Harold MacMillan

[1st Earl of Stockton]

Biography of Harold MacMillan

Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton (10 February 1894 – 29 December 1986) was Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963.

Nicknamed 'Supermac' and known for his pragmatism, wit and unflappability, Macmillan achieved note before the Second World War as a Tory radical and critic of appeasement. Rising to high office as a protégé of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he believed in the post-war settlement and the necessity of a mixed economy, and in his premiership pursued corporatist policies to develop the domestic market as the engine of growth. During his time as prime minister, average living standards steadily rose while numerous social reforms were carried out such as the 1956 Clean Air Act, the 1957 Housing Act, the 1960 Offices Act, the 1960 Noise Abatement Act, the Factories Act 1961, the introduction of a graduated pension scheme to provide an additional income to retirees, and a reduction in the standard workweek from 48 to 42 hours.

As a One Nation Tory of the Disraelian tradition, haunted by memories of the Great Depression, he championed a Keynesian strategy of public investment to maintain demand, winning a second term in 1959 with an increased majority on an electioneering budget. Benefiting from favourable international conditions, he presided over an age of affluence, marked by low unemployment and high if uneven growth. In his Bedford speech of July 1957 he told the nation they had 'never had it so good', but warned of the dangers of inflation, summing up the fragile prosperity of the 1950s.

In international affairs, Macmillan rebuilt the special relationship with the United States from the wreckage of the Suez Crisis (of which he had been one of the architects), and redrew the world map by decolonising sub-Saharan Africa. Reconfiguring the nation's defences to meet the realities of the nuclear age, he ended National Service, strengthened the nuclear forces by acquiring Polaris, and pioneered the Nuclear Test Ban with the United States and the Soviet Union. Belatedly recognising the dangers of strategic dependence, he sought a new role for Britain in Europe, but his unwillingness to disclose United States nuclear secrets to France contributed to a French veto of the United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community.

Near the end of his reign as prime minister, his government was rocked by the Vassall and Profumo scandals, which seemed to symbolise for the rebellious youth of the 1960s the moral decay of the British establishment. Resigning prematurely after a medical misdiagnosis, Macmillan lived out a long retirement as an elder statesman of global stature. He was as trenchant a critic of his successors in his old age as he had been of his predecessors in his youth.

Harold Macmillan was the last British Prime Minister born in the 19th Century or the reign of Queen Victoria, and the last to have served in World War I.

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