Skip to main content

The private life of Harold Macmillan

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Foreign Office Historians
Harold MacMillan is meeting Nikita Khrushchev
Harold MacMillan greets Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. Keystone Pictures USA /Alamy stock photo

This December marks thirty years since the death of Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister who took over in 1957 from Anthony Eden following the Suez Crisis. He is perhaps best known for his soundbites – describing the breakup of the British Empire as an African ‘wind of change’, or claiming that in Britain’s affluent postwar society people had ‘never had it so good’. Less is known, however, about his lifelong battle with shyness and the lengths to which he went to conceal his private thoughts and emotions – an aspect of his character crucial to understanding his premiership.

‘When a man becomes Prime Minister,’ remarked Macmillan towards the end of his life, ‘he has to some extent to be an actor.’ From an early age, his determination to conceal his anxious, insecure disposition was an important part of his personality. Almost from birth, the tendency to stifle private sentiments troubled him. Biographer Alistair Horne described Macmillan’s father as ‘shy and retiring’, while his mother was ‘so tough and powerful as to inhibit all three sons, making them repressed and withdrawn’. The bookish, introverted Harold developed an ‘extreme dislike of doing things in public’, which ‘pursued him right through his youth and into his early days in the army, and to some extent he found himself having to fight against intrinsic shyness throughout his life.’

It took the declaration of war in 1914 to teach Macmillan how to shield this shy self by erecting a public persona behind which he could hide. Naturally, the war gave him a first taste of contact with working-class men, and despite noting in his autobiography how he had admired the ease with which they interacted with one another, found that the clear social chasm made it difficult for him to relate to them. His response was to turn himself into a caricature of an aloof military man, hiding his sensitivities behind exaggerated aristocratic mannerisms and an apparently cool demeanour.

Macmillan’s war forced him to confront situations that exposed his vulnerable personality, and repeatedly he hid behind a protective public persona that bore little relation to his inner sentiment. When on occasion Macmillan was unable to maintain this persona, the results were dramatic, as he recalled in his autobiography when an injury sustained during the Somme left him crawling alone in search of medical assistance:

... fear, not to say panic, seized me. I suppose that courage is mainly, if not wholly, the result of vanity or pride. When one is in action – especially if one is responsible for men under one’s command – proper behaviour, even acts of gallantry, are part of the show. One moves almost automatically as ... an actor on the stage. But now  ... I was alone and nobody could see me. There was no need to keep up appearances, and I was very frightened.

The private, to Macmillan, did not belong in public, a coping strategy which proved useful in maintaining military authority, or in instilling calm in a government rocked by Anthony Eden’s panicked incompetence in 1956. Indeed, as Horne notes, by the time he became Prime Minister, Macmillan’s public performance left contemporaries confused ‘as to where the real man ended and the actor began’.

His coping strategy, however, proved to be his undoing. His wife Dorothy carried on a lifelong affair with Tory backbencher Robert Boothby – an open secret in political and journalistic circles. Though Macmillan conducted himself with a dignity that certainly earned the respect of his peers with regard to the affair, it nonetheless compounded an already privately insecure and prudish personality and intensified his retreat behind his public persona. That the affair dragged on until Lady Dorothy Macmillan’s death in 1966 highlights Macmillan’s inability to confront matters of a personal nature. Cuckolded, emasculated, and unable to pursue a divorce that would have certainly ended his political career, Macmillan was forced to live for over thirty years with a marriage to which his wife had been unfaithful. The most important human relationship in Macmillan’s life became part of a public performance, as opposed to a private sanctuary.

Significantly, it was a scandal involving the private life of one of his ministers – John Profumo, who was sleeping with a model named Christine Keeler at the same time she was involved with a Russian spy – that brought Macmillan’s public face crashing down. On the day Profumo’s indiscretion was first raised in the public realm of the House of Commons, Macmillan spent much of a diary entry discussing the trivial distinction between a ‘model’ and a prostitute, before distancing himself from Profumo’s acquaintances in their

raffish, theatrical, bohemian society where no one really knows anyone and everyone is ‘darling’. But Profumo does not seem to have realised that we have – in public life – to observe different standards from those prevalent today in many circles.

Macmillan perceived himself as speaking from inside the confines of the British political community, and was keen to point out the divide between ‘public life’ and ‘bohemian society’. Macmillan never confronted Profumo about the details of the affair. Ian Macleod was instead sent to wake Profumo in the middle of the night and ask the War Minister, about it. Macmillian appeared to be satisfied by the latter's denial, and maintained an aloofness from the sexual element of the scandal.

When rumours about Profumo in the press intensified, Macmillan’s response, rather than confront the situation privately, was to bury the scandal under a strong public denial. Profumo announced to the Commons that there had been ‘no impropriety whatsoever’ with Keeler, and Macmillan had not only pre-approved the statement, but also sat alongside Profumo throughout, even patting his minister on the back as he returned to his seat. In all likelihood the Prime Minister was made aware of Profumo’s indiscretion by the FBI as early as January, and appears therefore to have been a ‘silent accomplice’ to Profumo’s denials throughout.  Regardless of when he learned the full truth, however, he was nonetheless publicly seen to be backing Profumo.

When the truth inevitably emerged and Profumo resigned on 5 June, Macmillan was therefore already perceived to have been complicit to some extent. The affair became an attack not on Profumo, but on the morality of Macmillan’s government, as numerous press reports claimed ministerial resignations were imminent and that Macmillan’s leadership was to blame.  He was now linked, via Profumo, to the sexual underworld he had claimed in his diary to be so distant from, so much so that at a fête in Bromley, when Macmillan posed to have a photograph taken with a young girl, a member of the public whispered to him: ‘Take your hand off that little girl. Don’t you wish it was Christine Keeler?’ As far as the public perception went, Macmillan was now probably as immoral as Profumo.

The Profumo affair directly contributed to Macmillan’s departure from 10 Downing Street in October 1963, and is now seen as a scandal that represented a turning point in British politics, as the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s infiltrated Westminster. Perhaps, however, an even bigger question remains: was this the last time in history when a British Prime Minister was able to keep his or her private life out of public office?

Keep tabs on the past.Sign up for our email alerts.

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Ali Summerill posted on

    very interesting, thank you