History and Tour

Harold Macmillan

Harold Macmillan Born: 10 February 1894 in London

First entered Parliament: 29 October 1924

Age he became PM: 62 years, 335 days

Maiden Speech: 30 April 1925 on the budget

Total time as PM: Six years, 281 days

Died: 29 December 1986 at Chelwood Gate, Sussex


Harold Macmillan meets President Kennedy at the White House

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan meets President John Kennedy for the first time at the White House, in this Universal newsreel from 1961. You can watch more history videos here .

Facts and figures

Nicknames: “Supermac”; “Mac the Knife”

Education: Eton and Balliol College, Oxford

Family: Macmillan was the youngest of three sons. He was married to Lady Dorothy Cavendish and had one son and three daughters

Interests: Literature, fishing, golf and cricket


Humble background

Harold Macmillan was half-American by parentage, the son of a publisher who had raised the family from a humble background. Chelsea-born, he was educated at Eton and later at Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled.

He was wounded three times whilst serving in the First World War. For a time he worked for his family’s publishing firm before being elected in 1924 as the Conservative MP for Stockton-on-Tees - a depressed industrial town. The run-down state of the area and the hardship of its people had a profound effect on him. During his early parliamentary career he was a member of a left-wing group within the party which pressed for social reform.

In 1936-37 he resigned the whip for a short time to write The Middle Way, which defined his centrist Conservative beliefs. In 1940 Macmillan was appointed a junior minister, and in 1942 became the Resident Minister at Allied Forces HQ in the Mediterranean, where he became a friend of General Eisenhower.

He lost his seat in 1945 but returned very soon after in the Bromley by-election. He represented the Opposition until 1951, with responsibility for economic and industrial matters.

With the Conservatives victory in 1951 Macmillan joined the Cabinet as Minister for Housing. He proved himself an effective minister, overseeing the building of almost one million new homes. In 1954 he became Minister for Defence, and in 1955 Anthony Eden appointed him as Foreign Secretary.

Becoming Chancellor

However, Eden wished to control foreign affairs personally, and nine months later Macmillan was moved against his will to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Macmillan initially supported the action taken by Eden over the Suez crisis, but later changed his stance.

Following Eden’s resignation, and despite widespread predictions that the job of PM would go to Rab Butler, the Queen invited Macmillan to form a government. Macmillan himself initially expected his tenure to be short-lived. Instead, he had considerable success in restoring both party and national morale and confidence.

Charles de Gaulle rejected Britain's application to join the EEC He presided over a time of prosperity and the easing of Cold War relations on the international stage.

It was at this time that he gained the nickname ‘Supermac’, and in 1959 won a comfortable victory in the general election.

However, the second term was not so problem-free. Britain’s application for membership of the EEC split the Conservative party, and was eventually rejected by General de Gaulle.

Inflation and slow growth affected the economy. Macmillan’s handling of the Profumo Affair scandal was judged to be poor.

‘Night of the long knives’

In 1962 the government’s general unpopularity led Macmillan to abruptly dismiss six Cabinet members, an event which became known as the ‘night of the long knives’. Macmillan fell ill in 1963 and, believing his condition to be more serious than it was, resigned.

In 1964 he retired from the House of Commons and declined a peerage. Instead he worked on his memoirs, at the publishing house, and as chancellor of Oxford University.

He eventually returned to Parliament in 1984 as an hereditary peer. He died in 1986 aged 92 - the greatest age attained by a PM until Lord Callaghan’s death in 2005. His last words were ‘I think I will go to sleep now’.

Quote unquote

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact” (In a speech to the South African Parliament)

Did you know?

In one of his more memorable contributions after he retired he likened Margaret Thatcher’s policy of privatisation to “selling the family silver”.


Lady Dorothy Cavendish - copyright: National Portrait Gallery Mother of four, Lady Cavendish was a shrewd judge of character and according to her niece ‘free of any kind of snobbery’. A headstrong woman and passionate woman in her youth, she had an earthy charm, a forceful presence and an intuitive understanding of politics.

She did plenty of charity work - for which she was honoured - and was supportive of her husband’s ambitions. It was said that she ‘liked children enormously and got on with them frightfully well’.

Number 10 itself was no obstacle for her - as the daughter of a Duke she was used to looking after large houses - and she treated it simply as a ‘town residence’. When she died her husband was inconsolable. “She filled my life,” he said,” I thought in everything I did of her.”

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