Published: January 2, 2017
Regarded by many as the last great gentleman statesman to serve as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Macmillan was born on this day. He followed the traditional – but now abandoned – Conservative route to power of “Eton, Oxford and the Guards.”
The man who became affectionately known as “SuperMac” transformed Britain’s economy in the 1950s and with it the living standards of many working people, telling them: “You’ve never had it so good.” They believed him and returned his Conservative Government back to power in the General Election of 1959 with a big majority.
An unflappable man steeped in old-fashioned values, he became a close friend of both President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, who continued to write long letters to Macmillan until his death in 1986 at the age of 92.
Enriched by the family business – the Macmillan publishing house – he was educated at Eton, Britain’s most expensive school, then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Serving with the Grenadier Guards, he was wounded three times, most seriously in September 1916, when he was shot during the Battle of the Somme. Pretending to be dead when German soldiers passed by, he lay injured in a “fox hole” for ten hours, consoling himself much of the time by reading the classical playwright Aeschylus in the original Greek.
His wounds caused him pain and to walk with a slight limp for the rest of his life. Macmillan, considering himself both a “gownsman” and a “swordsman,” would later hold in some contempt politicians who had never seen military service.
In the 1930s, as Member of Parliament for Stockton in the deprived North of England, he saw the misery and poverty that mass unemployment caused and he was determined to find solutions. And when in 1958, as Prime Minister, he pressed for both full employment and price stability, his entire dissenting Treasury team resigned.
Macmillan described the action as “a little local difficulty” and added: “When I am told that inflation can be cured or arrested only by returning to substantial or even massive unemployment, I reject that utterly.”
Political academic Vernon Bogdanor said of him: “More imaginative and far-sighted than most of his generation, Macmillan stood for much that is best in British political life – its decency and tolerance, its dislike of puritanism and cant.
“He helped to create a society which provided, for the vast majority of British people, a happier and more secure life than they had ever known.”
His respect for working people was expressed years later when he commented on Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the bitter coal mining dispute and her description of striking miners as “the enemy within.”
He said: “It breaks my heart to see what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing.”
In 1985, Macmillan, by that time sitting in the House of Lords as the Earl of Stockton, launched another attack on Margaret Thatcher’s policies – this time on the selling-off to private companies of State assets such as gas, steel and the railways. It was an attack that became famous as the “selling the family silver” protest.
He said: “The sale of assets is common with individuals when they run into financial difficulties. First, the Georgian silver goes, and then all the nice furniture. Then the Canalettos go.” He ventured “to question the using of these huge sums as if they were income.”
According to the Independent newspaper, his punishment for such criticism was to have his portrait summarily removed from the walls of Number 10 Downing Street.
Macmillan, who led the country from 1957 to 1963, was the last British Prime Minister born in the reign of Queen Victoria, the last to have served in the First World War, the last to receive an hereditary peerage – and the last to wear a moustache while in office.