My birth in 1948 fell into Atlee’s period of office and I have by the time of writing this witnessed a dozen Prime Ministers. To understand Thatcher’s 1980s, the decade we have reached, I have to add a few paragraphs on the five of the 12 who preceded her in the early stages of my life. I focus here on the 13 years of Tory rule from 1951 to 1964.
I wish I could remember just something from Atlee’s most telling of postwar premierships. If he was a modest man, this ethical socialist had far less to be modest about than the impulsive orator and war-leader Churchill claimed. Nor did he lack wit himself, invariably delivered in a precise, clipped monotone: ‘Trouble with Winston. Nails his trousers to the mast. Can’t get down.’ It was between 1945 and 1951 that the foundations of the welfare state – incorporating the National Health Service – were laid. The special circumstances and impact of the second world war, and of a wartime coalition government that did not simply shelve the recommendations of the Beveridge Report of 1942, made this possible, arguably necessary. Churchill’s crushing electoral defeat in 1945 was an eloquent call for change at home as well as overseas. I was reared and lived my childhood and adolescence in the subsequent years of ‘welfare-statism’. There was in fact no real attempt to re-commodify welfare – or health care – until Thatcher’s victory in 1979. But more of that later.
I remember no more of Churchill’s return to office from 1951 to 1955 than I do of the Atlee regime. Much of this venerable but ageing leader’s (he was 79 in 1951) attention was directed towards foreign policy, although the narrowness of his electoral edge over Labour compelled him to be a judicious, pro-welfare state Tory domestically. I have vague memories of Eden’s face in the newspapers of the day. Doomed to fall over Suez, this handsome but physically frail, long-time heir-apparent to Churchill served only two years before tending his resignation.
‘Supermac’ was the first Tory leader and Prime Minister I can recall with clarity. His period in office saw me finishing at Lyndhurst Road Primary School and starting life at Worthing High School for Boys. A calm and re-assuring patrician presence, MacMillan remained at the helm from 1957 to 1963. Like Churchill and Eden he made little attempt to breach the postwar, inter-party consensus on the welfare state; indeed, he proved ‘wetter’ (to use Thatcher’s jargon) than his predecessors.
The Victorian Macmillans were an upwardly mobile family: it took three generations for them to emerge from poverty and accumulate their considerable wealth. Harold’s grandfather, Daniel, was the son of a Scottish crofter, and it was he with his brother Alexander who established the Macmillan publishing house in 1843. This firm was the future source of the comfortable middle-class life of Maurice, Harold’s father. Harold was born in 1894. He attended prep school but dropped out of Eton at the age of 15, ostensibly due to poor health. After private tutoring he made it into Balliol College, Oxford. He was wounded in the first world war and, like so many consociates, shaped by and left guilty for surviving it. Still a shy, taciturn man, he married Dorothy in 1920. He entered Parliament in 1925, representing Stockton. By the time he lost his seat in 1929 he had also lost Dorothy to the loud, avuncular Bob Boothby. What was to be a longstanding affair with Boothby remained an open secret in political circles (even though news was never to reach me on the south coast). Macmillan meanwhile, back in the Commons in 1931, steadfastly and skillfully forged the career that was to culminate in his pipping a fatally hesitant ‘RAB’ Butler to succeed Eden on the latter’s post-Suez demise.
I remember Macmillan’s disguise, the languid, effortless presentation of self that covered any inner doubt and anguish whenever he appeared publicly or on TV. For me, looking back, he symbolized the ordered inertia of the 1950s. In my childhood innocence he exuded an authority that seemed natural and proper. How we privilege the status quo! But Macmillan had steel and was not averse to using it. Three moments stand out. The first I recall quite well. On the infamous ‘night of the long knives’ during July 1962 Macmillan sacked his Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd (for an overly timid budget) and six other members of his cabinet. The second, in 1963, fascinated me less at the time but has since entered the national psyche: this was the Profumo affair. Profumo, ironically a beneficiary of the night of the long knives, had been seeing ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler, who was also plying her trade with a Soviet official; but his unforgivable offence was to lie to the Commons about it. The likes of Hailsham were incandescent with pomposity. Profumo went, serving a penance that would now be considered absurd.
The third moment was perhaps the most dramatic. The Macmillan regime was as fatigued as its PM into the 1960s. Unwell and drained, Supermac had become flappable. Moreover a conspicuously sharp operator, Harold Wilson, had taken over as Labour leader on Gaitskell’s death in January 1963. So who would pick up the Conservative reigns? The natural inheritor and bookies favourite was probably RAB. Possibly Macmillan favoured Hailsham, initially at least? The Earl of Home was nobody’s best bet. Maybe he was more astute than has been assumed from his placid persona. Maybe Macmillan stitched up RAB. Probably both. But Douglas-Home emerged from the political woodwork to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, succeeding Macmillan before 1963 was out.
The 14th Earl’s pedigree made Macmillan look like a mongrel. The Lordship of Home dated back to the 15th century. Born in 1893, Home’s roots were in the Borders, although he was delivered in Mayfair. His early family life alternated between the Hirsel near Coldstream and Douglas Castle (just south of Glasgow). He went to Eton – how could he not? He was sporty as well as able, playing for Eton versus Harrow and dipping his aristocratic toes into first-class cricket. He gave the impression of being gracious, tolerant and amiable, which is how I recall him from the screen in the living room
Macmillan’s former Foreign Secretary proved no match for Harold Wilson as the 1964 election loomed. In my mid-teens I was as yet apolitical. I remember feeling sorry for Home and wondering why a relentlessly abrasive Wilson needed to be so aggressive. Home’s mild, self-effacing demeanour exacerbated my perception of Wilson as a bully. He was even more hopeless on TV than he had been on the hustings. So Home’s tenure was brief. To nobody’s surprise, 1964 saw the return of the first Labour government since Atlee’s days. But as far as this particular teenager is concerned, governmental and party politics was to remain a sideshow for a few more years yet.