Harold MacMillan
Harold MacMillan; drawing by David Levine

Harold Macmillan was prime minister of England from 1957 to 1963, and died in 1986 at the age of ninety-two. But his British contemporaries were never exactly sure who he was. To his critics, he was little more than a second-rate actor, implausibly and cynically posturing in a variety of superficial and contradictory parts—the crofter’s grandson, middleclass publisher, ducal son-in-law, vulgar showman, world leader, stag at bay, elder statesman, and poor man’s Churchill. Not for nothing was Anthony Sampson’s interim biography acutely subtitled “A Study in Ambiguity.” But to his admirers, he was a rich man’s Disraeli, a virtuoso performer, who was brilliantly gifted in the arts of political management and party leadership, who recognized the essential importance of gesture and theatricality in playing (and winning) the great game, and who was a past master at saying one thing, while resolutely and effectively doing something completely different. In appearing to be an actor, he was only pretending to pretend, and the fact that his critics never noticed this merely demonstrated how completely—and how successfully—they had been beguiled and deceived.

To the end of his very long life, Macmillan’s reputation remained as protean as his personality was enigmatic. When he became prime minister of England in the aftermath of the Suez fiasco and Anthony Eden’s abrupt resignation, it was widely believed that his administration would only last a matter of weeks. In fact, it became one of the strongest and stablest peacetime governments in twentieth-century Britain, and most of the credit for this belonged to Macmillan himself. He restored the shattered morale of the Conservatives, and led them to a triumphant victory at the 1959 general election. He reestablished the Anglo-American “special relationship” with Eisenhower and Kennedy, paid much-publicized visits to Russia and South Africa, began to dismantle what remained of the British Empire, and played a major part in the negotiation of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And he presided over an unprecedented period of domestic prosperity and affluent consumerism, memorably associated with his famous—if usually misquoted—remark: “You’ve never had it so good.”

But halfway through his time as premier, “Supermac” seemed to have lost his touch, and his last two years in office were bedeviled by a series of misjudgments and misfortunes. The economy became overheated, incomes were rising too rapidly, there were recurrent balance of payments crises, and inflation threatened to get out of control. His prestige and authority were gravely weakened when his attempts to get Britain into the Common Market were brutally vetoed by General de Gaulle. And the sordid sensationalism of the Profumo scandal, combined with growing anxieties about national security, further undermined the government’s credibility. Compared to John F. Kennedy and Harold Wilson, Macmillan seemed an anachronistic, almost ridiculous figure, out of date and out of touch. In a desperate attempt to reestablish his position, he dismissed seven of his ministers in the “night of the long knives” of September 1962. But instead of recovering the political initiative, this mortally damaged his much-prized reputation for unflappability. Eventually, ill health obliged Macmillan to resign the premiership in the autumn of 1963, and his personally chosen successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (who was even more of an anachronism than Macmillan himself), led a dismayed and demoralized party to defeat in the general election of 1964.

But in the course of his long retirement, which lasted twenty-three years, Macmillan almost completely rebuilt his shattered reputation. He produced six volumes of memoirs which are required reading for any student of recent political history. In the unheroic, unromantic, unstylish years of Heath, Wilson, and Callaghan, his occasional interviews on television, and his public appearances as Chancellor of Oxford University, were widely acclaimed as masterly displays of venerable sagacity, sophisticated wit, and Edwardian panache. At the age of ninety, he finally accepted a peerage, and returned to Westminster as Earl of Stockton. Sixty years after he had first entered the Commons, he delivered his maiden speech in the upper house—an oration so eloquent, so moving, and so generous that only Churchill in his prime could have surpassed it. He surveyed the somber international scene with the Olympian grandeur of an elder statesman; he spoke with heartfelt compassion about the striking coal miners, and their year-long battle with Thatcher’s government; and he concluded with an unforgettable peroration about the triumphs and tragedies of mankind’s earthly pilgrimage. With that perfect sense of timing for which he had rightly become renowned, the man who in his last years was affectionately and admiringly known as “the old entertainer” had judged his final curtain call to perfection.

Yet even during these long, mellow sunset years, Macmillan’s detractors were never completely silenced. His multivolume memoirs were widely criticized for being disappointingly prolix and impersonally dull—a self-indulgent exercise in self-concealment. Sir Anthony Eden never forgave him for opposing him at the time of Suez; nor did R.A. Butler for the way in which Macmillan had denied him the prime ministership, in 1957, and again in 1963. Toward the very end of his life, it was further alleged that he had callously and deceitfully approved the forced repatriation of thousands of Cossack exiles to Soviet Russia (and thus to certain death) in 1945. And his survival into the 1980s meant that Macmillan was no longer revered as the Grand Old Man of the Conservative party, but was dismissed as the discredited embodiment of consensus politics, Welfare State idealism, and irresponsible government spending—in short of that undoctrinaire middle way which is anathema to Mrs. Thatcher’s newer and more successful brand of Toryism.


As a publisher no less than as a politician, Macmillan was well aware that the full story of his remarkable life would one day make fascinating reading, and in 1979 he appointed Alistair Horne—himself a Macmillan author—to be his official biographer. On condition that nothing should appear until after his death, Macmillan not only made his entire archive freely available, but also allowed Horne to record his personal impressions in a series of private conversations and probing interviews. The result is an excellent biography, which combines the authoritative scholarship of detailed research with an unusually intimate and candid knowledge of its subject, and which brilliantly reconciles the apparent contradictions in Macmillan’s temperament, career, and reputation. This first volume describes his life up to the point at which he became prime minister: it is not the familiar saga of “Supermac,” but the less well known, and much more surprising, story of “Protomac.” For despite the triumphant ending, it is overwhelmingly a study in rejection and disappointment.

Beyond doubt, Macmillan’s early years were unhappy, unpromising, and unsuccessful. His father was a worthy but rather dull publisher, who was a partner in the family firm. His mother was an ambitious and domineering American from the Midwest. The young Harold’s home life was lonely and joyless, and he was overshadowed by his more brilliant elder brother. He grew up to be physically unprepossessing, excessively shy, subject to fits of depression, and with an excitable, emotional temperament. He dropped out of Eton for reasons that are still not entirely clear, and he experienced a major personal crisis when he nearly embraced the Roman Catholic faith. Even at Balliol College, Oxford, where he began to excel in his undergraduate studies, he remained a lonely and unglamorous outsider, who was especially ill at ease in the company of women. His university career was cut short by the First World War, in which he served gallantly in the Grenadiers. But he was wounded three times, did not fully recover for several years, and was left with a shuffling walk and a limp handshake—severe disadvantages for any man who contemplated a career in public life.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of war, it seemed as if his luck changed. He joined the family firm, and became a successful and prosperous publisher. In 1920, he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of the ninth Duke of Devonshire, which brought him into intimate touch with one of the greatest political families in the land. Four years later, he was elected as MP for Stockton-on-Tees, and the public life of which his mother had always dreamed seemed now open to him. But during the next fifteen years, Macmillan made no progress whatever. His wife fell deeply and abidingly in love with the flamboyant Tory adventurer Robert Boothby, and although she remained publicly loyal to her husband and his career, the affair left Macmillan hurt, humiliated, and lonelier than ever. His electoral majority in his Stockton constituency was uncertain, he was never socially at ease with working men and women, and he was out of Parliament between 1929 and 1931. The Cavendishes looked down on him as being middleclass, in trade, a publisher’s boy. And in the Commons his performances were considered priggish, pompous, and boring. In the early 1930s, he seems to have suffered a near-complete nervous breakdown, and it was only his mother’s unwavering support that enabled him to survive.

Horne shows how Macmillan compounded these personal difficulties by espousing unfashionable and unpopular political opinions. His firsthand experience of unemployment and workingclass poverty in Stockton moved him deeply (perhaps too deeply), and he was well acquainted with the writings of John Maynard Keynes, for whom Macmillan’s acted as publishers. This led him to reject the laissez-faire (and thus deflationary) economics of Macdonald and Baldwin, and to urge instead the need for positive government intervention, through state planning, deficit budget financing, and a modest degree of public ownership. His arguments were developed most fully in The Middle Way, published in 1938, a turgid and long-winded book that made almost no impact—except to confirm the widespread belief that Macmillan was a left-of-center maverick. At the same time, he also denounced the government’s policy of appeasement, supporting Churchill in his advocacy of armed resistance to Hitler, and in his opposition to the Munich settlement. By the late 1930s, Macmillan was regularly voting against his own party’s leadership, and for a time he actually resigned as Tory party whip.


His political career seemed no more successful than his marriage, and the outbreak of war brought with it no prospect of preferment. Even when Churchill came to power in 1940, Macmillan’s reward was decidedly meager. For two years he held very junior appointments at the Ministry of Supply and at the Colonial office. Then, in 1942, he was offered the job of minister resident in North Africa. It meant exile from Westminster, and two more eligible candidates had refused to go. Macmillan himself did not immediately appreciate the proconsular potential of the position. But he accepted it, and during the next three years he revealed unexpected qualities of tactfulness and toughness. He resolved the internecine struggles between De Gaulle and Giraud for the leadership of the Free French. He won Eisenhower’s confidence and persuaded the Americans to pursue essentially British strategic objectives. In handling the occupation of Italy and Greece, he showed political judgment and administrative ability of a very high order. For the forced repatriation of the White Russians in the aftermath of the Yalta agreement he incurred no special blame. By the end of the war, he was truly the undisputed viceroy of the Mediterranean, and he had won golden opinions from Churchill himself.

Yet even with this undoubted success behind him, he remained a peripheral figure at Westminster and in Whitehall, and his political career had still not yet acquired the necessary momentum. In the 1945 election, he was defeated at Stockton, and although he soon reentered the Commons, his six years in opposition were dispiriting. He took up the cause of European unity, and played a prominent part in refashioning Tory economic and social policies for the new era of the welfare state. But his parliamentary performances remained unimpressive, and his private life continued unhappy. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, Macmillan was deeply disappointed to be fobbed off with what seemed the insignificant Ministry of Housing. Yet in redeeming the Tory’s pledge to build 300,000 homes a year, he became for the first time a national figure, and revealed qualities of determination and showmanship that many had hitherto never suspected. But then his career was halted again. For his apparent promotion to be minister of defense was nothing of the kind, since Churchill wished to run the department himself. Not surprisingly, by 1955, Macmillan had become the active leader of those ministers who were pressing the visibly aging prime minister to retire.

When Churchill finally departed and Eden succeeded him, Macmillan became foreign secretary and regarded this as the climax of his career: five years in office, he calculated, and he could retire to his books and his publishing. With Eisenhower in the White House, his main concern was to strengthen the special relationship with the US, and he was noticeably less enthusiastic about the cause of European unity than he had been in opposition. But he was too assertive a minister for Eden’s liking and, after only eight months, he was abruptly switched to being Chancellor of the Exchequer—a move for which Macmillan never forgave him. His first (and only) budget was made memorable by his introduction of Premium Savings Bonds—a characteristically daring and slightly vulgar innovation. But even by the middle of 1956, his prime ministerial prospects had hardly improved. He had occupied two senior positions in quick succession—with the result that he had made his mark in neither of them. Above all, Eden himself was two years younger than Macmillan, while R. A. Butler, the generally recognized heir apparent, was fully six years his junior.

Then, in the autumn of 1956, came the Suez crisis, in which Macmillan’s part was so maladroit, inglorious, and inconsistent that he deserved to have been destroyed by it. Despite (or perhaps because of) his close friendship with Eisenhower, he completely misread the signals emanating from Washington, which made it plain that there would be no American support for armed British intervention. At the outset of the war, he was resolutely in favor of prompt and vigorous military action. Yet it was he who effectively brought the invasion to a halt by insisting that, without American financial support, it could no longer be afforded. In Harold Wilson’s caustic phrase, Macmillan was “first in, first out” at Suez, changing almost overnight from being superhawk to superdove. But if Macmillan performed badly, the prime minister and his heir apparent did even worse. Eden was ravaged by illness and was soon forced to resign. And Rab Butler, who was afflicted by a viral infection, and still recovering from the death of his adored wife, seemed aloof, indecisive, and indiscreet. Macmillan, by contrast, may have changed his mind; but he never seemed irresolute. And when the prospect of the premiership finally and unexpectedly opened up, he seized the opportunity, and pressed home his claim.

Even summarized thus briefly, Macmillan’s was an extraordinary career, only rivaled (as he himself was sometimes wont to point out) by Disraeli’s in its long hard years of futile disappointment, eventually redeemed by the final triumph that nevertheless came too late. Beyond doubt, Macmillan was courageous and cunning, determined and hard working. But as Horne makes abundantly plain, the most remarkable thing about him was not that he became prime minister very late in life, but that he ever became prime minister at all. Indeed, until 1945—or perhaps even 1955—Macmillan himself does not seem to have believed it was a realistic possibility. And there can be no doubt that he was quite correct in this opinion. His wife’s affair with Boothby was widely known and was a great political liability. He antagonized most of the great men of the Tory party, from Baldwin and Chamberlain to Eden and Butler. Before 1940 he was easily dismissed as an unorthodox and insignificant rebel. And during the next fifteen years, his ministerial experience was relatively limited. How, then, did he ever manage to climb to what Disraeli called the top of the greasy pole?

Quite correctly, Horne answers this question by stressing two elements, which are often so important in political life, but which historians are inclined to underrate: namely willpower and luck. It seems clear that the more unhappy Macmillan’s private life became, the more it strengthened his resolve to win. Lady Dorothy Cavendish seems to have been the only woman—with the significant exception of his mother—that Macmillan ever really loved. Yet she clearly found him to be sexually inadequate, and it humiliated him deeply that he was thus dishonored and cuckolded. From the late 1920s, he never seems to have enjoyed physical relations with anyone else. Nor did his children bring him solace or comfort. He was too busy in politics or publishing to have much time for them; his only son became an alcoholic, and his youngest daughter was in fact Boothby’s child. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Macmillan’s increasingly resolute determination to seize the political opportunities that came his way, was very largely an attempt to atone in his own eyes for his conspicuous failings as a husband and a father.

But Macmillan was also in some ways a very lucky man. Or, rather, as events unfolded, he became one. In the interwar years, his advocacy of government intervention in the economy seemed quixotic: but from the changed perspective of the 1950s he appeared as one of those who had wisely and compassionately foretold the coming of the welfare state. In the same way, his opposition to Nazi Germany had once been a minority opinion: but after the Second World War, an honorable anti-appeasement record was just about the most valuable political asset an ambitious Tory could possess. So, too, in the Forties and early Fifties, he may have been disappointed by his second-rank jobs in North Africa and at the Ministry of Housing, but they gave him unrivaled experience in both domestic and international affairs. And while he was as ill at ease in a working men’s club in Stockton as he was amid the treasures and splendors of Chatsworth, this varied experience helped him to appeal to both the patrician and the proletarian elements in postwar Conservatism.

As his firmness of purpose intensified, and his luck improved, Macmillan gradually caught up with Butler in the stakes for the Tory party leadership. In the interwar years, everything had gone Rab’s way: his happy marriage to the heiress Sydney Courtauld, the safe seat at Saffron Walden, the early ministerial preferment. Indeed, it may be that the iron entered Macmillan’s soul as a result of some woundingly indiscreet remark by Butler at this time about the sad state of his own marriage. In any event, the combination of personal unhappiness and political disappointment meant that Macmillan was obliged, in self-defense, to learn those very arts of showmanship, dissimulation, and opportunism without which no politician can reach the very top—arts which Butler so very conspicuously failed to acquire. The result was that by 1956, Rab was increasingly distrusted by the right for being too liberal at home and too accommodating abroad (his stand on appeasement, which had been an asset in the Thirties, had by now become a distinct liability), while Macmillan was preferred because he seemed the more robust and assertive figure. Yet on domestic and imperial matters, he was in fact every bit as radical as Butler, if not more so.

Thus does Horne reconcile and explain the apparent contradictions of Macmillan’s character and career: the shy and private person who became the consummate public performer; the radical Tory who won the support of the right wing of the party; the lonely long-distance runner, who came from behind to win; the marginal dissident who eventually crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street. Indeed, so convincing is Horne’s portrait that we can already discern the themes that characterize his years of supreme power. On the one hand, there would be Macmillan’s cultivated image of flippant detachment, his skill in handling Anglo-American relations and in dissolving the British Empire, and his determination to avoid heavy unemployment at any cost. But on the other, there would be his isolation from his cabinet colleagues and from the press, his conspicuous failures in European diplomacy, and his inability to recognize inflation as the new economic nightmare. All this, as well as Macmillan’s final, hard-won, and not quite certain apotheosis, awaits us in the second volume. It cannot appear soon enough.

This Issue

April 27, 1989