Tuesday, October 26, 2021

We are in, easily

‘Went to Bromley with D for the count. We are in, easily. Majority about 2000 higher. Our Liberals were 5000 last time. 1000 have abstained; 2000 to me and 10000 to my opponent. This gives gives me over 12000 majority. Spent the afternoon listening to results on radio. . .’ This is the Conservative politician Harold Macmillan writing in his diary on the evening of the 1951 General Election, exactly 70 years ago today. The Tories had been out of power for several years, and with this success led by Churchill, Macmillan was about to begin a series of ministerial career moves that would lead eventually to him becoming Prime Minster. His diary, published posthumously, is said to be ‘one of the fullest and most entertaining’ of 20th century political journals.

Macmillan was born in London in 1894 to a publisher and his American artist wife (his paternal grandfather, Daniel MacMillan, had founded founded Macmillan Publishers). He was educated at home, then at Summer Fields School (Oxford), at Eton College, and, thanks to a scholarship, at Balliol College, Oxford. Volunteering as soon as war was declared, Macmillan was commissioned in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps but soon transferred to the Grenadier Guards. He served with distinction as a captain but was wounded on several occasions. He did, in fact, spend the final two years of war in hospital undergoing a series of operations, followed by a long convalescence which left him with a slight shuffle in his walk and a limp grip in his right hand. 

After the war, Macmillan joined the family publishing business. In 1920, he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, and the couple had four children together. However, from 1929, Lady Dorothy began an affair, and thereafter the couple lived separate lives. As a Conservative party candidate he was elected to the House of Commons for Stockton-on-Tees in 1924, though he then lost the seat in 1929. However, before long, he was re-selected to stand for the same seat, and in 1931 and was returned to the House.

Macmillan spent the 1930s on the backbenches but he was very active politically, publishing The State and Industry, The Next Step, The Next Five Years, and The Middle Way. During this time, he also became increasingly concerned at the appeasement of Nazi Germany. When Winston Churchill formed his World War II coalition government in May 1940, Macmillan was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Supply; and in 1942 he was sent to northwest Africa as British minister resident at Allied Forces Headquarters, Mediterranean Command. At the end of the war in Europe, he was briefly - for a few months in 1945 - secretary of state for air in Churchill’s ‘caretaker’ government. When the Conservatives regained power in 1951, he was appointed, successively, minister of housing and local government and minister of defence by Churchill; he then served as foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer under Anthony Eden.

When Eden resigned as Prime Minister in early 1957 after the debacle of the Suez crisis, Macmillan took his place. He restored the Conservative party fortunes winning an increased majority in the 1959 General Election. However, Macmillan’s second term of office was beset with crises: a failed application to join the European Economic Community, economic troubles, the so-called ‘night of the long knives’, and the Profumo affair. Macmillan resigned as leader in October 1963. He refused a peerage and then retired from the House of Commons in September 1964. His later years were devoted to writing several volumes of memoirs. He did, later, accept a peerage and was created an earl in 1984. He died in 1986. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, UK government website, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Guardian obituary, Spartacus Educational, and the BBC.

As well as being a memoirist, Macmillan was also a diarist. A first volume of his edited diaries was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1984: War Diaries: Politics and War in the Mediterranean, January 1943 - May 1945. His later diaries were only published posthumously, by the family firm, in two volumes (2003 and 2011): The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950-57 and The Macmillan Diaries: Prime Minister and After 1957-1966. According to the publisher, Macmillan ‘kept one of the fullest and most entertaining political diaries of the twentieth century’. The publisher further adds: ‘He was an acute observer of events and people not just in his own country or party, but on the wider international and political scene. His Diary provides wry portraits of many of the leading political figures of the period and records his personal take on the great issues and events of the day. In the process Macmillan’s wider activities and inner concerns are also revealed, casting light beyond the famously ‘unflappable’ exterior onto the character of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern British political history.’ See the History of Government blog for an interesting article which compares the diaries of Macmillan and William Gladstone.

The following extracts, taken from the first volume of post war diaries, begin with one written on the day of the 1951 General Election. (Trailing dots without brackets are part of the quoted passage; trailing dots inside square brackets, however, indicate where I have edited some text out.)

26 October 1951
‘Went to Bromley with D for the count. We are in, easily. Majority about 2000 higher. Our Liberals were 5000 last time. 1000 have abstained; 2000 to me and 10000 to my opponent. This gives gives me over 12000 majority. Spent the afternoon listening to results on radio. . . 

Altogether, 23 seats gained by Conservatives. No losses, except 1 in Belfast. Megan Lloyd George is out, which is a very good thing. Davies will not be so frightened if she is not there to bully him!’

27 October 1951
‘. . . Attlee went to the King as soon as we topped 313 members of the new House! This seems rather strange. How relieved he must be. So Churchill must have kissed hands at about 6pm last night to form his third administration . . .

The process of Cabinet making, always difficult, seems to have begun. According to the 6 o’clock news the following ministers have been appointed. P.M. First Lord and Minister of Defence - Churchill; Foreign Secretary and Leader of Commons - Eden; Ld President - (with control of Food and Agriculture) - Woolton; Ld Privy Seal and Leader of Lords - Salisbury; Home Secretary - Maxwell Fyfe; Minister of Labour - Sir W Monckton; Dominions Secretary - Ld Ismay; Chancellor of the Exchequer - O Lyttelton. These ministers were sworn in tonight.

This seems an extraordinarily maladroit move - I should say the combined effort of Bracken and Beaverbrook. It is just folly for Churchill to become Minister of Defence. It almost justifies the Daily Mirror! He should have been Prime Minister only, thus showing that he is as interested in economic and social affairs, as in military matters. This is a major blunder and may have most serious results. It might even endanger the ministry, because I think a difficult by-election after this gaffe cd easily be lost. It is also surprising that Eden shd demand to lead the House as well as take the Foreign Office. It is obvious that this cannot be an effective management. There was a hint by the ‘Parliamentary commentator’ that a deputy leader may be appointed. Lyttelton’s appointment is odd, and will (I fear) be a disappointment to him. He had worked hard to fit himself for economic and trade affairs. Fyfe’s appointment is a good one. He will be a better Home Secretary than Minister of Labour. His speeches and writings thoroughly frightened the unions, and in spite of Churchill’s denials during the campaign, made them alarmed and caused them to rally their forces. He will be a good Home Secretary. It seems he is also to be Minister for Wales. This means, I suppose, that Clem Davies has refused to come in. I have heard nothing, as I have stayed in Sussex all day resting. Monckton’s appointment is unexpected, but good. He has a more subtle and a more flexible mind than Fyfe. He shd do very well. Ld Ismay’s appointment as Minister of Defence was generally expected and was explicable. His appointment as Dominions Secretary is unexpected and inexplicable. [. . .]’

28 October 1951
‘. . . It is now possible to form a view of what has happened at this election. The nation is evenly divided - almost exactly even. For if allowance is made for unopposed returns, the votes cast on either side are just about the same. The Liberal party has practically disappeared in the House of Commons. But whereas last time they polled over 2 million votes in the country, this time (since they had only 100 odd candidates) the Liberals have had only the choice of abstention, voting Conservative, or voting Socialist in 500 odd constituencies. As far as one can see, north of the River Trent they have gone 2 to 1 - 2 Conservatives, to 1 Socialist. This is very marked in Scotland, and in places like Durham and North Yorkshire which have suffered under the Socialist tyranny. By this means both Middlesborough and Darlington were won by us. In the midlands, the Liberal vote has either abstained, or gone fifty-fifty or even worse. This explains Lincoln, Birmingham, Nottingham etc. The Liberals of this area have too much of the Civil War radical and roundhead tradition to join a cavalier vote. In suburban constituencies, like Bromley, the Liberals have split on a class basis. The bourgeois Liberal, pillars of chapel and League of Nations Union and all that, voted for me. (2 to 1 was about the figure, but 3/4 only voted - the rest abstained.)

So the result is, once again, a moral stalemate. This follows a long innings by a Govt wh has made a tremendous number of mistakes; has egregious failures in administration; and has been thrown about, like a rudderless hip in a storm, from crisis to crisis. At first sight, therefore, one can only form the most gloomy forebodings about the future. [. . .]

Message from Churchill to come out to Chartwell. I expected this. On arrival, at 3pm, found him in a most pleasant and rather tearful mood. He asked me to ‘build the houses for the people’. What an assignment! I know nothing whatever about these matters, having spent 6 years now either on defence or foreign affairs. I had, of course, hoped to be Minister of Defence and said this frankly to Churchill. But he is determined to keep it in his own hands. I gather the reason is the frightful muddle in which defence has been allowed to fall. In this ‘setup’ the service ministers become in effect under-secretaries (in spite of their grand titles) and will not be members of the Cabinet. I asked Churchill what was the present housing ‘set-up’. He said he hadn’t an idea. But the boys would know. So the boys (Sir Edward Bridges, Head of the Civil Service and Sir Norman Brook, Secretary to the Cabinet) were sent for - also some whisky. It seems that there is much confusion in all this business. Broadly speaking, the old ministry of Town and Country Planning retains these functions, but is now called Ministry of Local Government and Planning. All teh functions of supervising local govt in general remain with it. [. . .]

When I get home, I begin to realise what a terrible burden I have undertaken. Churchill is grateful and will back me; but 1 really haven't a clue how to set about the job. (Among other minor problems, James Stuart, who is motoring south, has disappeared! But he is wanted, to be Secretary of State for Scotland. Nobody can say the Tories stand about waiting for office. It is a job to get hold of them!)

Went in to talk all this over with Maurice. Carol came to dinner. (I have now a lot to arrange - first of all, with my brother and affairs at St Martin’s St). So to bed. What a day!’

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