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Harold Macmillan

Did Harold Macmillan salvage the British government from the shambles in which it was left by his predecessor, Anthony Eden? Or did Macmillan paint over the country’s economic problems with Stop-Go economic cycles?Harold Macmillan was a member of the Conservative Party who served two terms as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963. Harold…

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Harold Macmillan

Harold Macmillan

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Did Harold Macmillan salvage the British government from the shambles in which it was left by his predecessor, Anthony Eden? Or did Macmillan paint over the country’s economic problems with Stop-Go economic cycles?

Who was Harold Macmillan?

Harold Macmillan was a member of the Conservative Party who served two terms as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963. Harold Macmillan was a One-Nation Conservative and supporter of the post-war consensus. He was the successor of the unpopular Prime Minister Anthony Eden and was nicknamed ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Supermac’. Macmillan was praised for continuing the British Economic Golden Age.

One-Nation Conservatism

A paternalist form of conservatism that advocates for government intervention in society for the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged.

Post-war consensus

The co-operation between the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain in the post-war period on matters such as how the economy should be run and the welfare state.

Harold Macmillan Harold Macmillan and Antonio Segni VaiaFig. 1 - Harold Macmillan and Antonio Segni

Harold Macmillan’s political career

Macmillan had a long-standing history in government, having served as Minister of Housing, Minister of Defence, Foreign Secretary, and finally, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the years leading up to his prime ministerial campaign.

Harold Macmillan's involvement in the Suez Crisis

During his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1956, Macmillan took an active role in the Suez Crisis. When Egyptian President Gamal Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Macmillan argued for the invasion of Egypt, despite being warned not to take action in the conflict until after the US presidential election. The invasion was unsuccessful, with the US government refusing to offer Britain financial aid until they withdrew from the area.

Macmillan was, therefore, in part responsible for the main effects of the rash intervention:

  • Economic impact: within the first week of November, Britain had lost tens of millions of pounds as a result of the intervention, forcing them to withdraw.

  • Britain’s decline as a world power: Britain’s failure in the Suez Crisis showed that its power was in decline in comparison to the rising US power.

  • International relations: as a result of his rash actions, the special relationship between the US and Britain was wounded. Macmillan would go on to take it upon himself to repair it during his premiership.

Special relationship

The close coordination and allyship between the Uk and the US. Both strive to act in each other’s best interests and support the other.

However, Macmillan was not seen as having direct involvement in the Crisis, with most of the blame falling on Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister

The main achievements of the Macmillan ministry were his continuation of the positive aspects of the previous post-war governments. Macmillan acted in line with his beliefs in the continuation of the post-war consensus, the British economic Golden Age, and the special relationship with the US.

British economic Golden Age

The period of widespread global economic expansion that followed the end of the Second World War and that lasted until 1973.

Unity and maintaining the post-war consensus

The British public and the Conservative Party were united behind Macmillan. He gained popularity thanks to television: his combined charm and experience earned him public support.

Mass media’s impact on politics

In the Modern period of British history, it became important for politicians to present a good public image and personality, particularly amidst the growing ubiquity of new forms of mass media, such as television.

By 1960, nearly three-quarters of all British households owned television sets, which made portraying a polished image on TV broadcasts a useful strategy for winning over public opinion. With the growing universality of televisions, the public got to know the prime ministerial candidates better.

Harold Macmillan used television to his advantage in the 1959 general election, successfully creating a strong, charming public image.

His cabinet was also united: after taking over the Eden ministry in 1957, he went on to win the 1959 general election by a landslide, making it the third consecutive Conservative government. This rose the Conservative majority in Parliament from 60 to 100. The unity behind Macmillan was in stark contrast to the divisions within the Labour party taking place at the same time.


A political party needs at least 326 seats in Parliament to win a majority, which is one seat over half of the seats. The Conservatives’ majority went from 60 to 100 during Macmillan's second term as an additional 40 seats went to Conservatives. 'Majority of' refers to how many seats are filled by the winning party's MPs above the halfway point.

Harold Macmillan’s beliefs

1959 was also a great year for Macmillan because the economy was booming, which was in part due to his economic policies. Macmillan had a Stop-Go approach to the economy, continuing the post-war consensus over economic policies. His premiership was a continuation of the British Economic Golden Age.

Most of our people have never had it so good.

Macmillan made this famous statement in a speech given at a Tory rally in 1957. There are two key conclusions from this quote:

  1. This was a time of economic prosperity: Macmillan was talking about the economic prosperity in the post-war period when the average wage rose and the housing rate was high. There was a consumer boom and the standard of living raised: the working class was able to participate in the economy and afford luxuries previously inaccessible to them.
  2. Economic prosperity may not last: Macmillan was also conscious of the fact that this period of affluence may not last, as the economy was being held up by ‘Stop-Go’ economic cycles.

What is Stop-Go economics?

Stop-Go economics refers to economic policies that attempt to control the economy through active government involvement.

  1. The ‘Go’ phase: expanding the economy with low-interest rates and increasing consumer spending. This leads the economy to ‘overheat’.
  2. The ‘Stop’ phase: this phase ‘cools down’ the economy through higher interest rates and spending cuts. When the economy cools down, controls are removed so that the economy can naturally increase.

During Macmillan's ministry, Stop-Go economics propped up the British Economic Golden Age and economic growth was at its peak from 1960 to 1964. Yet, these short-term tactics were not sustainable.

Tensions in Macmillan’s Cabinet over the instability of Stop-Go policies

As a One-Nation Conservative, Macmillan believed that it was the duty of the government to ensure the welfare of Britons, which made him reluctant to pull out of these Stop-Go cycles.

Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft proposed that the government introduce spending cuts instead to solve economic problems, but Macmillan knew this would mean the country would be hit by economic hardship once again, so he declined. As a result, Thorneycroft resigned in 1958.

Harold Macmillan Prime Minister Winston Churchill's 1955 cabinet featuring Harold Macmillan VaiaFig. 2 - Prime Minister Winston Churchill's 1955 cabinet featuring Harold Macmillan

British decolonisation of Africa

Harold Macmillan presided over the decolonisation of Africa. In his speech, ‘The Wind of Change’, given in 1960, he argued for the independence of the African colonies and opposed apartheid:

Or will the great experiments of self-government that are now being made in Asia and Africa, especially within the Commonwealth, prove so successful, and by their example so compelling, that the balance will come down in favour of freedom and order and justice?

With this speech, Macmillan signalled the end of Britain’s Empirical rule. His approach to decolonisation was pragmatic, focused on weighing up the costs and losses of maintaining colonies, and on liberating those who were either ‘ready’ or ‘ripe’ for independence.

Maintaining the special relationship with the USA

Macmillan continued Britain’s special relationship with the USA by fostering a connection with John F Kennedy. The two leaders shared a bond of Anglo-American ties: Kennedy was an Anglophile and his sister, Kathleen Cavendish, had coincidentally married the nephew of Macmillan’s wife, William Cavendish.

Harold Macmillan John F Kennedy (Left) VaiaFig. 3 - John F Kennedy (Left)

Harold Macmillan’s involvement in the Cold War and the nuclear deterrent

Harold Macmillan supported the nuclear deterrent but advocated for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty while working to sustain the special relationship between the US and Britain during the Cold War:

  • The nuclear deterrent:
    • Macmillan worked with JFK to develop the Polaris missile system.
    • The 1962 Nassau Agreement with the US stipulated that the US would provide Britain with Polaris missiles if Britain would make its own warheads (the front part of the missile) and agree to build ballistic submarines.
  • Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:
    • Macmillan played a key role in negotiating the successful Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of August 1963 with the USA and USSR, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater.
    • The purpose of the ban was to put the public more at ease among growing fears of the dangers of nuclear weapons testing and to slow down the ‘nuclear arms race’ between world powers.
    • As a negotiator, Macmillan was said to be patient and diplomatic, earning him praise from Kennedy.

Was the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty just a strategy to appease the public and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)?

We could argue that this partial ban was purely aesthetic: it was a way to make Britain appear as if it was combating the threat of nuclear war, rather than actually being proactive in fighting it.

Macmillan was known to criticise the US government’s rigid stance against the Soviets, yet he continued to support the US throughout the Cold War. A case can certainly be made that Macmillan’s priority of the US special relationship went contrary to his beliefs that a more measured approach to the Cold War was more important.

Harold Macmillan Cold War Soviet R-12 nuclear ballistic missile VaiaFig. 4 - Cold War Soviet R-12 nuclear ballistic missile

The problems that Harold Macmillan faced in the later years of his ministry

Macmillan’s final year as Prime Minister was fraught with scandals and problems that exposed him as an inadequate, out-of-touch leader.

The British economy began to falter

By 1961, there were concerns that Macmillan’s Stop-Go economic policies would lead to an overheated economy. An economy overheats when it grows unsustainably, which was the case during the British Economic Golden Age. Britons became avid consumers, and their demand for more was not matched by high productivity rates.

There were problems with the balance of payments, a problem exacerbated by Macmillan’s Stop-Go cycles. The balance of payments deficit was in part due to balance of trade problems, as there were more imports than exports. Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd’s solution to this was to impose a wage freeze, a Stop-Go deflationary measure, to hold down wage inflation. Britain applied for a loan from the World Monetary Fund (IMF), which made the Macmillan ministry unpopular.

Balance of payments

The difference between the total flow of money going in and money going out of a country. It was affected by the volume of imports (goods Britain bought from other countries) being higher than the level of exports (goods being sold to other countries).

Wage freeze

The government decides the wages that workers get paid and restricts salary increases in an effort to combat economic hardship in the country.

Macmillan’s short-sighted economic policies led to financial hardship in Britain, causing cracks in the British Economic Golden Age. The balance of payments problems continued after the end of Macmillan’s ministry, with the government facing a balance of payments deficit reaching £800 million in 1964.

Failed to join the European Economic Community (EEC)

By Macmillan’s second term as Prime Minister, the British economy was struggling and he had to face the reality that Britain was no longer a dominant world power. Macmillan’s solution to this was applying to join the EEC, which had proved an economic success. This decision was not well received among Conservatives who believed joining the EEC would be a betrayal to the country, as it would become dependent on Europe and subject to the EEC’s rules.

European Economic Community

An economic association between European countries. It was created by the 1957 Treaty of Rome and it has since been replaced by the European Union.

Britain applied to join the EEC in 1961, making Macmillan the first PM to apply to join the EEC. But unfortunately, Britain’s application was rejected by the French president Charles de Gaulle, who believed that Britain’s membership would diminish France’s own role within the EEC. This was seen as a huge failure on the part of Macmillan to bring about economic modernisation.

The ‘Night of the Long Knives’

On 13 July 1962, Macmillan reshuffled his cabinet in what came to be known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives.’ Macmillan was under pressure to win back public favour, leading him to swiftly dismiss seven members of his cabinet. He notably sacked his loyal chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd.

Macmillan’s popularity was depleting, as his traditionalism made him and the Conservative Party appear out of touch in an evolving country. The public seemed to be losing faith in the Conservative Party and leaning towards Liberal candidates, who had outperformed conservatives in by-elections. Replacing the ‘old with the new’ (old members with younger members), was a desperate attempt to bring life back into the party and win back the public.

As a result, Macmillan appeared desperate, ruthless, and incompetent to the public.

The Profumo affair scandal

The scandal caused by the John Profumo affair was the most detrimental to the Macmillan ministry and to the Conservative Party. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, was discovered having an affair with Christine Keeler, who was also having an affair with a Soviet spy, Yevgeny Ivanov. Profumo had lied to Parliament and was forced to resign.

The Profumo Affair Scandal destroyed the reputation of the Macmillan’s ministry in the public eye and damaged relations with the USA and the USSR. This was the nail in the coffin to Macmillan’s reputation as out-of-touch and old-fashioned, especially in comparison to the new Labour leader Harold Wilson’s image as ordinary and approachable.

Harold Macmillan’s successor

The days of glory of Macmillan’s ministry were long over by 1963 and Macmillan was pressured by his party to retire due to the backlash of the Profumo Scandal. Macmillan was reluctant to let go. However, he was forced to resign due to prostate problems.

The demise of Macmillan’s ministry can be said to have caused the end of three consecutive terms of Conservative government in Britain. His successor, Lord Alec Douglas-Home, was as out-of-touch as Macmillan and would go on to lose to Harold Wilson in the election of 1964.

The reputation and legacy of Harold Macmillan

Macmillan’s early years as Prime Minister were prosperous and he was respected for his pragmatism and positive impact on the British economy. His success as PM was short-lived but his impact endures.

  • Originally seen as a hero: initially, there was a cult of personality around Macmillan that centred around his charm and good nature. Macmillan was respected for boosting the British economy, continuing the Age of Affluence, and maintaining post-war consensus. He was admired for his ‘unflappability’ and diplomacy, which earned John F Kennedy’s praise and therefore repaired the special relationship with the US.

  • Ruthless: the ruthless Cabinet reshuffle of 1962 earned him the nickname ‘Mac the Knife.’

  • Out-of-touch and traditional: Macmillan’s traditionalism was initially well-received by the public, whom he charmed through tv appearances. Yet, he proved to be inadequately old-fashioned in a changing world, particularly in comparison to younger leaders like John F Kennedy and Labour’s Harold Wilson.

  • Progressive: he was generally seen as too traditional by the end of his premiership, yet he can also be seen as progressive. Macmillan was accused of betraying Britain when he initiated its application to join the EEC. The PM was not afraid of progress and social reform, setting what he saw as the inevitable process of decolonisation in motion and following ‘the wind of change’, in spite of backlash from members of the Conservative Party.

Arguably, Macmillan’s legacy lies in his progressive accomplishments.

Harold Macmillan - Key takeaways

  • Harold Macmillan replaced Anthony Eden as Prime Minister in 1957, won the general election of 1959, and remained PM until his resignation in 1963.

  • The early years of the Macmillan ministry were a time of unity and economic prosperity for Britain.

  • Macmillan’s Stop-Go economic policies were unstable and unsustainable, which led to financial hardship and made Macmillan lose favour with the public.

  • Macmillan is credited with setting the process of decolonisation in motion, passing the Partial Nuclear Ban Treaty of 1963, and being the first PM to apply to join the EEC.

  • The final year of Macmillan’s ministry, 1962–63, was a time of high tension, embarrassment, and scandal.

  • Macmillan was successful as a PM but the fallout of his second term diminished his image as a leader.

Frequently Asked Questions about Harold Macmillan

Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister after Harold Macmillan. He replaced Harold Macmillan in 1963 when Macmillan resigned due to health reasons. Douglas-Home was Prime Minister from 19 October 1963 to 16 October 1964.

Harold Macmillan was Foreign Secretary from April to December of 1955. He was Foreign Secretary during the Anthony Eden ministry.

Harold Macmillan resigned from the role of Prime Minister in 1963 due to health reasons, as he was suffering with prostate problems. This was his primary reason for resigning, though there was pressure on him to resign following the scandals of his second term as Prime Minister.

Final Harold Macmillan Quiz

Harold Macmillan Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When did the Macmillan government begin and end?

Show answer


Macmillan became PM in 1957, replacing Eden and he resigned in 1963.

Show question


What was Macmillan’s involvement in the Suez Crisis?

Show answer


He encouraged the invasion of Egypt, despite being advised to not take action until after the US Presidential election. This caused damage to Britain’s relations with the US.

Show question


What is the term for the relationship between Britain and the USA?

Show answer


‘The special relationship’.

Show question


Why was 1959 a high point for Macmillan?

Show answer


1. The Conservative Party won the general election for the third time.

2. The economy was still booming.

Show question


What speech is Harold Macmillan famous for?

Show answer


 ‘The Wind of Change’.

Show question


What is Macmillan’s most famous quote about the post-war British economy?

Show answer


‘Most of our people have never had it so good’.

Show question


What are the two important takeaways from ‘Most of our people have never had it so good’?

Show answer


1. ‘The Age of Affluence’: this was a time of economic growth: there was an increase in the average wages, high housing rates, and high standards of living.

2. Macmillan was also acknowledging that this period of economic growth was unsustainable, which led to the implementation of ‘Stop-Go’ economic policies.

Show question


What was Macmillan’s approach to economics?

Show answer


Stop-Go economics:

- The ‘Go’ phase: expanding the economy with low interest rates and increasing consumer spending. This leads the economy to ‘overheat’.

- The ‘Stop’ phase: this phase ‘cools down’ the economy through higher interest rates and spending cuts. When the economy cools down, controls are removed so that the economy can naturally increase.

Show question


What were the embarrassing scandals and problems of Macmillan’s government?

Show answer


  1. The application put forward by Macmillan to join the EEC was vetoed by de Gaulle.
  2. Britain’s problems with the balance of payments led to financial instability.
  3. Macmillan desperately dismissed seven members of his cabinet.
  4. The Profumo Scandal exposed the Conservative Party as corrupt and thereby ruined the reputation of the Macmillan government and the international relations he worked to repair during his premiership.

Show question


What was the impact of the problems and scandals during Macmillan’s government?

Show answer


- The Conservative Party became unpopular, as they were exposed as corrupt and out-of-touch.

- Damaged special relationship with the US.

Show question


Why did Macmillan resign?

Show answer


For health reasons. He was suffering from prostate problems.

Show question


What is Macmillan’s reputation?

Show answer


Originally seen as a hero, he would go on to be seen as ruthless and his traditionalism would make him lose favour with the public for being out-of-touch.

Show question


Who replaced Macmillan?

Show answer


Alec Douglas-Home

Show question


What were Harold Macmillan's beliefs?

Show answer


  • As a One-Nation Conservative, he believed in government intervention and paternalism.
  • Believed in the post-war consensus.
  • Believed in the nuclear deterrent, but also believed the US was too rigid in their approach to the Cold War.
  • Believed in invading Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
  • Believed in the special relationship with the US.

Show question


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