Lighting the way: Harold Macmillan and the audacity of balance

We continue our series of guest contributions with Theo Zenou’s reflections on Harold Macmillan’s famous book The Middle Way and its continuing relevance in the febrile politics of the twenty-first century

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

Macmillan, the free thinker

Born at the turn of the century, Macmillan was a child of privilege but not one of luxury. The Etonian inherited 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 found solace in the family’s book collection. He admired Benjamin Disraeli’s One-Nation conservatism, yet found much of interest in Liberal reformism and Christian socialism. Macmillan, in short, was something of a political free-thinker.

After service in the Great War, Macmillan joined the Conservative Party and, in 1924, he was elected Tory MP for the constituency of Stockton-on-Tees in the North of England. In parliament, he rapidly emerged as a rebel. But a very peculiar kind of rebel: not brash or irate, but eccentric, impertinent and, some believed, pompous. His self-restraint, stiff even by the day’s standards, irked many.

Consigned to the back benches, Macmillan spent the roaring twenties and bleak thirties honing his vision. Recognising in the great depression a breakdown of modern civilization, he castigated the Conservative government for its punitive austerity programme. He went 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 feared poverty would engender the ascent of Soviet-style socialism. By the year 1938—and the publication of The Middle Way—Macmillan, the statesman-in-waiting, was fully formed.

The Middle Way

The original 1938 book cover of ‘The Middle Way’

The Middle Way made 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 entailed relinquishing economic dogmas, thinking critically about the trends that led to crises and experimenting with new approaches.

He outlined the methods by which not just recovery but prosperity could 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 published Keynes, quoted him extensively. Yet Macmillan, unlike Keynes, was 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 was a book about ensuring the survival and continuation of civilisation and democracy. Macmillan saw them as precious but wobbly edifices in need of constant repair. He identified 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 was a tool to liberate society from “the humiliation and restraints of unnecessary poverty”, so that individual men and women could develop and realise themselves in relative harmony.

He emphasised that the mere accumulation of material things could not be the aim of these intersecting quests. Rather Macmillan imagined a world in which happiness—he defined 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 did not make any false promises of utopia: his middle way wouldn’t get anyone there. Macmillan firmly believed that “happiness is personal,” and it is up to the individual—and him alone—to tread his own path.

Underscoring this humanism were the ideas of rigour and responsibility. To achieve his political vision, Macmillan reiterated 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 struggled with regulating his own unconscious mind. By nature, he was hyper-emotional, easily upset and dispirited, susceptible to over-thinking and doubt. Not long before his death, Macmillan confided 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 overcame his own mood swings through a constant quest for mental balance and he saw society in much the same way: 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 was, ultimately, the message of The Middle Way.

Beyond the Middle Way?

Consensus or crisis? Kennedy and Macmillan in June 1963

During the Second World War, Harold Macmillan served in the cabinet of another formidable Tory backbencher, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And at long last, in 1956, he became Prime Minister himself. By the time Macmillan reached office, his middle way had gone a long way. The post-war settlement, informed by the theories of Keynes, resulted in the creation of the welfare state and a more preponderant role for the government in economic affairs. Macmillan, then, possessed the tools to govern he so relishes. Though some experts credit global conjuncture for his economic success, his tenure nonetheless guided the return of prosperity and achieved a rise in living standards for all Britons. In 1957, in his most famous remark, often the source of mockery, he stated: “Let’s face it, most of our people never had it so good.”

Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963, on grounds of poor health, following the Profumo affair. Beyond this unfortunate turn of events, it’s clear that Macmillan was increasingly out of touch with the  British public. His composure, once lauded as a sign of stable leadership, was now the object of ridicule. A new Britain was emerging, and it had no room for an archaic gentleman born in the Victorian era.

In 1979, after a decade of economic decline and poor political management, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She embraced the “unfettered” free market, loathed the state and preached the doctrine of monetarism, in many ways the very “casino capitalism” Macmillan had battled his whole life.

Thatcher derided, in particular, the middle way—though she referred to it by the more widely-used term of “consensus” (as in post-war Keynesian consensus). She said 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 was salient, and an apt commentary on much of what ails politics. She forgot, however that, in 1938, Macmillan’s middle way was far from heralding consensus.

Unlike the flabby Prime Ministers who succeeded him, Macmillan had not been a passive receiver of consensus, but rather an active shaper 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, Thatcher destroyed the middle way and replaced it with her own consensus: neo-liberalism.

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.

Macmillan may seem the stuffy relic of a bygone world, but his middle way is urgently topical in our age of brutal political polarization and dizzying technological progress. Beyond the economic ideas—many of which still sound judicious—it is his breadth of vision we sorely need. In 1938, as now, it is the “preservation of Democracy” that is at stake. In an eerily prescient passage of The Middle Way, Macmillan noted: “[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.

Theo Zenou is an MSc Research student in History. His research interests lie in twentieth century American politics, and the way political leaders formulate grand visions for their country and people. His dissertation centres on the communication strategies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He is an affiliated student of the CSMCH.