Harold Macmillan, 1894-1956

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Harold Macmillan was born into an important publishing family, his grandfather having founded the book-publishing firm, Macmillan, fifty-one years before Harold was born in 1894. Following his marriage in 1920, Harold Macmillan became a junior partner in the family publishing house and, like his father, seemed destined to make this his life’s vocation. In the 1920’s he had editorial responsibilities for some of the firm’s most prominent authors: Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and William Butler Yeats, among others. Macmillan was especially interested in contemporary economists, and was responsible for recruiting G. D. H. Cole into the firm’s stable of authors. Biographer Alistair Horne implies that Macmillan’s special interest in economic policy, and perhaps his unorthodox views on that subject, stemmed from having worked with Cole and John Maynard Keynes, another Macmillan author, in his capacity as a publisher.

In the early 1920’s there was little reason to anticipate that Macmillan would become a successful politician. He was extremely shy, lacked self-confidence, and seemed deficient in precisely the qualities often associated with politicians. Horne attributes Macmillan’s involvement in politics to two factors: his mother’s ambitions for him, and the influence of his father-in-law, Lord Cavendish, the head of an important British political family.

Macmillan’s mother, Nellie Belles, was an American from the small town of Spencer, Indiana, who met his father, Maurice, while she was studying in Paris. Horne suggests that she had an unusually profound influence on her son. She was a devout Methodist who was probably responsible for Macmillan’s being a deeply religious person. When as a youth he considered entering the clergy, however, and seemed drawn toward the Catholic Church, she intervened to prevent him from doing either, as she had higher ambitions for him. It was she who arranged for Lord Cavendish to employ him, a position which gave him the opportunity to meet and fall in love with Cavendish’s daughter, Dorothy, who became his wife in 1920. Even after Macmillan’s marriage Nellie continued to shape his daily life to an unusual extent as she arranged for the couple to live with her. Horne implies that this was an important source of the difficulties in Macmillan’s marriage; his wife was not always grateful for her mother-in-law’s continuing efforts to direct Macmillan’s life.

Once he had decided to enter politics Macmillan’s first major decision was whether to be a Liberal or a Conservative. David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader and Prime Minister from 1918 to 1922, was Macmillan’s idol, but after 1922 the Liberals seemed a spent force and Macmillan shrewdly offered his services to the Conservative Party. He became the Conservative candidate for Stockton-on-Tees, a working-class slum which was thought to be unwinnable by a Conservative. In his first effort, in 1923, Macmillan came within seventy-three votes of winning, and the Conservative landslide in 1924 helped carry Macmillan to victory in the constituency he would represent until 1945.

In part in response to the economic problems of his constituency Macmillan was never an orthodox Conservative who simply endorsed his party’s views on issues. Influenced by Keynesian economics, Macmillan advocated government intervention, including deficit spending and economic planning, at a time when this was not part of the Conservative Party program. Macmillan was closely associated with Oswald Mosley in 1931 when the latter established a new party to promote economic planning as a solution to the Great Depression. Even though Macmillan decided to remain within the Conservative Party, his flirtation with Mosley earned for him a reputation as a rebel whose party loyalty was suspect. This impression was strengthened in the mid- 1930’s by his involvement in the Next Five Years Group and by his public expressions of support for a new party that would link the left wing of the Conservative Party with right-wing Labourites. Horne suggests that by the end of the decade Macmillan had drifted so far away from the Conservative Party’s economic policies that it is difficult to imagine him standing as a Conservative Party candidate if a general election had been held in 1939 or 1940.

Prior to 1940 Macmillan never held a government office and in the light of his reputation as a rebel seemed destined to finish his political career as a backbencher. In explaining the about- face which enabled Macmillan to emerge as prime minister in the 1950’s, Horne draws attention to the close ties between Macmillan and Winston Churchill. Their friendship, begun in the 1920’s, deepened in the following decade as they both became prominent members of the small group of Conservatives who opposed the Conservative government’s appeasement policy. In the House of Commons debate following the German remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, Macmillan voted against the government’s policy rather than following the politically safer but less courageous practice of abstaining. A week later he temporarily resigned the Conservative Whip, an act which ordinarily was a step toward withdrawing from the party. He joined Churchill in public criticism of appeasement, and in a 1938 by-election supported a candidate who opposed appeasement rather than the proappeasement Conservative candidate. The Conservative Party threatened to drop Macmillan from the party and run a Conservative Party candidate against him at the next election because of his act of rebellion.

In retrospect, World War II rescued Macmillan’s political career. It forced the proappeasement Conservatives out of office, and raised Macmillan’s...

(The entire section is 2341 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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The Guardian. October 14, 1988, p.26.

Library Journal. CXIV, February 1, 1989, p.69.

Los Angeles Times. April 6, 1989, V, p.18.

National Review. XLI, April 21, 1989, p.40.

The New Republic. CC, March 20, 1989, p.42.

New Statesman and Society. I, October 14, 1988, p.31.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, April 27, 1989, p.36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, March 5, 1989, p.1.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 23, 1989, p.679.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 19, 1989, p.11.