Friday, 30 December 2016

Harold Macmillan 30 years on

On 5th January 1987 Horsted Keynes saw an unprecedented scene as former villager, church member and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was laid to rest by the Bishop following his death at Birch Grove 29th December 1986.

Having a serving Prime Minister in the congregation certainly impacted St Giles and the village, as when Macmillan hosted President Kennedy at Birch Grove in 1963. It’s said planes to and from Gatwick got diverted when he was in residence. They certainly showed respect for his office of Prime Minister at Horsted Keynes station, everyone waiting until he’d got off to be met by the chauffeur. The fact he’d then give folk a lift to the village shows he’d got respect for us too. His Tory rival Butler saw these two sides of him as ‘the soft heart for and the strong determination to help the underdog, and the social habit to associate happily with the overdog’.

Macmillan’s career peaked as Britain entered a more egalitarian era marked by the advent of television and satire like That Was The Week That Was. The aristocratic sound and mannerisms of Macmillan, well remembered as lesson reader here, and his chosen successor, Lord Hume, were easy prey for the new media whose lack of deference grew the more so after the Profumo scandal.

Thirty years after his death we have another church going Prime Minister of similar churchmanship holding to the Catechism definition of the Church of England as ‘the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed’. Tempted in his youth towards Roman Catholicism Macmillan resisted, probably steered back by his mother’s Protestant heritage.  A robust spiritual life was kindled through his friendship with one time tutor, Ronnie later Monsignor Knox. He kept his Lenten fast and held to Sunday obligation sometimes attending twice.

Great men and women are usually people who have suffered. In this way their humanity appeals through the braving of fear. Macmillan’s courage was forged in the trenches of the First World War and a near death experience in the Second World War. The courage he possessed made him his own man. He stood alone in cabinet when he told the aged Churchill his days as Prime Minister needed to end. Macmillan even dared to suggest to Pope Pius XII he would serve Christian unity by recognising the orders of Anglican priests – to be received by silence!   Nearer to home when he attended St Giles Church Council he would allegedly stand at 9pm declaring the meeting was over to the Rector’s chagrin!  The late Dorothy Baxter recalled him telling her off for giggling in the choir. In Macmillan’s last years the parish priest, Fr Mark Hill Tout was called upon to minister and converse with him. He evidenced a thoughtful Christianity true to the faith of the church through the ages.

Macmillan had many trials, political and domestic. His life story is one that rises above the trials and part of his strategy was daily retreating into books and prayer.  He possessed a clear sense of divine providence working through the historical events that propelled his career. To his Christian sensibilities we owe the appointment of two of the Church of England’s most famous 20th century clerics, Michael Ramsey and Mervyn Stockwood.  Macmillan lamented the decline in Christian allegiance and near the end of his life made a call to ‘restore and strengthen the moral and spiritual as well as the material’ countering his materialist ‘you’ve never had it so good’ association.

Harold Macmillan’s pragmatism played a signal role in opening up the United Kingdom’s post-colonial especially in his 1960 prophecy of ‘winds of change’ blowing across Africa made in the face of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in the South African Parliament. His grave in our Churchyard was made a place of pilgrimage for African nationalists. Two of his more controversial engagements were the 1945 repatriation of Cossacks to their execution in Russia and the 1956 Suez crisis. Like any successful politician Macmillan had his ups and downs seizing the ‘glittering prizes offered those who have stout hearts and sharp swords’ (F.E.Smith).

He was a great wit. Interrupted in a speech by Khruschev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations he looks up and says quietly, ‘Well, I would like it translating if you would.’ Unveiling a bronze of Mrs Thatcher at the Carlton Club he makes an audible stage whisper, ‘Now I must remember that I am unveiling a bust of Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher’s bust.’

The life and achievements of Harold Macmillan and his wife Dorothy are part of our heritage at St Giles along with so many who’ve impacted the world for good and for God.      

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