Harold Macmillan, had a high regard for Macleod's abilities, as was apparent from the assignments which he pushed Macleod's way. In the lead up to the 1959 election Macleod was a key member of the steering committee which planned Conservative campaign strategy, and immediately after it Macmillan appointed him colonial secretary—a post which Macmillan himself called ‘the worst job of all’
Macleod had no previous experience in overseas policy and indeed had never set foot in a colonial territory. But his very lack of experience enabled him to think colonial policy afresh. This he did in accordance with his conviction—reinforced earlier in 1959 by the Hola Camp deaths in Kenya and the disturbances in Nyasaland—that we could no longer continue with the old methods of government in Africa and that meant inexorably a move towards African independence … although it was extremely dangerous to move quickly it would have been far more dangerous to try and hold back the tide of African nationalism.
More succinctly he told Peter Goldman of the Conservative Research Department that he intended to be the last colonial secretary.
In retrospect Macleod perceived himself as having ‘telescoped events rather than created new ones’. His telescoping was done with the general support of the prime minister, who during 1960 was often to be seen in parliament with an arm around Macleod's shoulders; although at times Macmillan was startled by Macleod's speed, and he did not always take Macleod's side in the disputes over central Africa which Macleod had with his ‘balancer’, the much more cautious Commonwealth secretary, Duncan Sandys.
Surveying his ‘dismal inheritance’ in October 1959, Macleod decided that he must grasp the nettle immediately in Kenya and central Africa, where political and racial tensions were running high. He made his first significant policy breakthrough at a Kenya conference early in 1960 by securing the agreement of the African delegates and the more liberal European delegates (whose number included his brother Rhoderick) to a constitution which opened the way to an eventual African majority in the legislature. The tactic of working through political centrists in Kenya was, he knew, ‘a policy that couldn't last for very long … But that doesn't mean in my view that it was necessarily wrong at the time’. As for central Africa, Macleod decided at the outset that the key to making political progress was to bring forward the release of the Nyasaland leader Hastings Banda from detention. His insistence on early release ran counter to the advice of the governor of Nyasaland, the protests of the central African settler politicians, and the views of some of his colleagues, including for a time Macmillan. Indeed, Macleod got his way in cabinet only after threatening resignation. Banda was out within weeks, and the move towards African rule in Nyasaland had effectively begun.
Northern Rhodesia followed. Macleod's dispensation for this territory was, in his own words, ‘incredibly devious and tortuous’, but ‘easily the one I am most proud of’. The Macleod constitution was designed to establish racial parity in the legislature, at least for a time; an arrangement disliked by both Europeans and Africans, but one which, in Macleod's judgement, served to forestall a possible European coup while buying time for further negotiations towards a majoritarian outcome. In the process, of course, the structure of the European-ruled Central African Federation was being steadily weakened.
Macleod's colonial policy made him a much-admired figure among liberal Conservatives, but deeply antagonized the Conservative right. The antagonism became especially apparent during the long battle over the Northern Rhodesian constitution in the first half of 1961. Lord Salisbury famously attacked him as ‘too clever by half’, and as seeking to outwit the settlers by bridge table trickery rather than negotiating in good faith. The attack stung, but as Macleod put it, ‘I took the brutal, but I think practical view that this was an omelette that you couldn't make without breaking eggs and one couldn't be friends with everybody’.
Macleod's work necessitated constant informal discussions and dealings, mainly with visiting colonial politicians, and for this reason he and Eve moved from Enfield to a flat in Sloane Court West. Macleod was never wealthy, and the burden of providing so much hospitality left him considerably out of pocket. Still, his investment hastened many a political deal. One such, which he made with Julius Nyerere, concerned the general shape of a constitution for Tanganyika. Macleod was especially anxious to accelerate the pace in Tanganyika in order to demonstrate that a territory at peace could move just as rapidly as one where violence was threatened.
The demands of east and central Africa meant that Macleod was seldom able to turn his attention to other parts of the colonial empire. He did not play a major part in shaping events in the Far East, the Pacific, south Arabia, or the Mediterranean. Indicatively, he never met the Maltese leader Dom Mintoff. He did, however, develop an interest in the Caribbean, and was for a time persuaded that federation offered the best framework for decolonization there. Later he acknowledged his misjudgement on this issue; ‘I regard the Caribbean as my main area of failure’.
In October 1961 Macmillan moved Macleod from the Colonial Office. By that time the most difficult decisions had been taken and the key precedents set. Further, from Macmillan's point of view it had become more important to restore party consensus than to go on backing a sometimes irritatingly inflexible Macleod against the right wing. Macleod departed gracefully, with a memorable party conference oration in which he presented what he described as his personal declaration of faith: ‘I believe quite simply in the brotherhood of man—men of all races, of all colours, of all creeds. I think it is this that must be in the centre of our thinking’.
Picture courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies Article