My history hero: Michael Heseltine chooses Harold Macmillan (1894–1986)

Michael Heseltine, former deputy prime minister, chooses prime minister Harold Macmillan as his history hero

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at Admiralty House, London

Harold Macmillan: in profile

Harold Macmillan (1894–1986), dubbed ‘Supermac’, was leader of the Conservative party and Britain’s prime minister from 1957–63. Born in London and educated at Eton and Oxford, he served with distinction in the Grenadier Guards in the First World War, and was wounded at the battle of the Somme. An MP for nearly 40 years, he famously declared that most Britons had “never had it so good”, and led the Tories to victory in the 1959 election. He died aged 92, and remains Britain’s second longest-lived prime minister.

Advertisement

When did you first hear about Macmillan?

I first became interested in politics when I was about 18, so it was around that time. He was already a figure of some repute when I was a graduate at Oxford University in the early 1950s. He’d been a Conservative MP since 1924, and in 1938 had published The Middle Way, in which he had advocated the broadly centrist political and economic philosophy that both he and I shared.

What kind of man was he?

Macmillan was a brilliant conversationalist and a great speaker, and had an incredible knowledge of history. I interviewed him for a magazine I acquired in 1959 called Man About Town (later Town), which was a bit like a British Esquire or GQ. That was the first time I met him. I remember our photographer Terry Donovan telling him where and how to stand – he wasn’t going to be pushed around by a prime minister! – and I got embarrassed. Suddenly, Macmillan walked out of the room and I thought: “That’s it – there goes my career!” But eventually he came back. “I wanted to ensure that Lady Dorothy was properly dressed before I showed you the building [Admiralty House],” was his explanation.

What made him a hero?

The braveness of the stance he took on major issues that aroused great passions in the Conservative party, like the end of empire, and Europe. He put his reputation and integrity on the line. The nostalgia for all that had gone before was still widely held – and indeed, still is held by a significant part of the population. But he realised that the British empire was drawing to a close and we had to turn the page. That’s why he applied, despite opposition from within his own party, to join the European Economic Community: he believed he’d found us a new destiny, which he articulated and pursued, but without success. [The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed Britain’s application in 1963.]

What was his finest hour?

I was very impressed by the ‘Wind of Change’ speech he made in South Africa in 1960. In effect, he said he would not block the process of decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere that led to many British colonies gaining their independence. He was saying something the Conservative party did not want to hear, but he was aware of the reality of Britain’s position in the fast­changing postwar, post­imperial world. Also, I rather sympathised with his 1985 speech in which he compared Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation policy with selling off “the Georgian silver”. Too much of the consequent cash went on tax cuts.

Michael Heseltine was a Conservative MP from 1966–2001 and held positions in the Thatcher and Major governments. He is president of the European Movement UK europeanmovement.co.uk

LISTEN AGAIN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

Advertisement

This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine