Iain MacLeod, UK Chancellor for a month, could have stopped Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister – Brian Wilson

If he had lived, this One Nation Tory could have become Conservative party leader instead of Margaret Thatcher, writes Brian Wilson
Margaret Thatcher in 1977. Two years later, she became Prime Minister (Picture: Roy West)Margaret Thatcher in 1977. Two years later, she became Prime Minister (Picture: Roy West)
Margaret Thatcher in 1977. Two years later, she became Prime Minister (Picture: Roy West)

Fifty years ago on Monday, Iain MacLeod died of a heart attack at the age of 56. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer for barely a month, following Edward Heath’s unexpected victory in the General Election.

Macleod was an unusually interesting politician; the embodiment of the “One Nation Tory” tradition but fiercely partisan in debate. He was an egalitarian in a party dominated by class, his views forged by contact with deep poverty.

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His monumental achievements were as Colonial Secretary in the early 1960s when he faced down most of his own party to move quickly towards majority rule in Africa, thereby avoiding much bloodshed and retaining the goodwill of emerging states.

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The game of “what if…” usually yields as many conclusions as there are players, but remains interesting in Macleod’s case. What if he had lived? Famed for his negotiating skills, he would probably have guided Edward Heath away from disastrous confrontation with the miners. He might well have succeeded Heath as leader, in which case Thatcherism – the antithesis of Macleod’s politics – would have been stillborn.

In short, Macleod’s was one political death that made a difference. Iain Macleod was the son of Lewis parents and spent much of his early life on the island.

His father was a GP who moved to Skipton in Yorkshire but maintained the link by buying Scaliscro Estate on Lewis for £1,000.

In many respects, it remained Iain Macleod’s spiritual home. His biographer, Robert Shepherd, wrote: “Macleod’s crofter, Gaelic and northern origins set him apart as an outsider while giving him a perspective on politics that was the opposite to that of most senior Conservatives”.

Therein, perhaps, lies an urgent lesson for today.

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