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Harold Macmillan

Prime Minister, 1957-1963

Harold Macmillan

Harold Macmillan was born in London, on February 10, 1894. He was educated at Oxford University, after which he spent a short time in his family's publishing business (Macmillan Publishers). He fought with distinction during World War I, and was wounded three times. From 1919 to 1920 he was an aide to the Governor General of Canada.

Early Political Career

In 1924, Macmillan was elected as the Conservative MP for Stockton-on-Trent. He lost his seat in 1929, but regained it in 1931. He continued to serve in Parliament until becoming Prime Minister in 1957. During his time in Parliament he was a vocal advocate for social support, and joined Winston Churchill's criticism of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Germany.

Macmillan's first ministerial post was parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Supply, in which capacity he served from 1940 to 1942. In 1942 he was made Undersecretary of State for the Colonies. His most important position was as Minister Resident at the Allied Headquarters in the Mediterranean, in which position he served from 1942 to 1945, and during which time he became a good friend of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After World War II he served as Secretary of State for Air in the caretaker government.

Macmillan lost his Parliament seat in the 1945 General Election, but won a by-election to become MP for Bromley. From 1945 to 1951 he was a leading member of the Opposition, speaking on economic and industrial issues and contributing to debates on foreign affairs.

After the Conservatives regained Parliament in 1951, Macmillan was named Minister of Housing, and he served in that position until 1954. During his tenure he was responsible for the building of almost one million new homes throughout Britain. He subsequently served as Minister of Defense (1954-1955), Foreign Secretary (1955), and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1955-1957).

Prime Minister

When Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Macmillan was one the "war hawks" in Parliament who initially backed Anthony Eden's call for military action against Egypt. But when the United States and the United Nations reacted unfavorably to Britain's actions, Macmillan became one of those critical of how Eden had handled the situation. The incident led to Eden's resignation in January 1957. After consultation with Sir Winston Churchill and the Marquess of Salisbury, Queen Elizabeth II summoned Macmillan to succeed Eden on January 10, 1957.

Macmillan quickly improved relations with the United States which had been strained by the Suez Crisis, as well as the confidence of the British people in its government. That increased confidence led to a greater Conservative majority coming out of the 1959 General Election.

Macmillan and his wife vote in the 1959 general election.
Macmillan voting in 1959

Macmillan enjoyed some major successes during his time as Prime Minister, including the establishment of the National Economic Development Council and the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the former Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. But those successes were offset by some major failures. In 1961, Macmillan's push for Britain to apply for membership in the European Economic Community caused a split in the Conservative Party; to make the situation even worse, Britain's application was ultimately vetoed by France. In 1962, Macmillan tried to rebuild public confidence in his government by abruptly dismissing six cabinet members, but the move backfired. Public confidence was further eroded when it was disclosed that Foreign Secretary John Profumo had lied to Parliament about having an affair with a prostitute. Macmillan handled the scandal badly, and by 1963 his government was in trouble.

In October 1963, Macmillan fell ill and was hospitalized. Believing his condition was far more serious than it actually was, he resigned his office; he regretted his decision almost immediately. He retired from the House of Commons in 1964. The Labour government of Harold Wilson took over in 1965.

Macmillan declined a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords, and chose to return to his family's publishing firm (of which he subsequently became chairman). He finally returned to Parliament as a hereditary peer in 1984, and became a vocal critic of Margaret Thatcher's economic policies. He served in the House of Lords until his death, which came on December 29, 1986.

His Writings

Reconstruction: A Plea for a National Policy (1933)
The Middle Way (1938)


BBC History

See Also

World War I
Winston Churchill
Dwight D. Eisenhower
World War II
Gamal Abdel Nasser
Suez Canal
Anthony Eden
Queen Elizabeth II
Harold Wilson
Margaret Thatcher

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This page was last updated on February 10, 2019.