Harold Macmillan, 1894-1956 by Alistair Horne

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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...

(The entire section is 2,411 words.)