Harold Macmillan – First Earl of Stockton

Harold Macmillan – First Earl of Stockton

Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, Order of Merit, Privy Council, Fellow of the Royal Society, was a British Conservative politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963.

He was born in Chelsea on the 10th of February 1894, and was educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford, although he only completed two years before the outbreak of the First World War. Macmillan served with distinction as a captain in the 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards during the war and was wounded on three occasions.  He fought at the battle of the Somme in 1916 where he was shot in the pelvis and lay unattended in a trench for a day. He spent the final two years of the war undergoing surgery and treatment for his wound.

After the war he joined the family business; Macmillan Publishers as a junior partner. The company was founded by his paternal grandfather Daniel and his brother Alexander. On 21 April 1920, Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire – they went on to have four children.

Elected to the House of Commons in 1924 for Stockton-on-Tees, Macmillan lost his seat in 1929, but was re-elected in 1931. He spent the 1930s on the backbenches of the House of Commons. Like many Northern towns, Stockton fared badly during the Great Depression which had started in 1929 and led to the closure of many of Stockton’s traditional industries.

Macmillan was very conscious of the great gulf between Stockton’s unemployed and his own family’s wealth. His election in 1924 coincided with the appointment of Dr M’Gonigle as Medical Officer for Health in Stockton who himself became nationally recognised for his research into the links between poverty and poor health in Stockton.

In the Second World War he at last attained office in the wartime coalition government. The Conservative victory in 1951 saw him appointed as Minister of Housing under Winston Churchill and he went on to serve as Minister of Defence, Foreign Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party after Anthony Eden’s resignation in January 1957.

Fondly 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. Indeed during a party rally he commented on the fact that people ‘will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime nor indeed in the history of this country. Indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good.’

When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Macmillan famously replied ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’

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 from politics in 1964, he took up the chairmanship of his family’s publishing house serving there until his death. 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 29%. Last November… the unemployment (there) is 28%. A rather sad end to one’s life.’

The prosperity of the nation that occurred during his premiership had proved to be cyclical. Macmillan died at Birch Grove, West Sussex, on 29 December 1986, aged 92 years.