Events, My Dear Boy, Events

Harold Macmillan? Winston Churchill? Adam Raphael? Peter Kellner? Kenneth Fleet? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Public figures around the world have faced major difficulties in 2020. Several decades ago, a powerful British politician experienced a series of setbacks during a period of economic and social upheaval. A journalist asked him to identify the greatest challenge to his administration, and he replied:

Events, my dear boy, events.

Politicians of today may sympathize with this sentiment. Would you please help me to determine the name of the politician and the correct quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Observer” newspaper of London in March 1984. Journalist Adam Raphael attributed the remark to Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1957 and 1963. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Harold Macmillan was once asked what the most troubling problem of his Prime Ministership was. ‘Events, my dear boy, events,’ was his reply.

The phrase “was once asked” suggests that Raphael did not know when the quotation was spoken. Macmillan died in 1986 when he was 92 years old.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1919 statesman Winston Churchill used the phrase “the opposition of events” to express a similar idea: 2

“The task upon Ministers of the Crown at the present time is really a very heavy one indeed. But at any rate, the difficulties we have to face are only the difficulties of circumstances, and the opposition we have to encounter—the only opposition we have to encounter—is the opposition of events. It is well that that should be so, because the tasks are heavy and formidable.”

In November 1985 journalist Peter Kellner writing in “New Statesman” magazine of London attributed to Macmillan a statement that differed slightly from the version in the 1984 citation. The word “my” was omitted: 3

HAROLD MACMILLAN was once asked what had been the greatest influence on his administration when he was Prime Minister. ‘Events, dear boy, events’, he replied.

In October 1989 Kenneth Fleet writing in “The Times” of London also ascribed the remark to Macmillan: 4

Meanwhile, I recall the question put to a previous Tory Prime Minister who had lost his Chancellor: “What, if anything, worries you, Mr Macmillan?”

To which he replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.”

In 1990 Adam Raphael writing in “The Observer” repeated the information he shared in 1984: 5

Harold Macmillan was once asked what was the most difficult thing about being Prime Minister. ‘Events, my dear boy, events,’ he replied.

British quotation expert Nigel Rees noted the paucity of evidence that Macmillan used the phrase under examination. Rees also listed a citation suggesting that Macmillan used an alternative phrase: 6

Macmillan did apparently use the phrase ‘the opposition of events’ to describe ‘the force of punishing happenings unforeseen by any election manifesto’, according to David Dilks, The Office of Prime Minister in Twentieth Century Britain (1993).

In 1997 a piece in “The Guardian” of London attributed the phrase “the opposition of events” to Macmillan: 7

Plainly triumphing at the polls is not enough. What Macmillan called “the opposition of events” has the nasty habit of weevilling the fruits of electoral victory even before they have been fully savoured.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. There is some support for the claim that Harold Macmillan used the expression: “Events, my dear boy, events”. Yet, the first citation located by QI appeared in 1984. Macmillan’s period as U.K. Prime Minister ended in 1963, and he was ninety years old in 1984. So this citation occurs rather late which reduces its probative value. Macmillan may have used the alternative phrase “opposition of events” as claimed by David Dilks who worked with him. But this citation also occurred rather late. Winston Churchill did use the phrase “opposition of events” in 1919.

(Great thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this recurring topic in the July 2020 issue of his newsletter. His discourse led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1984 March 11, The Observer, Mrs T looks out of touch by Adam Raphael, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1919 May 4, The Observer, Mr. Churchill: Heavy and Formidable Tasks Ahead, Quote Page 12, Column 2, London, England. (ProQuest)
  3. 1985 November 1, New Statesman, Why Neil Kinnock has a new spring in his step by Peter Kellner, Start Page 9, Quote Page 9, Column 1, London, England. (ProQuest)
  4. 1989 October 28, The Times, Major faces trial by fire as markets await the answers by Kenneth Fleet, Quote Page 19, Column 7, London, England. (The Times Archive; Gale Primary Sources)
  5. 1990 November 25, The Observer, Maggie’s enemies within by Adam Raphael, Quote Page 13, Column 8, London, England (Newspapers_com)
  6. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Harold Macmillan, Quote Page 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1997 February 4, The Guardian, Bulldog breed by Peter Hennessy, Quote Page 15, Column 3, London, England. (ProQuest)