Vernon Bogdanor

The Spectator book review that brought down Macmillan’s government

Did Harold Macmillan stitch up his succession – or did Iain Macleod’s famous Spectator piece, 50 years old this week, stitch up Macmillan?

The Spectator book review that brought down Macmillan's government
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[/audioplayer]Fifty years ago this week, a cover story in The Spectator helped to bring down a Conservative government. It was called ‘The Tory Leadership’ and was written by the editor, Iain Macleod, who had been a senior minister in Harold Macmillan’s government. Purporting to be the review of a book by Randolph Churchill on how Lord Home had ‘emerged’ in October 1963 as Macmillan’s successor, it claimed that Macmillan had fixed the succession so as to scupper the chances of the natural candidate, R.A. Butler, who had been deputy prime minister in all but name.

In those days, the Conservatives did not choose their leader by ballot, but by ‘customary processes of consultation’, soundings conducted both inside and outside Parliament. These soundings were carried out primarily by five grandees, four of whom had been to Eton. So had Macmillan and Home. They constituted what Macleod, in a deadly phrase, christened a ‘magic circle’ that ruled the Tory party. The Spectator had exposed an establishment stitch-up — or so it seemed.

The article succeeded in casting serious doubt on the legitimacy of Home’s succession — and, ergo, his leadership. With a general election due within nine months, and some way behind in the polls, the Conservatives desperately needed to unite around Home. Instead, Macleod used his Spectator article in a way designed to reopen wounds which had been beginning to heal.

Not until 1989 did the truth begin to emerge. Alistair Horne, in the second volume of his authorised life of Macmillan, revealed the real outcome of the soundings in 1963: a strong consensus for Home. So Macmillan was not slipping in a personal recommendation when he advised the Queen to send for him — he was doing precisely what he was supposed to do. The probity of the process was confirmed when the memorandum which Macmillan presented to the Queen was reprinted as an appendix in D.R. Thorpe’s recent biography, Supermac.

Even more striking was the fact, revealed in Horne’s biography, that Macleod had himself supported Home. At first, it was thought that this could not be, and it was suggested, perhaps implausibly, that Lord Dilhorne, the Lord Chancellor, who had conducted soundings of the Cabinet, had made an error. But Philip Woodfield, who was private secretary in No. 10 at the time, confirmed this to his friend Nigel Lawson (who had succeeded Macleod as Spectator editor).

What was Macleod’s motive? The most plausible answer is that he saw himself as a possible leadership candidate in the event of a deadlock — so he voted for Home, then seen as an outside candidate, as the best way of helping to promote that deadlock. In 1961, Lord Salisbury had accused Macleod of bringing to politics the skills of the professional bridge player that he had once been, and of being ‘too clever by half’.

The truth is that Rab Butler, in spite of being regarded by the general public as the obvious candidate for the premiership, had no chance of the succession — and knew it. In the summer of 1963, well before Macmillan’s resignation, he had been given a message by John Morrison, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, that ‘the chaps won’t have you’. Butler was rejected, not because he displeased a magic circle of Old Etonians, but because he was unacceptable to the majority of Tory MPs.

The real victim of the events of 1963 was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald Maudling. In the summer of that year, he appeared the most likely successor to Macmillan, who was intending to resign before the Profumo affair affected his calculations. For Macmillan was determined not to appear to be driven from office at the behest of the gutter press. In autumn, 1963, Butler had told Maudling, `Of course, I’ll be very pleased to serve under you Reggie, when the time comes’. Maudling, one of the cleverest men in British politics, and not yet mired in sleaze, might well have defeated Harold Wilson in 1964. In that case, Labour, after four successive defeats, would almost certainly have removed Clause 4 and transformed itself into New Labour 30 years before the advent of Tony Blair.

But, by the autumn of 1963, Maudling’s star had faded. Even so, when, in October 1963, Home asked him to continue as Chancellor, he told him that, if he refused, there would be no chance of a Home administration and he, Maudling, would be the beneficiary. Maudling nevertheless agreed to continue. It is a story that reflects great credit on both men.

In 1965, Maudling had another chance. By then, the Conservatives had decided to choose their leader by a ballot of MPs. But victory went not to Maudling but to Edward Heath. That too had large consequences. Heath was a committed Europhile – perhaps the only one ever to have occupied No 10. Maudling, by contrast, was a Eurosceptic, who had tried to dissuade Harold Macmillan from seeking to join the European Communities in 1961, and had predicted de Gaulle’s veto. Would a Maudling administration have taken Britain into Europe?

The effects of Macleod’s Spectator article resonated down the years. The idea of a ‘magic circle’ was so potent that until the advent of David Cameron, an Etonian education was seen as a handicap rather than an advantage (as Douglas Hurd discovered when he stood for the leadership in 1990). Home was the last public school leader of a major party until the arrival of the Fettes-educated Tony Blair in 1994.

The Conservatives made a remarkable recovery in 1964, losing the election by a whisker — 0.7 per cent of the vote. Labour had an overall majority of just four seats. If 900 voters in eight constituencies had switched their votes, Home would have remained in power. On the day that he left No. 10, he was heard blaming the defeat on Macleod in language which those present had not heard him use before; and he was to tell his biographer, D.R. Thorpe, that Macleod’s Spectator article was the single most important factor in the Tory defeat. Indeed Home thought that no one had done more damage to the post-war Conservative party than Iain Macleod. Much of that damage was done by a single article in The Spectator.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London.