8 October was the day of Harold Macmillan’s great landslide victory in the General Election of 1959. Its fiftieth anniversary this year even fell on the same weekday, a Thursday.
The victory was undoubtedly one of the great highlights of Harold Macmillan’s long political career. It was the fourth successive General Election in which the Tories had increased their number of seats.
Anthony Eden’s victory at the 1955 Election had been assured, but largely uneventful. The Labour Party was deeply divided and, at the age of 72, Attlee, fighting his fifth campaign as Labour leader, was no match for Eden’s glamour and promise. In 1959 Macmillan faced a much harder task. Although the ghosts of Suez had largely been exorcised and the special relationship with America successfully re-established, the Tories faced a revitalised Labour Party under Hugh Gaitskell, and a resurgent Liberal Party under the attractive leadership of Jo Grimond. Macmillan was equal to the challenge.
When Macmillan helped Dr David Butler of Nuffield College on his book on the 1959 Election (a series that began with the 1945 Election and which continues to this day) he explained that the victory was the result of a combination of progressive policies and a glorious summer.’ There were even porpoises in the North Sea’, he told Butler. Furthermore, Macmillan was seen as a figure of substance on the world stage. Earlier in the year he had made a much publicised visit to Russia to meet Khruschev. Then in August Macmillan had invited Eisenhower to visit Britain during his European tour. The two men met like the old war-time buddies that they were. Television showed the two leaders live in Downing Street before dinner, talking about international problems.
Gaitskell had no answer to such aplomb. Although the Labour Party made the early running, on 28 September in a speech in Newcastle Gaitskell made an error which psephologists have always considered the fatal turning point. He pledged that there would, under Labour, be no increase in income tax in normal peace-time conditions. The next day this error was compounded by Morgan Phillips, Labour’s General Secretary, at the daily Transport House Press Conference, when he stated that the Labour Party would not increase purchase tax either. Macmillan knew at once what a mistake it was for Labour to turn the election into an auction. He ensured that all his speeches had been carefully checked beforehand by the Conservative Research Department and all relevant departments for both absence of errors and clarity.
The 1959 Election was predominantly a national rather than a local affair and television played a prominent part. In 1955 40 per cent of the population had a television. By 1959 that proportion was over 70 per cent. Macmillan’s final TV broadcast on 6 October has long been regarded as a classic of its kind, though Peter Cook was later to parody it mercilessly in ‘Beyond the Fringe’. Macmillan had been advised to deliver his address standing, moving between a desk on which there were letters and a large globe. These proved to be telling props as Macmillan referred quite naturally to various points in the letters. But the enduring image was the globe which Macmillan turned with his hand as he spoke of the international situation. The symbolism was a stunning example of the latest techniques of the advertising world, what had been memorably called ‘the hidden persuaders’. Indeed the Conservatives had pioneered the use of sustained advertising with a lengthy poster campaign run by Colman, Prentis and Varley. Macmillan’s only reservation in the use of this new technique was to ensure that public relations were not a substitute for policy.
The Conservative slogan for the election was ‘Life’s better under the Conservatives – don’t let Labour ruin it.’ It was a potent message at a time of increased prosperity and full employment. Even Gaitskell had admitted (in the Daily Mail of all papers) that ‘compared with pre-war, most people are a good deal better off.’ In the wake of Labour’s defeat the veteran Hugh Dalton told James Callaghan that he had heard of a young voter in Cardiff saying, ‘All right Dad, Labour may suit you, but I’m voting Conservative this time.’ It was a trend that was seen around the country. As Patrick Gordon Walker admitted during Labour’s post-mortem, ‘The simple fact is that the Tories identified themselves with the new working class rather better than we did.’ Ray Gunter, a future Labour Cabinet Minister, declared that Macmillan was the most skilful politician he had ever seen.
Election night itself was a triumph for the Tories from the very start. The polls closed at 9 p.m. in those days. There was always a great race to be the first constituency to declare, a race won in 1955 by Billericay, which was then a perfect demographic microcosm of the country. Just before 10 p.m. the High Sheriff of Essex, Major Geoffrey Hoare, declared the Billericay result. In 1955, the Tories had won a majority of 60 seats nationally, with the Billericay majority being 4,200. Major Hoare read out the result. The Billericay majority for the Conservatives had increased to nearly 4,900. There were still 629 seats to be declared, but Gaitskell, who was in Leeds awaiting his count in the Town Hall, turned to his aides and admitted, ‘We’ve lost by 100 seats.’ When the final result was declared at lunchtime on 10 October (Jo Grimond’s constituency in Orkney and Shetland), the Tory majority was exactly 100 seats. It was one of the few things during that overwhelming Macmillan triumph that Gaitskell got right.
D. R. Thorpe is the biographer of Selwyn Lloyd, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Sir Anthony Eden. His new life of Harold Macmillan will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2010.