Complete classes from the CAB & PREM series in the Public Record Office
Series Three: CAB 128 & CAB 129 - Cabinet Conclusions & Cabinet Memoranda, 1945 and following
Part 4: The Macmillan/Home Governments, January 1957 - October 1964
(CAB 128/31-38 & CAB 129/85-118)
The years between the resignation of Eden in 1957, and the election of Wilson in 1964 mark a pivotal point in British political history. During this period (covered by Part 4 of the series) the Conservative administrations of Macmillan and Douglas-Home were confronted with a series of challenges both at home and abroad that were to leave lasting and significant impressions on the shape of the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. Rising expectations and standards of living coincided with colonial demands for independence, renewed vigorous commercial competition from Europe and the ambiguous ambitions of the communist world to challenge Britains traditional position. Against this backdrop Britain struggled to come to terms with the realities of the new world situation and define her position in rapidly shifting circumstances; as Dean Acheson famously put it Britain had "lost an empire and not yet found a role". It was this attempt to find a role that, more than anything else, characterised Britain during this era.
When Macmillan became Prime Minister, he initially seemed to offer a clear set of principles and ambitions to the nation, a brand of socially aware Toryism combined with a moderate market orientated approach to the economy that seemed to reap many benefits as living standards rose and the economy flourished. Abroad his recognition of the need for colonial independence along side a continued British influence in world affairs, and a commitment to the defence of western Europe produced policies that were both realistic and faithful to Britains allies. By the time of his resignation, however, the confidence and promise of the early years of his administration had largely disappeared; the balance of payments was again in deficit with seemingly no coherent economic strategy to deal with things, the cancellation of Britains nuclear missile programme Blue Streak and the subsequent acquisition of American systems dealt a blow to national prestige, whilst the Profumo scandal undermined the governments moral authority.
A further threat was offered to Macmillans administration over the vexed question of Britains relationship with Europe, perhaps the most important issue of the day. At the beginning of Macmillans premiership Britain still regarded her self as a first rate world power able to provide a unique bridge between continental Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth. By the time Harold Wilson became Prime Minister serious questions were being raised about the reality of this perception and a growing section of governmental opinion began to look to Europe and the common market as the only guarantor of Britains future prosperity. Although this debate was not settled until 1972 when Britain became a full member of the EEC, it was during this period that the ground work was laid, the issues first raised, and the consequences considered.
Despite his promising start as Prime Minister, by the time that Macmillan felt compelled to resign in 1963 on health grounds, his popularity, and that of the Conservative Party, had sharply declined. The appointment of Douglas-Home as his replacement did nothing to boost the Tories popularity and just served to highlight their old fashioned outlook when compared to the Labour Party, enjoying a spell of unity under its new leader Harold Wilson and trumpeting its modernity. Thus thirteen years of Conservative rule were ended in October 1964 when Wilson lead his party back into office with a narrow win at the polls.
This collection of documents provides an excellent opportunity to see at first hand how these crucial issues were dealt with by the governments of the day; they highlight the differences of opinion within the highest reaches of government and the various options considered before major decisions were taken. The Cabinet Minutes and Memoranda in Part 4 of this series contain documents covering such themes as:
- The European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA)
- The Treaty of Rome, the EEC and EURATOM
- The British Economy - "Youve never had it so good"
- Rising living standards, expectations and inflation
- The cancellation of the Blue Streak missile programme and the decision to buy the American Skybolt system
- The cancellation of the Skybolt programme by the US government
- The Nassau Agreement and the British acquisition of the Polaris missile system
- The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis
- Anglo-American relations
- The nuclear test ban treaty
- Decolonisation and the Commonwealth
- Foreign relations
- President Kennedy
Whether used on their own, or in conjunction with other parts of the series, this collection of Cabinet Conclusions and Memoranda will prove invaluable to all serious scholars of modern British politics and history. These documents also provide an excellent complement to other governmental records from the Public Record Office such as Treasury Papers and Foreign Office Files.