When Harold Macmillan published The Middle Way in 1938, its title at once entered the political lexicon. As he anticipated, his message that there was an alternative to socialism and political individualism received a frosty reception from right and left. Even the Macmillan family nanny said ‘Mr Harold is a dangerous pink’. Yet correctives such as Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944 did not immediately dampen the impact of Macmillan’s philosophy. ‘In this illogical island,’ Harold Nicolson wrote to Hayek, ‘there exists an infinite capacity for finding middle ways’. Sixty years later, concepts such as President Clinton’s ‘triangulation’, Anthony Giddens’ ‘Third Way’ and the first ten years of New Labour showed the durability of the hare that Macmillan set running. The Middle Way is still an established vision of political Nirvana, despite Lady Thatcher’s view that consensus was ‘the process for abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies’. The centre ground of British politics is today a very crowded place.
Tony Blair was seen by some as heir to Thatcher, and Cameron as heir to Blair. But the parallels with Macmillan are stronger. Much is made of the similarities between Harold Macmillan and David Cameron. Eton and Oxford are obvious parallels, as is their determination to ‘detoxify’ the party, broadening its support by educating the Conservatives away from their ingrained prejudices. Macmillan effaced memories of the Thirties by presiding over a period in the late 1950s of full employment and price stability, seeing Toryism as a form of paternal socialism. Part of the secret of his success was that Macmillan was not really a Tory at all. Despite his aristocratic image, he was a business man, a distinguished publisher, who believed that politicians should, as Coriolanus put it, know ‘a world elsewhere’. His experience in the trenches and in his inter-war constituency of Stockton-on-Tees gave him a genuine understanding of what Disraeli called ‘the condition of the people’. Macmillan knew that national leadership was vital, avoiding extremes, and showing the flexibility that comes from not having strong ideological views. Cameron should especially note that Macmillan knew the importance of the voters in Scotland (in 1955, Eden won over 50% of the seats in Scotland) and the North.
Yet Macmillan always remained something of an outsider in his party. The backwoodsmen disliked both his policies – especially Keynesian deficit financing and rapid decolonisation – and his belief that change was both inevitable and desirable if the party was to be reborn. To some extent, Macmillan bought off his critics with his landslide victory in the 1959 General Election, and by disguising much of what he intended until it was a fait accompli. After his ‘Wind of Change’ speech in Cape Town 1960, many backbenchers (not to mention Churchill) were seething. So on his return from South Africa, Macmillan went into the smoking room, the real core of the Commons ( a custom Heath fatally failed to do), and mingled with his critics, engaging them on all manner of things, a son’s commission in the Coldstream Guards, a cousin becoming a Lord Lieutenant, how plentiful the grouse should be that year.
Cameron has found this process of acceptance by those John Major dubbed ‘the bastards’ more difficult. Theresa May’s claim in October 2002 that the Tories were ‘the nasty party’ has never been expunged from the national consciousness. Cameron’s attempts to modernise party attitudes – especially on gay marriage – has outraged many core supporters, who have never forgiven him for failing to win an outright majority in 2010. Macmillan faced two figures of national stature in Hugh Gaitskell and Jo Grimond. Cameron is lucky in that he only faces Miliband and Clegg, assuming that Clegg is still there in May 2015. Miliband may be policy-lite, if not invisible, but Cameron has introduced free schools, important welfare reforms and led economic recovery. Only the re-introduction of grammar schools would have appeased the vanished core supporters.
In fact, there are crucial differences between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan was always at ease with his Etonian background. ‘Mr Attlee had three Old Etonians in his Cabinet’, he said in 1959. ‘I have six. Things are twice as good under the Conservatives.’ When not wearing his regimental tie, he wore his Old Etonian one. In contrast, Cameron seems guilty about his background, happier with no tie, and lounge suits at society weddings, not morning dress. The wise Parolles in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well said ‘Simply the thing I am shall make me live,’ a concept Macmillan understood well. Whatever his inner doubts, Macmillan always appeared at ease with his background. He was also prepared to speak bluntly. Of de Gaulle he observed that he had ‘all the rigidity of a poker without its occasional warmth’. He harboured no illusions about the Liberals. His coalition was of the different strands of his own multi-faceted party. ‘As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas,’ he said in 1961. ‘Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.’
Macmillan’s political generation had been forged in two world wars and had entered politics after a full life elsewhere. By the time Macmillan became Prime Minister in January 1957 he had held seven ministerial posts, including the Foreign Secretaryship and the Chancellorship of the Exchequer. Today’s politicians rarely have such experience. The only thing Tony Blair had run before the Premiership was the Ugly Rumours pop group, whilst David Cameron, like so many of his contemporaries, was a product of that well-trodden and cocooned path via university and political researcherships into the Commons.
Macmillan believed, as did Keynes, that the typical Englishman was neither reactionary nor radical. He believed in economic planning but without centralised state control. Socialism was workable, Macmillan quipped, in heaven where it was not needed, and in hell where they had it already. He championed democracy above totalitarianism and believed it was not necessary to reduce the income of one class in order to increase the incomes of another. Proposals for a mansion tax would have received short shrift. He saw himself as Mr Feeder in Dicken’s Dombey and Son, ‘a kind of human barrel organ, with a little list of tunes at which he was continually working’. Cameron should be on course for an outright political victory in 2015. To ensure this he must remember the example of Macmillan, and, like Mr Feeder, keep playing the right tunes. The Tories never won with core Tory votes alone.
D. R. Thorpe is an historian and biographer who has written biographies of three British Prime Ministers of the mid 20th century: Sir Anthony Eden, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan.