The Foreign Secretaries (14): Macmillan

Harold_Macmillan_number_10_officialHarold Macmillan, 1955

Conservative, under Eden

Read about Macmillan’s career as a whole here and here; about Macmillan as chancellor here.

Ironically, given that he coveted the foreign office above all else, Macmillan was foreign secretary for just eight months. Nor were they a happy eight months.

He was supremely qualified for the job. Before World War Two, he had been one of the most prominent and persistent critics of appeasement. From 1942-45, he was the government’s key figure in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Balkans and Italy; he was also allied control commissioner for Italy. As such, he had all the requisite experience required.

Macmillan’s problem was Eden. Eden had been foreign secretary, on and off, for nigh on twenty years. Macmillan thus inherited Eden’s foreign policy, but also faced a prime minister determined to take the lead on foreign policy. The two men had locked horns once or twice during the war, and had disagreed over policy towards Europe when in opposition. After his election victory, Eden’s position soured fast. Butler was forced to reverse his pre-election budget giveaway, and Eden’s unwillingness to let his ministers have their heads began to chafe. No one suffered more than Macmillan did.

The immediate issue was Europe. In Messina, Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian foreign minister, had initiated the talks which would culminate in the creation of the EEC in 1957. At this stage, the more Europhile Macmillan and the more sceptical Eden were as one. The British Board of Trade official at the talks, Russell Bretherton, believed that the talks were making very little, and very slow progress. Previously, the proposed EDC (European Defence Community) had collapsed when the French parliament had voted the proposal down. Eden had come to the rescue. Neither Eden nor Macmillan liked the Spaak proposal: they were opposed to its supranational element, and the inclusion of agriculture into a Common Market was incompatible with British interests, and Commonwealth trade in foodstuffs. This it was hoped that the British would be able to strangle the Common Market at birth or, if they could not, the French would do it for them.

Another issue Macmillan faced was Cyprus. Britain had taken Cyprus on loan from the Ottomans, annexed it in the First World War and made it a colony in 1925. Though the government were willing to counter self-government, the islands strategic importance meant that they were unwilling to envisage independence. The island’s majority Greek population, led by the nationalist Archbishop Makarios thought differently. By 1955, Makarios’ campaign of peaceful protest was accompanied by a Greek terrorist movement, EOKA. An added complication was that 30% Cyprus’ population were Turks.  Officially, this was not Foreign Office business: it was a matter for the Colonial Office and Eden. Macmillan did not agree. In the first place, he had a low opinion of the Colonial Office, complaining about its ‘Byzantine incompetence’; he also saw how Cyprus had the potential to destabilise relations between Greece and Turkey, and with that, NATO. Thus, Macmillan initiated a three-way conference, which made some halting progress: Eden was less inclined to move towards self-government. Meanwhile, when Macmillan suggested the existing governor be replaced, Eden agreed, but refused Macmillan’s chosen candidate.

The Cyprus issue gives us an interesting hint about what might have been, and at the tensions between the two men that would persuade Eden to move Macmillan on when the opportunity came. Macmillan sought to extend the Foreign Office’s remit; Eden sought to overrule it. The other issue he faced was inherited from Eden, and would come to fruition once he was chancellor. By 1955, the nationalist Colonel Nasser ruled Egypt. The previous year, Eden had accepted strategic logic and agreed to the British withdrawal from its military bases in Suez. He had also initiated a plan to enable Egypt and Jordan to establish a land corridor, whilst still giving Israel access to the Gulf of Aqaba. It required subtle diplomacy, and close Anglo-American cooperation. In the end, the plan would fail but, in 1955, Macmillan felt that his work to keep the Americans on board was consistently undermined by Eden’s interference.

For all that, Macmillan was at least as hostile to Nasser as Eden was, as the early phases of the Suez Crisis would show. Thus, though he did not want to be moved to the Treasury when Butler was deemed too damaged to carry on, the fact that he was moved amounted to a lucky break. When Suez came, the prime minister and the foreign secretary would carry the can. Had Macmillan stayed at the Foreign Office, he would almost certainly never have been prime minister.

Macmillan was one of five foreign secretaries since 1906 who went on to be prime minister; he was one six who went on to lead their party, one of ten to be both foreign secretary and party leader. He was one of eight men to be both foreign secretary and chancellor, one of two to have held both offices and be prime minister (one of three to have held both and be party leader). Like John Major, he held both the Foreign Office and the Treasury for brief spells before, with luck on their side, ascending to the top.

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Filed under 1918 and after Archive, Britain, The Foreign Secretaries

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