Alexander Macmillan is the second Earl of Stockton who succeeded to the title when his grandfather, the first Earl, Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963 died in 1986, his father, Maurice Macmillan, having predeceased him. He has enjoyed a career as a crime journalist, a war correspondent, an MEP, a member of the House of Lords and ran the family publishing firm Macmillan until he sold it to the German Holtzbrinck group putting him firmly in the Sunday Times Rich list. He maintains an active interest in politics as a local councillor. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting him with a group of local businessmen and hearing him talk of his life and times.
He was born in 1943 in the Macmillan family home when a Luftwaffe bomber, on its way to attack Liverpool, was hit by an RAF fighter and had to shed its bombs thus extinguishing the electricity supply. Alexander arrived in the world by lamplight. He was educated at Eton, the University of Paris and at the then new University of Strathclyde. His first job was on the Glasgow Herald where he learnt under the redoubtable George Macdonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman books. Fraser taught him all the tricks of the trade such as how to scoop. It seems that you would go and get the story with all your rival journalists, run fastest to the nearest phone box in those pre-mobile phone days, phone in the story, remove the diaphragm from inside the mouthpiece and then sidle off while your rivals went looking for another phone box.
He then joined the Daily Telegraph in London as a crime correspondent. This was the time of the gang wars between the Krays and the Richardsons and Macmillan used an illegal police radio to get his stories. Travelling with a photographer his car got to The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel just after the first police squad car and before the second. Inside the pub 90 good people had been drinking but not one of them saw Ronnie Kray shoot and kill George Cornell.
He was then sent as a war correspondent to cover various conflicts, Biafra, India-Pakistan, Yom Kippur and Vietnam. In every case he was covering the losing side. In Vietnam he was shot in the rear and was hospitalised. An American General came round the wards with a tray of medals. If Alexander had faked an American accent he would have received the Purple Heart but speaking in his unmistakeable Etonian accent the General could hear that he was not American and so he did not get a medal.
He took over from his father the running of the family firm, Macmillan publishing and built it up from £90 million in turnover to £290 million before selling it in two stages in 1995 and 1999 to the Holtzbrink group. The Macmillan publishing house had been founded in 1843 by Daniel and Alexander Macmillan, two brothers from the Isle of Arran. Daniel was the business brain and Alexander laid the literary foundations, publishing such notable authors as Charles Kingsley (1855), Thomas Hughes (1859), Christina Rossetti (1862), Matthew Arnold (1865) and Lewis Carroll (1865). Alfred Tennyson joined the list in 1884, Thomas Hardy in 1886 and Rudyard Kipling in 1890. Other major writers who would be published by Macmillan included W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey, John Maynard Keynes, Hugh Walpole, Margaret Mitchell and C.P. Snow. In addition the firm created such lasting titles as Nature (1869), the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1877) and Sir Robert Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy (1894-99).
But above all the Macmillan family was steeped in politics. As well as Alexander’s famous grandfather one of his grandmothers was a Cavendish and the other a Cecil. His father was MP for Halifax from 1955 to 1964. At every meal, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, politics was discussed. As a teenager Alexander would help his father canvass and has fond memories of Yorkshire humour on the doorstep. On one occasion they were told the grandmother of the house had just died and they could see her if they wished. Taken up stairs Maurice politely commented that the old lady looked very peaceful. “Aye” the householder replied. “But she made a fearful noise when she were alive!”
Alexander has known every President of the US since Eisenhower, every German Chancellor since Adenauer and every President of France since De Gaulle.[i]
The General stayed at the family home when Harold Macmillan was seeking entry into the Common Market for the UK. Alexander recalls his grandmother rushing into the room and demanding of Harold “What are we going to do with the General’s blood?” It turned out that the General was of a rare blood group; well he would be, wouldn’t he? And as he was a target of potential assassination he always travelled with quantities of spare blood that had to be refrigerated. A family conference ensued in which storing the blood in the kitchen refrigerator was rejected as it was feared that the cook would want to make good use of it in puddings and pies. Instead it was kept in a drinks refrigerator by the squash court and a French legionnaire stood guard over it all night.
Alexander’s own political career has not been as distinguished as his father and grandfather but he holds strong views on many issues and, with experience both as an MEP for Bristol and a member of the House of Lords until he was one of the hereditary peers to be kicked out, they are worth listening to. He thinks we’ve got into a terrible muddle over constitutional affairs and, with his Scottish roots, is fearful for the Scots. He thought they would vote with their wallets but because of the nonsense they’ve been hearing from Alex Salmond they may think they’re voting with their wallets and mistakenly vote Yes. Whatever problems Scotland faces Alex Salmond is not the answer. Asked if Scottish independence would be good for the Tories he was adamant that it would not be as the Tories had to reach out to all parts of the country to be a legitimate force in politics.
He is a committed European and points out that there are many Europeans who hold similar misgivings about the direction of the EU as the British, particularly in the East. Most of the Eastern European MEPs are younger because their older counterparts are all Communists. He recalls a young Czech lady MEP saying “My country has been run from Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow. I don’t want it run from Brussels.” Alexander added that regionalism is a growing force in Europe. The Chambers of Commerce for the Pays de Calais and East Kent merged 20 years ago while the Basques of France and Spain have had their own representative in Brussels for a long time.
I asked him as a former publisher what he thought would be the impact of Amazon’s dominance in the long term. He thought it would be mixed. On the one hand Amazon’s demands on margins were crippling, far greater than the supermarkets and chain stores. On the other he thought it encouraged the growth of self-publishing. Once you got a book published on your own and sales reached 2,000 copies or so a publisher would soon pick you up. But he thought that few publishers today took risks. If Thomas Hardy were to turn up now he thought a publisher like Macmillan wouldn’t publish him.
His overall message to all of us was to get engaged. He thought the problems of France, Italy and Spain came largely from a lack of engagement by their peoples. He reminded us of words he attributed to Cincinnatus, the 5th
century BC Roman statesman: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” [ii]