Harold Macmillan – First Earl of Stockton

Harold Macmillan – First Earl of Stockton

Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC (1894 – 1986) was a British Conservative politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963.

Nicknamed ‘Supermac’, in his premiership he advocated a mixed economy, championed the use of public investment to create expansion, and presided over an age of affluence marked by high growth and low unemployment. He restored the special relationship with the United States, decolonised much of Africa, ended National Service, strengthened the nuclear deterrent, and pioneered the Nuclear Test Ban with the Soviet Union, but his unwillingness to disclose United States nuclear secrets to France led to a French veto of the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community.

When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Macmillan replied: “Events, my dear boy, events”. Harold Macmillan was born in Chelsea, London, and was first educated at Summer Fields School and then at Eton but left during his first half after a serious attack of pneumonia. He also attended Balliol College, Oxford, although he only completed two years of the four year course reading Greats before the outbreak of the First World War.

Macmillan served with distinction as a captain in the Grenadier Guards during the war and was wounded on three occasions. During the Battle of the Somme, he spent an entire day wounded and lying in a slit trench with a bullet in his pelvis, reading the classical Greek playwright Aeschylus in his original language.

Macmillan lost so many of his fellow students during the war that afterwards he refused to return to Oxford, saying the university would never be the same. He joined Macmillan Publishers as a junior partner in 1920, remaining with the company until his appointment to ministerial office in 1940. Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire on 21 April 1920.

Between 1929 and 1935 Lady Dorothy had a long affair with the Conservative politician Robert Boothby, in full public view of Westminster and established society. Boothby was widely rumoured to have been the father of Macmillan’s youngest daughter Sarah. The stress caused by this may have contributed to Macmillan’s nervous breakdown in 1931. Lady Dorothy died on 21 May 1966, aged 65.

Elected to the House of Commons in 1924 for Stockton-on-Tees, Macmillan lost his seat in 1929, only to return in 1931. He spent the 1930s on the backbenches, During this time (1938) he published the first edition of his book The Middle Way, which advocated a broadly centrist political philosophy both domestically and internationally.

In the Second World War he at last attained office, serving in the wartime coalition government in the Ministry of Supply and the Colonial Ministry before attaining real power upon being sent to North Africa in 1942 as British government representative to the Allies in the Mediterranean.

During this assignment Macmillan worked closely with US General Dwight Eisenhower, a friendship that would prove crucial in his later career. Macmillan was also the British resident minister advising General Keightley of V Corps, the senior Allied commander in Austria responsible for Operation Keelhaul, which included the forced repatriation of up to 70,000 prisoners of war to the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1945.

Macmillan returned to England after the war and was Secretary of State for Air for two months in 1945. He lost his seat in the landslide Labour victory that year, but soon returned to Parliament in a November 1945 by-election in Bromley. With the Conservative victory in 1951 he became Minister of Housing under Winston Churchill and fulfilled his conference promise to build 300,000 houses per year. He then served as Minister of Defense from October 1954. He then served as Foreign Secretary in April-December 1955 and Chancellor of the Exchequer 1955-1957 under Anthony Eden.

Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party after Eden’s resignation in January 1957, Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in the October 1959 general election, increasing his party’s majority from 67 to 107 seats. The successful campaign was based on the economic improvements achieved, the slogan “Life’s Better Under the Conservatives” was matched by Macmillan’s own remark, “indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good.”, usually paraphrased as “You’ve never had it so good”.

In 1963 he was taken ill on the eve of the Conservative Party conference, diagnosed incorrectly with inoperable prostate cancer. Consequently, he resigned on 18 October 1963. Macmillan initially refused a peerage and retired from politics in September 1964. He did, however, accept the distinction of the Order of Merit from the Queen. After retiring, he took up the chairmanship of his family’s publishing house, Macmillan Publishers.

In 1984 he finally accepted a peerage and was created Earl of Stockton and Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden. In the last month of his life, he observed: “Sixty-three years ago … the unemployment figure (in Stockton-on-Tees) was then 29%. Last November … the unemployment (there) is 28%. A rather sad end to one’s life.” Macmillan died at Birch Grove, West Sussex, on 29 December 1986, aged 92 years and 322 days, the greatest age attained by a British Prime Minister until surpassed by James Callaghan on 14 February 2005.

His son Maurice had become heir to the earldom of Stockton, but died suddenly a month after his father’s elevation. Harold Macmillan’s grandson became the 2nd Earl of Stockton.