Harold Macmillan - A personal appreciation by John Twisleton

Good all-rounder In our specialised world good all-rounders are getting rarer. To rise to the highest office in the land you have to tick more boxes than most. Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) ticked boxes in the worlds of the university, commerce, the military and religion. His politics were liberal yet conservative, rebel yet loyalist. He was a crofter’s great-grandson yet his father-in-law was a Duke. Possessing all these qualities guarantees personal complexity and an interesting biography.
My own interest in Macmillan has been fueled by serving as parish priest of St Giles, Horsted Keynes where he’s buried and by reading D.R.Thorpe’s Supermac (2010) and Charles Williams’ 2009 biography.

Anglocatholicism My interest in Macmillan is fuelled by having a similar shade of Christian conviction. He held to an Anglo Catholicism true to the understanding of the Church of England as ‘the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed’. Tempted in his youth towards Roman Catholicism he resisted, probably steered back by his mother’s Protestant heritage.  A robust spiritual life was kindled through his friendship with one time tutor, Ronnie later Monsignor Knox (picture). He kept his Lenten fast and held to Sunday obligation sometimes attending twice. In his retirement he enjoyed theological conversations with the priest at Horsted Keynes.

Marriage Harold Macmillan’s life spans the 20th century. His first memories from his Chelsea childhood were of the pervasive smell of horses and the sound of the blacksmith at work. After the 1914-18 war he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish whose unfaithfulness to him with Bob Boothby has been well chronicled. Dorothy kept up appearances, a stolid politician’s wife seeing Harold elected as MP in Stockton and then Bromley. She stood by him through a political ascent after war service in the Mediterranean to Minister of Housing, Minister of Defence, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963.

Hard times Macmillan had many trials, political and domestic. His life story is one that rises above the trials and part of his strategy was daily retreating into books and prayer.  He possessed a clear sense of divine providence working through the historical events that propelled his career. Great men and women are usually people who have suffered. In this way their humanity appeals through the braving of fear. Macmillan’s courage was forged in the trenches of the First World War and a near death experience in the Second World War. He lacked a happy marriage due to his wife Dorothy’s difficulties with his possessive mother, Nellie.

Mistakes There is no hiding his part in the the 1945 repatriation of Cossacks to their execution in Russia and the 1956 Suez crisis (demonstration picture) or in the aloofness of the British establishment of his day. His brilliant intellect made him too clever for some, including Churchill who saw him as an opinionated subordinate. His Labour political opponent Aneurin Bevan saw him as a poseur: ‘behind that Edwardian countenance there is nothing’. His fellow Tory rival Butler was kinder and saw two sides to him ‘the soft heart for and the strong determination to help the underdog, and the social habit to associate happily with the overdog’.

Courage Macmillan’s courage forged through active service in two World Wars including a near death experience made him his own man. He stood alone in cabinet when he told the aged Churchill his days as Prime Minister needed to end. Like any successful politician Macmillan seized the ‘glittering prizes offered those who have stout hearts and sharp swords’ (F.E.Smith). He acted decisively at times to serve the national and international good. Macmillan even dared to stand up to Pope Pius XII with a recommendation he would serve Christian unity by recognising the orders of Anglican priests – to be received by silence!

You’ve never had it so good Macmillan’s most famous quotation is from a speech made July 1957 in Bedford to a Conservative Rally. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good’. It’s context was the recovery of the economy after World War Two with record production of coal and steel linked to increases in wages, exports and investment. Two years later the Tories had a resounding electoral victory under Harold Macmillan’s leadership. This was to quickly unravel with rising inflation leading to a highly unpopular wage freeze, the Profumo scandal and Macmillan’s resignation in 1963 due to ill health.

Winds of change African nationalists visit Harold Macmillan’s Sussex grave to this day. They recall his 1960 prophecy of ‘winds of change’ blowing across that continent made in the face of Prime Minister Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd in the South African Parliament. Verwoerd indignantly replied that the white man had rights as well as the black man. Things moved on from there, but Macmillan’s pragmatism played a signal role in opening up the post-colonial era. This pragmatism welcoming Africa’s movement to shake of its colonial yoke, of noble intent, made Macmillan unpopular in many quarters and contributed to his political downfall.

Media martyr? Parishioners in Horsted Keynes recall Macmillan’s aristocratic sound and mannerisms and the deference given to him in his home village. At the station everyone waited on the train until the Prime Minister had got off the train and been met by his chauffeur! Such deference was fast eroding in the 1960s as a more egalitarian era appeared in the wake of television and satire like That Was The Week That Was. No mercy was spared him and cabinet colleagues when war secretary John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler (picture) was exposed in 1961 which had severe repercussions for Macmillan.

Counter Brexiteer I recall one of Macmillan’s domestic staff in Horsted Keynes describing how when world leaders stayed phials of their blood went in the fridge! De Gaulle’s (picture) went in the garage fridge following his brutal veto of Britain's first bid to join the Common Market. The two men were friends from work they did in Algeria during World War Two but came to blows politically over Macmillan’s desire to gain membership of what is now the European Union. Macmillan’s efforts were to bear fruit post-De Gaulle in 1973 but are now being reversed.

Centrist Harold Macmillan was one for centre ground where he could find it. His American ancestry motivated him to steer a pathway for British foreign policy honouring allegiance both to Europe and the United States. In economic policy he was for capitalism but also for intervention, propelling a Conservative Party campaign to build 300,000 houses a year in the 1951 election. As patriot he loved the Empire from the days of his youth but it was his gift to help transform it into the Commonwealth. In religion Macmillan sought centre ground holding  to an Anglo Catholicism bridging Roman Catholic and Protestant.

Wit Macmillan had a gift of humour he used to lighten the most daunting of proceedings. Interrupted in a speech by Khruschev (picture) banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations he looks up and says quietly, ‘Well, I would like it translating if you would.’ Unveiling a bronze of Mrs Thatcher at the Carlton Club he makes an audible stage whisper, ‘Now I must remember that I am unveiling a bust of Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher’s bust.’ On a trip to Russia, told ‘dobry den’ means ‘good day’ he regales everyone with the words ‘double gin’!

President Kennedy Macmillan engaged closely with 20th century world leaders such as Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Nehru. His friendship with President Kennedy led to the latter’s well recalled visit to Macmillan in Sussex which was in itself a tribute to the personal chemistry between the two men. This friendship seems to have overcome differences of age and nationality, and one might add sexuality. Harold’s diary recalls being somewhat taken aback by Kennedy’s remark: ‘I wonder how it is with you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days I get a terrible headache’.  

Personal link As Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes (2009-2017) I was privileged to pick up a number of stories about Macmillan. Harold’s elegant voice is remembered from his delivery of the scripture reading, as well as from his occasional interjections to curtail gossip in the choir! He persuaded one of my predecessors to change the lesson he read the Sunday Churchill died to ‘let us now praise famous men’. More difficult were the occasions he attended St Giles Church Council and would stand at 9pm declaring the meeting was over to the Rector’s chagrin! An enthusiastically Christian prime minister can work both ways


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