Queen Elizabeth II has only been on the Throne for five years, and is about to embark upon new weekly audiences with a new Prime Minister. In the continuation of this series of blogs, we will be looking at the life and times of The Queen’s third premier, Harold Macmillan.
Born on the 10th February 1894, Maurice Harold Macmillan was brought into the world at 52 Cadogan Place in Chelsea to parents Maurice Crawford Macmillan and Helen Tarleton Belles. Macmillan had two elder brothers, Daniel who was eight years his senior and Arthur who was four years his senior. From an early age Macmillan received a very intensive education, which was closely guarded by his American Mother. He learnt French at home every morning from a series of nursery maids, and exercised daily at Mr Macpherson’s gymnasium and dance academy.
He attended Summer Fields School in Oxford and Eton College, although his time at Eton was blighted by recurrent illness, starting with a near fatal attack of pneumonia in his first year. He had to miss his final year at Eton due to being invalided out; the remainder of his tutoring was at home.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Macmillan volunteered for active service and joined the Grenadier Guards, with whom he fought for on the front line in France. Although the fatality risk in France was high, Macmillan served with distinction as a captain. Nevertheless, he was wounded three times.
The Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, had his own son serving alongside Macmillan; Raymond Asquith was tragically killed in September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. In the same month, Macmillan lead an advance platoon in the Battle of the Somme where he was severely wounded; thus, he spent the last two years of the war in hospital undergoing a long series of operations. He saw no more active service.
On 21st April 1920, Harold Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of 9th Duke of Devonshire; they had four children: Maurice Macmillan, Lady Caroline Faber, Lady Catherine Amery and Sarah Heath.
Harold Macmillan’s first taste of politics came in 1924 when he was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative MP for the depressed industrial northern constituency Stockton-On-Tees. In 1929 in the face of high regional unemployment, Macmillan lost his seat; however, he regained the same seat in 1931.
The majority of the 1930’s Macmillan spent on the backbenches with his championing of economic planning, anti-appeasement ideas and sharp criticism of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain isolating him from party leadership.
When the Second World War broke out, Macmillan finally attained office, serving in the wartime coalition government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply from 1940 to 1942, providing armaments and other equipment to the British Army and Royal Air Force. In 1942, Macmillan was appointed Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, and although he was a junior, he was also a member of the Privy Council. In the same year, Macmillan was sent to North Africa as a British Government representative to the allies in the Mediterranean. Macmillan now reported directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill rather than Foreign Minister Anthony Eden.
Upon his return to the UK in 1945, after the European War had ended, Macmillan was appointed Secretary of State for Air for two months in Churchill’s caretaker government, with Macmillan saying “much of this was taken up with electioneering, and there was nothing much to be done in the way of forward planning”.
In the landslide Labour victory of 1945, Macmillan lost his seat; however, within just a few months, he had regained his seat at the Bromley by election. When Winston Churchill came back into power in 1951, Macmillan was given the posts of Housing Minister and Defence Minister, the latter being a post where he found his authority restricted by Churchill’s personal involvement.
In the government of Anthony Eden, from April to December 1955, Macmillan held the position of Foreign Secretary, and from December 1955, for just over a year, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a role which saw him heavily involved in the secret planning of the invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Collusion with Israel was in fact, his idea.
When Anthony Eden resigned in 1957, the Conservative Party at the time had no formal mechanism for selecting a new party leader. Queen Elizabeth II appointed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister after taking advice from Winston Churchill and the Marquess of Salisbury, who had asked the Cabinet individually for their opinion, and all but two members voted for Macmillan. The political situation after the Suez Crisis was so desperate that Macmillan told The Queen he could not guarantee his government would last for six weeks; ultimately, the Macmillan government would last for six years.
Macmillan’s first term as Prime Minister saw him reaffirm his strong support for the British nuclear weapons programme. A succession of post-war Prime Ministers had been determined to persuade the United States to revive wartime co-operation in the area of nuclear weapons research. Harold Macmillan believed that one way to encourage such co-operation was to speed up the development of Britain’s own hydrogen bomb, which was successfully tested on 8th November 1957.
This decision of Macmillan’s led to increased demands on the Windscale and Calder Hill nuclear plants to produce plutonium for nuclear purposes. As a result, safety margins for radioactive materials inside the Windscale rector were eroded, this contributed to the Windscale fire on the night 10th October 1957 which broke out in the plutonium plant of Pile No 1, and nuclear contaminants travelled up a chimney, and blocked some of the contaminated material. The radioactive cloud it produced spread to the south east of England, and the fallout reached mainland Europe. The Government blamed the workers who had put out the fire for an error of judgement rather than the political pressure for fast-tracking the megaton bomb.
Macmillan led the Conservatives to victory in 1959, and it was his second term as Prime Minister that saw one of the biggest British political scandals of all time. The Profumo Affair originated with a brief sexual liaison in 1961 between Secretary of State for War John Profumo, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old would-be model. In March 1963 Profumo denied any impropriety in a personal statement to the House of Commons. He was, however, forced to admit the truth a few weeks later.
When the affair was first revealed, public interest was heightened by reports that Christine Keeler may have been simultaneously involved with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, thereby creating a security risk. An inquiry into the affair by a senior judge, Lord Denning, indicated that there had been no breaches of security arising from the Ivanov connection.
Profumo resigned from Government and from Parliament, and subsequently sought private atonement as a volunteer worker at Toynbee Hall. The scandal seriously damaged the Conservative Party’s reputation and is blamed for its downfall at the 1964 General Election.
The Profumo Affair may have exacerbated Macmillan’s ill health and, on the eve of the 1963 Conservative Party Conference, was diagnosed incorrectly with inoperable prostate cancer. Consequently, Macmillan resigned on 18th October 1963, and was succeeded as Prime Minister by his Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home.
As for Macmillan’s relationship with his Monarch, it is said that The Queen learnt more from Macmillan than she had from her previous prime ministers. If Macmillan did find their early contact at the Tuesday audiences somewhat difficult and forced, he came to lay great store by them, and to take care that discussions should be as full as possible, sending Her Majesty an agenda of the points he wished to discuss beforehand. Macmillan approached The Queen in much the same spirit of formal gallantry which Disraeli had used towards Queen Victoria. It is said that Macmillan was genuinely impressed by the depth of Her Majesty’s knowledge and, even after a few years on the Throne, her remarkable accumulation of political experience.
In later life, Macmillan found himself drawn back into active politics when Margaret Thatcher was made Conservative party leader, and subsequently, Prime Minister. Thatcher is quoted as saying, “I never regretted Harold Macmillan’s advice”. Macmillan finally accepted a peerage on 10th February 1984, and was created Earl of Stockton and Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden and in his maiden speech to the House of Lords, considering his reported support of her, criticised Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the coal miner’s strike.
Harold Macmillan died at Birch Grove, the family mansion in East Sussex, four days after Christmas in 1986. His age was 92 years and 322 days, the greatest age obtained by an former British Prime Minister, until surpassed by James Callaghan in 2005. On receiving the news of his death, Prime Minister Thatcher said, “he was a very remarkable man, and a great patriot, and he was unique in the affection of the British people.” His funeral was held on 5th January 1987 at St Giles Church in West Sussex, and a public memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 10th February 1987 with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance.
In many polls of post-war Prime Ministers, Macmillan ranks fairly high in many, often coming in at third or fourth place. It is often said that Macmillan was one of The Queen’s favourite politicians, and he in turn gushed about our Monarch. In a mark of her affection for him, while in hospital, The Queen sent Macmillan a bottle of champagne with a note saying:
“My dear Prime Minister, I have just returned from Scotland this morning, and I send you this small reviver with all my good wishes for a complete and speedy recovery, and I hope it will make you feel much better! Yours sincerely, Elizabeth R.”
Elizabeth II then visited Macmillan at his bedside for their final Tuesday audience. We can only speculate as to what Her Majesty actually thinks of her Prime Ministers, but one thing is for sure when talking about Harold Macmillan: The Queen must have held him in high regard, for it is only a lucky few that receive a gift from Her Majesty The Queen.
A bit of trivia before I go, Harold Macmillan was the last British Prime Minister to have been born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and the last to have served during the First World War.