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Harold Macmillan

Maurice Harold Macmillan was half-American by parentage, the son of a publisher who had raised the family from a humble background. Chelsea-born, he was educated at Eton and later at Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled.

He was wounded three times whilst serving in the First World War. For a time he worked for his family’s publishing firm before being elected in 1924 as the Conservative MP for Stockton-on-Tees – a depressed industrial town.

The run-down state of the area and the hardship of its people had a profound effect on him. During his early parliamentary career, he was a member of a left-wing group within the party which pressed for social reform.

In 1936-37 he resigned the whip for a short time to write The Middle Way, which defined his centrist Conservative beliefs.

In 1940 Macmillan was appointed a junior minister, and in 1942 became the Resident Minister at Allied Forces HQ in the Mediterranean, where he became a friend of General Eisenhower.

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He lost his seat in 1945 but returned very soon after in the Bromley by-election. He represented the Opposition until 1951, with responsibility for economic and industrial matters.

With the Conservatives victory in 1951, Macmillan joined the Cabinet as Minister for Housing.

He proved himself an effective minister, overseeing the building of almost one million new homes. In 1954 he became Minister for Defence, and in 1955 Anthony Eden appointed him as Foreign Secretary.

However, Eden wished to control foreign affairs personally, and nine months later Macmillan was moved against his will to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Macmillan initially supported the action taken by Eden over the Suez Crisis, but later changed his stance.

Following Eden’s resignation, and despite widespread predictions that the job of PM would go to Rab Butler, the Queen invited Macmillan to form a government. Macmillan himself initially expected his tenure to be short-lived. Instead, he had considerable success in restoring both party and national morale and confidence. He presided over a time of prosperity and the easing of Cold War relations on the international stage.

It was at this time that he gained the nickname ‘Supermac’, and in 1959 won a comfortable victory in the general election.

In February 1960 he gave an address to the South African Parliament which was to become known as the ‘Wind of Change’ speech. Speaking to an audience mainly consisting of supporters of the infamous Apartheid regime, he made the following observation: “The most striking of all the impressions I have formed since I left London a month ago is the strength of African national consciousness. The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

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Needless to say, Macmillan’s speech did not go down well with the South African premier, Dr Verwoerd, who made much of the rights of his white countrymen in his reply. The speech did however reverberate around the world, and in a very short time, it proved to be prophetic.

Macmillan’s second term was not so problem-free. Britain’s application for membership of the EEC split the Conservative party and was eventually rejected by General de Gaulle. Inflation and slow growth affected the economy.

Macmillan’s handling of the Profumo Affair scandal was judged to be poor.

In 1962 the government’s general unpopularity led Macmillan to abruptly dismiss six Cabinet members, an event which became known as the ‘night of the long knives’.

Macmillan fell ill in 1963 and, believing his condition to be more serious than it was, resigned.

Alec Douglas-Home, the foreign secretary, succeeded him. This proved controversial as it was alleged that Macmillan had pulled strings and utilised the party’s grandees, nicknamed “The Magic Circle”, to ensure that Butler was not chosen as his successor.

In 1964 he retired from the House of Commons and declined a peerage. Instead, he worked on his memoirs, at the publishing house, and as chancellor of Oxford University.

He eventually returned to Parliament in 1984 as a hereditary peer, the 1st Earl of Stockton. He died at Birch Grove in Sussex in 1986, aged 92 – the greatest age attained by a PM until Lord Callaghan’s death in 2005.

His last words were “I think I will go to sleep now”.