Studies in Unflappability – what can David Cameron learn from Harold Macmillan?

By Steven Daniels. Steven Daniels (steven.daniels@kcl.ac.uk) is a PhD student at King’s College London and IMT Lucca, currently studying the role of the government in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike

If I caused you to raise an eyebrow at the title of this article, I must apologise – on the surface, I appreciate it is folly to try and directly compare the premierships of Macmillan (1957-63) and Cameron (2010-). Different generations, different eras, different problems. Right? Well, maybe. I believe the similarities between the two are more than superficial however, and that Cameron, for however privateeyemuch longer he has to serve in a coalition, could do well to emulate the Macmillian style of government.

Cynics (and lefties, though, bien sur, they are not the same thing) will quickly suggest the only similarity between Macmillan and Cameron is that they’re both members of the aristocracy, with the latter being the first aristocrat Prime Minister since the former, some half a century prior. The major problems they faced over the course of their premierships bear striking resemblances, though. They both faced the fallout of an unpopular war in the Middle East; issues of European integration, no matter how hard they tried, wouldn’t go away; and the lure of striding the world stage alongside a charismatic US President at the expense of domestic affairs often proved too tempting to resist.

Perhaps the biggest problem both men face however, is that of a troublesome Party. Whereas Cameron has the eternal juggling act of keeping both Tory and Liberal Democrat wings of his government happy; Macmillan had to deal with Churchillites, still dreaming of the pre-WWII glory days of Empire; and modernisers who believed Britain was no longer a superpower, and should look to Europe and beyond for her future. If you’re reading this in 2014, do Macmillan’s problems sound familiar to you?

Macmillan is today generally regarded as one of the better post-war Prime Ministers, with Thorpe placing him in the “front rank” when it came to ordering the impact of Prime Ministers, praising him for transforming Britain from one of austerity (“the age of fish and Cripps as he called it”) to one of great affluence, whilst remaining politically grounded . Even my own grandfather, as traditional hard left as they come, described him as “not bad”, a compliment akin to Marx and Engels saying “Well, Thatcher, she was alright”. According to Lord Hailsham, his personal motto was “Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every knot” . He was unflappable. Whatever problem came Macmillan’s way, he would always maintain a calm composure and never let the course of events get the better of him, famously on one occasion describing the resignation of his Chancellor and two other senior treasury members as “a little local difficulty”.

Compare this to David Cameron, who, after a promising start of leaving his ministers to their tasks and simply directing his able cabinet in that most Macmillian of fashions, has fallen into the Blair/Brown trap of needing to be seen involved in every major issue of the day, commenting on everything from Mumford & Sons’ album Babel , to predicting Premier League results . I appreciate in the modern age that politicians must try harder than ever to appear relevant and connected to the modern world. However, building a snowman with Carol Vorderman is not the way to do it.

In an age in which trust in politicians is rock bottom, less is more. Harold Macmillan understood this, and never lost a general election – he only resigned in 1963 due to a health scare . Macmillan also understood that he did not need to comment on every single event, as this merely depreciated the value of his words when his counsel was legitimately needed. I don’t suggest this as one of the Churchillites stuck in the past, looking through rose-tinted glasses at a mythical golden age of British politics. I suggest this as I believe Cameron, just as he did upon taking office in 2010, needs to learn to play to his strengths – just as Macmillan did.

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