On days such as this, when one wakes up to yet another act of mass murder that can only inspire repetition of points made in the aftermath of the last – when was it? Oh, yes, as far back as a week ago – there’s probably not a lot that can be added to what’s been said before. Different city, different perpetrator, different lives lost, horrible end result the same. So, safer instead to reflect on an event gifted with melodramatic invocations of death, albeit one where all that was lost were the careers of men and women who are still alive and kicking, just not in the same locations they were alive and kicking in at the beginning of the week.
What the media have labelled ‘The Day of the Long Knives’ has deliberate echoes of ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962, though that incident itself took its name from a vicious purge that had happened in the early days of Nazi Germany, when lives actually were lost. Harold Macmillan’s knives were out only in the metaphorical sense, but the circumstances that particular Tory PM found himself in when compared to Theresa May’s current clear-out were slightly different.
In the summer of 1962, the Conservative Party had been in power for over a decade. Harold Macmillan had been Prime Minister for five years, replacing Anthony Eden after the Suez debacle and then receiving a mandate from the electorate in 1959. The Tories were assisted in their stranglehold on government by a Labour opposition deeply divided on ideological issues between leader Hugh Gaitskell and firebrand Aneurin Bevan, and (as ever) a divided Labour Party handed job security to their Tory opponents. However, come the new decade, the old men of Westminster were beginning to look a little out of touch. With a dynamic young leader in the White House and the biggest beneficiaries of Supermac’s own ‘You’ve never had it so good’ economic policies being Britain’s youth, Macmillan – a World War I veteran – was acutely aware that the new generation of red-brick university graduates were turning away from the Tories towards the resurgent Liberal Party, something that culminated in Eric Lubbock’s shock capture of Orpington in the by-election of March 1962.
It was Lubbock’s legendary victory that really set the cat amongst the Tory pigeons. Overturning a safe Conservative majority of 14,760 and winning the Liberals a majority of 7,855, Lubbock lit the fuse for a Cabinet reshuffle as Macmillan desperately sought to arrest his party’s sliding popularity. A General Election was still theoretically a couple of years away, so Macmillan figured he had time to reverse the fortunes that had been faltering ever since the Budget of 1960, which saw a U-turn on tax cuts, and then Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd’s public sector pay-freeze. Lubbock’s triumph was the Tory disaster that a string of poor by-election results had been pointing towards, so Macmillan – who was also convinced that a leadership challenge was brewing – discussed an impending reshuffle with his closest advisers, with a provisional date fixed for that autumn.
Events were rushed forward following an ill-advised lunch between Deputy PM Rab Butler and ‘Daily Mail’ proprietor Lord Rothermere, in which the former let slip his PM’s intentions. Unsurprisingly, the plans appeared in print the next day and a furious Macmillan was forced to wield the axe sooner than planned. Chancellor Lloyd was the first to be summoned for an audience with Macmillan the day the Mail headline appeared and was promptly sacked. The speed with which Macmillan then acted belied his public image as the nation’s kindly Edwardian uncle, the tweedy old Patrician who reserved his killer instinct for grouse. The day after Lloyd lost his job, the PM fired six other Cabinet Ministers, completing the job the following day when nine junior ministers were added to the hit-list.
Several up-and-coming Tory MPs who would go on to make their marks later, such as Reginald Maudling and Sir Keith Joseph, were among the fresh faces Macmillan brought in with the hope that the new blood would ensure the continuation of his ministry. However, to the public and political commentators, it looked like an act of desperation on Macmillan’s part. Future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe responded with one of his wittiest quotes, observing that the PM had laid down his friends for his life. Yet the gamble appeared to have paid off within a few months, suggesting Macmillan had shown great foresight; he cannily adopted many of the policies the Liberals had advocated, which in turn curtailed their brief revival at the polls.
The death of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963 saw his replacement Harold Wilson revitalise the party, attracting those who had been drawn to the Liberals just as the effect of the devastating winter of 1962/63 on the economy was becoming apparent. That same year, the Profumo Scandal further strengthened Wilson’s hand and eventually provoked a weary Macmillan’s sudden retirement in October, fifteen months on from the Night of the Long Knives. Any severe Cabinet reshuffle ever since has been compared to Macmillan’s 1962 clearing of dead wood, so it’s no great surprise that the P45s handed to the Cameron crew by Theresa May has drawn comparisons, even if such changes tend to come with a new broom at No.10 rather than when a PM is five years into their tenure.
I’ve no idea how many tears were shed over the swift departures of Selwyn Lloyd and his half-dozen Cabinet colleagues fifty-four years ago, but I know there isn’t a moist eye in this house as we wave goodbye to Gove, Osborne, Morgan, Letwin and Whittingdale. Besides, a little perspective helps on days such as this.
© The Editor