35 years ago: Death of Harold Macmillan

On 29 December, 1986, Macmillan died peacefully at his home in East Sussex. He was buried 35 years ago, in January 1987. Although Macmillan had remained active in public life until his death, his admirers were offered a unique chance to praise him 1963, just before and after he resigned from the office of Prime Minister.

Macmillan took ill just before the Conservative Party Conference in October 1963 and was rushed to the hospital, where he was incorrectly diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He stepped down on the grounds of ill health (leading some to call for greater concern over the ‘heavy strain of modern conditions’), making way for Sir Alec Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party.

During his health scare and directly after, the members of the Party attending the conference commented in speech after speech on the dedication of the Prime Minister and their appreciation for him. The Conference as a whole, of course, agreed upon a message ‘expressing our very deep affection and our admiration and our best wishes’ (1963 Conference Proceedings, NUA 2/1/69). The Earl of Home noted that Macmillan’s ‘sole concern is for the nation and the Party’, while the Chairman closed the conference with the words, ‘I think we have felt steadily a growing appreciation of what a wonderful Prime Minister he was.’

Macmillan had taken office in January 1957 during a particularly difficult time for the Party. Opposition was stronger than ever, and Lord Salisbury told the Party:

‘I do not believe that any Prime Minister of the past has ever had such complex problems to tackle … the problem of how to harmonize any new relationships with Europe with our existing relationships in other parts of the world; the problem of how to combine the paramount needs of our solvency with the equally paramount need of national defence; the problem of where best should the cuts in national expenditure be made which must be made; the problem of what is of relative importance at the present time between guns and butter…’ (PUB 221/15)

Others believed the PM would be only a ‘caretaker’, unable to stand up to the opposition in what was believed to be a looming election.

Weekly News Letter, Vol. 19 (26 October 1963) (PUB 193/19)

Yet Macmillan did win the next election, and served as Prime Minister for over six years. He certainly faced disappointments – the UK’s attempt to join Europe was vetoed, and his government was discredited over the Profumo affair – but his wealth of varied experience stood him in good stead as he negotiated issues of world peace and domestic economics, from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to independence in Africa.

Macmillan in a 1955 PPB for the Conservative Party. Macmillan proved adept at charming his country via television.

Over 200 attended his funeral in January 1987, and thousands his memorial service at Westminster Abbey.

Memorial Service Programme (Bodleian Library, 13984 d.71)

BBC Radio 4’s The Prime Ministers series includes a 15-minute segment on Macmillan, which is available on BBC iPlayer: The Prime Ministers: Harold Macmillan

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