem not just for Macmillan, but also for Charles de Gaulle.

‘We next talked about Europe and Germany’, wrote Macmillan in his diary about de Gaulle, ‘He does not want political integration. He accepted the economic integration implied in the Treaty of Rome with regret. But it was signed, and he could not go back on it. But it has had a useful effect in making French industry more competitive. Politically, it keeps Germany looking to the West. He does not want a united Germany; nor does he fear Germany for at least 25 years – if it can keep in the Western group.’

Four months later, on July 9th 1960, Macmillan was very pessimistic about the future of Britain and Europe:

‘Walked a bit – pondered a lot….Shall we be caught between a hostile (or at least less and less friendly) America and a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French but later bound to come under German control. Is this the real reason for ‘joining the Common Market’ (if we are acceptable) and for abandoning a) the Seven b) British agriculture c) the Commonwealth. It’s a grim choice…’

Historian Vernon Bogdanor, in a speech given in 2019, stated that in ‘March 1953, Macmillan asked the Cabinet: ‘Are we really sure that we want to see a six power federal Europe with a common army, a common iron and steel industry, ending in a common currency and monetary policy? If such a federal state comes into being, will it in the long run be in our interests whether as an island or as an imperial power?’ Will not Gernany ultimately control this state?’ And have we not created the very situation in Europe to prevent which in every century since the Elizabethan age we have fought long and bitter wars?’’

Macmillan, when he became prime minister, tried to ‘dilute the European Community into something intergovernmental’, according to Professor Bogdanor.

Perhaps the high point of his premiership was his ‘Winds of Change’ speech to the parliament of South Africa in Cape Town in 1960, where told the members of the apartheid government, ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.’ 

Macmillan went on to say, ‘As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.’


Macmillan on Firing Line

On November 1, 1972, on the American television show Firing Line, Macmillan explained the reasons for de-colonization to William F Buckley:

‘I remember asking, I think, the most experienced man in the whole of our service who had been forty years, Sudan, Africa, everywhere…I’d just attended a meeting of the council before this step was to be taken, or not. I said,

 “Are these people fit for self-government”?  

He said, “No, no, of course they’re not prime minister”.

“Are they fit for independence”?

He said, “No, of course they’re not”.

“So what would you advise me to do”?

He said, “Give it to them at once”.

I said, “When will they be fit?”

 “Fifteen, twenty years”.

“So why not then”?

“No. They’ll be wasted years. They won’t learn any more. They shall all be in rebellion. All the most intelligent people here I shall have to lock up. They won’t spend it in learning more about the art of government. They shall simply spend it in prison. So, the only thing to do is to get on with it.”

‘He was the most experienced type of chap who lived all his life in it. If they would spend the next fifteen years learning, let them get on with it, but they won’t…all the intelligent people here, with the two wars, with the emotion of the world, they are determined to have it. And therefore they shall be wasted (years). We shall go back. We shall be worse than where we began. People write and say, “how terrible it is in an independent country”. But what about our own? We murdered our king. We had civil wars. We had the most bitter battles before we could get into a state of believing in some fair and reasonable government. You can’t expect them suddenly to emerge. All you can do is to do your duty, to give them the greatest economic background you can, to teach them some justice, to give them courts to set up, the best organization you can. And some will make mistakes…they’ll learn. But it’s their country. It’s not our country.’

First, the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana, and the rest followed like dominoes, including Malaya, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanganyika, Malawi, and Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia. There were the West Indian countries too, including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, followed by Barbados, Bahamas and others during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Macmillan with Edward Heath

Harold Macmillan tried but failed to take England into the European Economic Community. His chief negotiator, Edward Heath, succeeded where Macmillan failed, joining Europe in 1973. Edward Heath was a very powerful prime minister but he was also out of touch with public opinion and his government collapsed in failure. People began to call the UK ‘the sick man of Europe’. Communist trade union leaders tried to take down the Conservative government during four long and violent years of class warfare, from 1970 to 1974. In the end Edward Heath committed political suicide. Yet, Heath, protege of Harold Macmillan, left a European legacy which lasted for nearly 50 years. 

England has lived in the shadow of Heath and Macmillan for five decades. Heath’s legacy was also Macmillan’s legacy, for without Macmillan’s initiative it is doubtful whether Britain would have joined the EEC. Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power represented a revolution against what Heath stood for, and she defeated him, but only temporarily; it took another 47 years for Boris Johnson to undo Britain’s membership of the EU which Heath wreaked upon the nation. Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, however, was undermined by her successors over the next 30 years. Thatcherism failed, largely because it was abandoned, while Heathism, except in Europe, is still very much alive today in the domestic policies of Boris Johnson.


Sir Anthony Eden, Macmillan and Heath

In a speech to the Tory Reform Group in November 1985, Macmillan was accused of being critical of Mrs Thatcher’s privatization program: 

‘First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.’ In the House of Lords several days later Macmillan defended himself:

‘When I ventured the other day to criticise the system I was, I am afraid, misunderstood. As a Conservative, I am naturally in favour of returning into private ownership and private management all those means of production and distribution which are now controlled by state capitalism. I am sure they will be more efficient. What I ventured to question was the using of these huge sums as if they were income.’

The Macmillan years were characterized by stop-go economic cycles and active government involvement in economic policy, including incomes policies and corporatism. In that sense, not much changed since the Attlee and Churchill years. Macmillan was famous for saying ‘some people have never had it so good’. It was true. However, the underlying problems of poor productivity, the inability of major British companies to compete in world markets and poor investment in the infrastructure continued under Macmillan as it had under his predecessors. In fact, in spite of the Thatcher revolution, these same problems continue to plague Britain to this day.

Harold Macmillan changed Britain perhaps more than any prime minister of the 20th Century. Like Winston Churchill before him and Edward Heath after him, Macmillan chose to govern as a ‘One Nation’ Tory. We still hear those same words being used over fifty years later by Boris Johnson. 

Macmillan was the last of the great English political leaders. At the behest of the Americans, Macmillan closed the chapter on the British Empire and took England into the 20th Century during a period of domestic consumerism which wiped out the poverty of the prewar years. Macmillan followed a very Churchillian foreign policy, which ensured that London stood by Washington in international affairs while working closely with its European partners.  He was not going to make the same mistake as his predecessor Sir Anthony Eden and get on the wrong side of the Americans.

Macmillan himself, however, was directly responsible for some of the major misunderstandings between the United States and Britain during his trip to Washington at the time of the Suez Crisis. He told Eden, ‘I know Ike. He will lie doggo’ when Eisenhower had no such intentions. Harold Wilson sarcastically called Macmillan, ‘first in and first out at Suez.’ This was true. Macmillan was as gung-ho as Eden for military action against Egypt. However, he was lucky, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, not to be in the firing line when Eisenhower called up Eden in November 1956 to demand that he pull his troops out of Port Said. In fact, in what was the only American influenced coup d’etat in internal British politics, Eisenhower made it clear that he wanted Macmillan to take the reigns of power after the resignation of Eden, whom the Americans wanted out of No 10 Downing Street as soon as possible.

Macmillan and John F Kennedy

The Macmillan-Kennedy special relationship, in which the UK supported America’s leadership of the West through good times and bad times, has survived to this day. Macmillan had the wisdom to repair the Anglo-American relationship after Sir Anthony Eden was abandoned by an American president too obsessed with the Cold War to face up to the new challenges of rogue states setting out to undermine the West, which is what happened during the darkest hours of the Sinai-Suez War. 

The so-called “special relationship” was a construct of Winston Churchill during the Second World War. When Churchill returned to power in October 1951, he tried to revive the special relationship but found President Roosevelt’s successors, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, in no mood to treat Britain as any closer an ally than its other partners in NATO. In reality, the Americans were happy to get the support of Britain in their foreign policy initiatives, but did not return the same support to London when the Churchill and Eden governments went against what was deemed to be in the national interest of the United States. 

In truth, both Truman and Eisenhower wanted the nations of Europe to unite and for Britain to play an important role in the future United States of Europe. In addition, the Americans wanted the European nations to bring an end to their respective overseas empires. This did not suit Winston Churchill, who resisted all American efforts to bring about the end to the British Empire. He wanted Britain to sponsor, but not play a part in, a European federation.

Sir Anthony Eden, Churchill’s successor, on the other hand, saw that time was already up for the empire. However, he chose not to join the 1955 meetings on the formation of the European Economic Community. Eden was consistent in his belief that Britain should conduct an independent foreign policy. He would support both America and Europe in bringing West Germany into Nato in 1955 and expected the Americans to support him at Suez in 1956. Unfortunately for Eden, the Americans supported Egypt in the Sinai-Suez War because they did not want Britain to conduct any wars or take any foreign policy initiatives which did not suit the interests of the United States. The special relationship, if it ever existed as a partnership between equals, came to an abrupt end as British and French troops were withdrawn from Port Said in December 1956. 

Winston Churchill with Macmillan

Harold Macmillan, from the late 1940s onwards, wanted Britain to join a European federation. He succeeded his rival Eden in January 1957. This suited President Eisenhower, who had worked with Macmillan in North Africa during the Second World War. Macmillan came to a different understanding of the special relationship than Churchill and Eden. Macmillan was not a Charles de Gaulle figure. He was much more of an internationalist. He wanted Britain to play the role of junior partner in the new age of Pax Americana. Macmillan played a more important role than any other prime minister in taking Britain through the difficult transition from Empire to Liberal Democracy.  

To Richard Crossman, Director of Psychological Warfare at AFHQ during the Secord World War, Macmillan said the following:

‘We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in this American empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great big vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues, but also more corrupt. We must run A.F.H.Q. as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius…’

And so it was in the 1940s and so it is today. Thanks to Harold Macmillan repairing the damage done between the United States and the United Kingdom after Suez.

Harold Macmillan resigned in October 1963. The UK was still a great manufacturing country in those days. Today Britain’s services-based economy is collapsing in front of our very eyes while much of the manufacturing sector has already been exported overseas.

Historian and politician Richard Lamb called Macmillan ‘by far the best of Britain’s postwar prime ministers, and his administration performed better than any of their successors’. 

David Marquand, former Labour MP and historian, wrote of Macmillan, ‘The Britain in which he came to power was still, in essence, Victorian. The Britain he bequeathed to his successors belonged unmistakably to the 20th century. It is no mean epitaph.’

The last great intellectual to live in No 10 Downing Street, Macmillan brought Britain right down to earth after the collapse of British power which was set in motion by the Second World War. He was also one of the bravest British politicians of the 20th Century. A veteran of the First World War, Harold Macmillan put political principle ahead of political ambition by opposing the National Government’s appeasement of Nazi Germany. 

Harold Macmillan was indeed an Eminent Churchillian. We shall not see his like again.


MacMillan in the 1930s

harold macmillan: eminent churchillian copyright 2020 david robert semple