Lighting the Way: Harold Macmillan and the Audacity of Balance

by Theo Zenou

A shortened version of this piece was originally published by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History (November 7, 2017).

1938, Britain. While the political class fixates upon foreign affairs, in the hope of averting world war, a quirky Member of Parliament — Harold Macmillan — authors a socio-economic treatise entitled The Middle Way. It’s his sixth book in a decade, a feat rendered somewhat less impressive by the fact he literally owns the printing presses. Macmillan, indeed, is the scion of publishing powerhouse Macmillan and Co., and a partner at the family firm.

Born Maurice Harold Macmillan at the turn of the century, he is a child of a privilege but not one of luxury. The Etonian inherits his wardrobe from his older brothers — making him, already as a youngster, appear old-fashioned and out of place. Prone to ill health and bouts of depression, Macmillan finds solace in the family’s book collection. His mother, to whom he would later say he “owes everything,” ingrains in him the ethics of noblesse oblige: power entails responsibility. At Oxford, he joins societies from across the political spectrum — an early manifestation of his idiosyncratic politics. He admires Benjamin Disraeli’s One-nation conservatism, yet finds much of interest in Liberal reformism and Christian socialism. Macmillan, in short, is the political free-thinker. After heroic service in the Great War, he returns to London and joins the Conservative Party, a decision that owes more to political strategy than ideology. In 1924, he’s elected Tory MP for the constituency of Stockon-on-Tees in the North of England. In parliament, he rapidly emerges as a rebel. But a very peculiar kind of rebel: not brash or irate, but eccentric, impertinent and, some believe, pompous. His self-restraint, stiff even by the day’s standards, irks many. Consigned to the back benches, Macmillan spends the roaring twenties and bleak thirties honing his vision. Recognising in the great depression a breakdown of modern civilisation, he castigates the Conservative government for its punitive austerity programme. He goes so far as to deem his own party “dominated by second-class brewers and company chairmen — a Casino Capitalism — [that] is not likely to represent anybody but itself.” All the while he fears poverty will engender the ascent of Soviet-style socialism. By the year 1938 — and the publication of The Middle Way — Macmillan, the statesman-in-waiting, is fully formed.

The Middle Way makes the case for a mixed economy, that is one neither wholly — or explicitly — capitalist or socialist, instead striking a balance between the “unfettered abuse” of the free market and the “intolerable restriction” of the state. To Macmillan, this entails relinquishing economic dogmas, thinking critically about the trends that lead to crises and experimenting with new approaches. He outlines the methods by which not just recovery but prosperity can be achieved: a dynamic partnership between the public sector and private enterprise, bold projects of industrial reconstruction and infrastructure works, a regulatory framework for the financial industries in order to curtail speculation and encourage investment, social programmes to limit the fallout from unemployment. If this sounds similar to the economic theories of another Old Etonian — John Maynard Keynes — that’s because it is. Macmillan, whose firm publishes Keynes, quotes him extensively. Yet Macmillan, unlike Keynes, is a politician and The Middle Way is most interesting if seen not as a thesis on policy… but as a work of political philosophy that also speaks to the character of its notoriously unflappable, enigmatic author.

The Middle Way is a book about ensuring the survival and continuation of civilisation and democracy. Macmillan sees them as precious but wobbly edifices in need of constant repair. Or to tip another way: they’re like gardens that must be nurtured. He identifies as the great challenge ahead the necessity to “retain our heritage of political, intellectual and cultural freedom while, at the same time, opening up the way to higher standards of social welfare and economic security.” To him, politics is but a tool to liberate society from “the humiliation and restraints of unnecessary poverty.” His goal, then, is to enable individual men and women to develop and realise themselves in relative harmony. He emphasises the mere accumulation of material things cannot be the aim of these intersecting quests. Rather Macmillan imagines a world in which happiness — he defines it as “a light which illuminates the mind and spirit of those (…) ready to receive it” — is the main business of being human. However, he does not make any false promises of utopia: his middle way won’t get anyone there. Macmillan firmly believes “happiness is personal,” and it is up to the individual — and him alone — to tread his own path. All Macmillan intends to do is give people a fighting chance to lead meaningful and varied lives. Underscoring his humanism are rigour and responsibility. To achieve his political vision, Macmillan reiterates throughout The Middle Way — like a mantra — the need for “conscious regulation” and “conscious direction and control.” The qualifier “conscious,” straight out of psychology, appears odd when referring to the economy. No economist has used this turn of phrase before or since. However, Macmillan’s idiosyncratic choice of adjective says much about him as a man.

All his life, Macmillan struggles with regulating his own unconscious mind. By nature, he is hyper-emotional, easily upset and dispirited, susceptible to over-thinking and doubt. Not long before his death, Macmillan confides in his biographer Alistair Horne: “I always felt that one must maintain great control, but it is very exhausting keeping it to yourself. I wasn’t really ‘unflappable,’ I just had to keep it down.” Macmillan overcomes his own mood swings through painstaking introspection and a constant quest for mental balance. By extension, he sees society much the same: as a living organism privy to the brutal pendulum swings of the left and the right, under threat from the excesses of socialism and capitalism. To ordain and order society — that is to be in the business of politics — is a perpetual balancing act. It offers no time for complacency, demands vigorous thinking and effective action… and, above all, it never ends. That is, ultimately, the message of The Middle Way.

During the Second World War, Harold Macmillan serves in the cabinet of another formidable Tory backbencher, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And at long last, in 1956, he becomes Prime Minister himself. By the time Macmillan reaches office, his middle way has gone a long way. The post-war settlement, informed by the theories of Keynes, has resulted in the creation of the welfare state and a more preponderant role for the government in economic affairs. Macmillan, then, possesses the tools to govern he so relishes. Though some experts credit global conjuncture for his economic success, his tenure nonetheless guides the return of prosperity and achieves a rise in living standards for all Britons. In 1957, in his most famous remark, often the source of mockery, he states: “Let’s face it, most of our people never had it so good.” Ironically, researchers at the University of Warwick have led a study that proves 1957 is the year Britons were the “happiest.” Make of that what you will….

Harold Macmillan resigns in 1963, on grounds of poor health, following the Profumo affair. His Secretary of War, John Profumo, had sexual relationships with a 19-year old showgirl suspected of Soviet entanglements. Beyond this unfortunate turn of events, it’s clear Macmillan has grown increasingly out of touch with the Great British public. His composure, once lauded as a sign of stable leadership, is now a source of mockery. A new Britain is emerging, and it has no room for an archaic gentleman born in the Victorian era. In 1962, Peter Cook, the comedic genius behind the satire boom, lampoons Macmillan with a killer impression on his BBC show That Was the Week That Was. Ever unflappable and caustic, Macmillan forbids his Postmaster General from any attempt at censorship, quipping: “It is a good thing to be laughed at. It is better than to be ignored.”

But, in subsequent years, Macmillan will be ignored. In 1979, after a decade of economic decline and poor political management, the Conservative Margaret Thatcher is elected Prime Minister. She embraces the “unfettered” free market, loathes the state and preaches the doctrine of monetarism, in many ways the very “casino capitalism” Macmillan had battled his whole life. Thatcher derides, in particular, the middle way — though she refers to it by the more widely-used term of “consensus” (as in post-war Keynesian consensus). She says it is “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’” Thatcher’s argument is salient, and an apt commentary on much of what ails politics. She forgets however that, in 1938, Macmillan’s middle way was far from heralding consensus. Unlike the flabby Prime Ministers which succeeded him, Macmillan had not been a passive receiver of consensus, but rather an active molder of it. His successors failed to achieve equilibrium in the political balancing act that is the middle way… yet that is certainly no justification to throw the baby out with the bathwater. With gusto and method, then, Thatcher destroys the middle way and replaces it with her own consensus: Neo-liberalism. So much so her Labour successors have no choice but to admit: “We are all Thatcherites now.” They rebrand themselves, ironically enough, the Third Way but it has very little to do with Macmillan’s own middle way, not in economics and even less so in political philosophy. The Third Way, exemplified by the New Labour government of Tony Blair, is the brainchild of consensus — Thatcher’s — and an attempt to adapt to a changing political landscape. Thatcher herself recognises this when, asked to name her greatest achievement, she replies: “[Labour Prime Minister] Tony Blair and New Labour.” One could thus add in Thatcher’s own words: “What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’”

Harold Macmillan died, disillusioned, in 1986. As a statesman, he hailed the middle ground as the only position in politics that can be occupied “with honour.” His eclecticism was not the result of a lack of conviction, but rather the harbinger of the strength of his principles. He had the temerity to think outside of existing dogmas, and formulate his own outlook. Macmillan, too, looked to his own life to understand truths about human existence and find an ingenious way to integrate them to politics. In The Middle Way, he notes: “We shall work upwards from the simple needs of mankind to the complicated economic and social organisation necessary to supply those needs. By presenting the case in this way we may be prevented from forgetting that the purpose of economics is to serve life.”

Macmillan may seem the stuffy relic of a bygone world, but his middle way is urgently topical in our age of brutal political polarisation and dizzying technological progress. Beyond the economic ideas — many of which still sound judicious — it’s his breadth of vision we sorely need. In 1938, as in now, it’s the “preservation of Democracy” that is at stake. In an eerily prescient passage, Macmillan notes: “[Man’s] present task is to liberate himself from the dominance of the machine; to found a new civilisation in which human life is supreme, and in which new vistas of freedom open up because the machine becomes his slave.” That is but one of the reasons why The Middle Way deserves re-appraisal as a major work of political thought.

In 1957, upon lauding Britain’s prosperity and the promise of a better tomorrow, Harold Macmillan told the people “they never had it so good.” He was right… in more ways than one.

Because in hindsight it’s clear that with Harold Macmillan, Britons really never had it so good.