The Night of the Long Knives

BBC Radio 4

50 years ago, Harold Macmillan instigated a purge that shocked British politics to its core. It was the most dramatic government reshuffle in modern history. In one evening he sacked seven members of his Cabinet including his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd. It had meant to be a show of strength but to everyone else, it was a catastrophic admission of weakness signalling the beginning of the end of his premiership and Tory party leadership.

In the late 50s, Macmillan had earned the nickname “Supermac” for rescuing the country from the wake of Suez and ushering in a period of unrivalled affluence. But by Local Elections had gone badly and the by-elections worse. The government’s tight economic policies, thanks to Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, were unpopular with the voters. Selwyn Lloyd’s attempts to keep both inflation and wages under control had led to public sector wages being frozen. Nurses and teacher were getting poorer whilst the rich were getting richer. The public was furious, and Macmillan was feeling the pressure. The Cabinet was fractious and there were complaints of a lack of leadership. He had to make an example of his Chancellor. The “Night of the long knives” had begun.

In modern politics these events have become shorthand for a botched reshuffle. The scale of the event has never been repeated since, not least because of the rift it caused in the Conservative party.   But the tension between a PM and the Chancellor remains – it will be as true today between Cameron and Osborne as it was between MacMillan and Lloyd.

Through a combination of archive material and original interviews with historians and eyewitnesses such as Jonathan Aitken  who as private secretary to Selwyn Lloyd was witness to the drama that night. And he kept a hitherto unknown diary.

Producer: Kati Whitaker

A Juniper Connect production for BBC Radio 4.