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Home, Alexander Frederick [Alec] Douglas-, fourteenth earl of Home and Baron Home of the Hirselunlocked

  • Douglas Hurd

Alexander Frederick Douglas- Home, fourteenth earl of Home and Baron Home of the Hirsel (1903–1995)

by Vivienne, 1950s

Home, Alexander Frederick [Alec] Douglas-, fourteenth earl of Home (disclaimed for life) and Baron Home of the Hirsel (1903–1995), prime minister, was born in London on 2 July 1903, the first child in a family of five sons and two daughters of Charles Cospatrick Archibald Douglas-Home, thirteenth earl of Home (1873–1951), and his wife, Lilian, née Lambton (1881–1966), second daughter of Frederick William Lambton, fourth earl of Durham. In 1918, on his grandfather's death, he became Lord Dunglass, the courtesy title of the eldest son of the earl of Home. His father had inherited two Scottish estates amounting to 100,000 acres, divided between the Hirsel on the Tweed in Berwickshire and Douglas in Lanarkshire. The thirteenth earl, a likeable and straightforward man, was no politician and advised his eldest son against a political career. The duties and pleasures which befell the twenty-fifth largest landowner in the country were in his view ample to fill a normal lifetime. Although he ignored this advice, Home never abandoned or strayed far in his thoughts from the border country in which he was brought up. The knowledge of the countryside which he acquired as a boy was fundamental to his later life and loyalties. The flight of birds, the moods of a river, the lie of a hill, the changes of the sky were familiar and dear to him throughout his life, and are well caught in Suzie Malin's portrait (1980) in the National Portrait Gallery. From the same source came a strong sense of family, and an easy self-confidence which showed itself in consideration for others. The three most courteous men I knew in politics were Lord Home, King Hussein of Jordan, and President Nelson Mandela. All three had ease of birth, in the sense that they never needed to worry about who they themselves were and so had more time to concern themselves with the feelings of others.

Childhood and youth

Although the family's history was in Scotland, there was nothing narrow about its perspective. The heir to the earldom was born in a specially rented house in London, the imperial capital, that being the custom of the time. His preparatory school (Ludgrove), his public school (Eton College), and his university (Oxford) were all in the south of England, in accordance with the family tradition. At Eton he coincided with an entirely different kind of boy, Cyril Connolly, who produced an early example of those exposés of public school life which became somewhat tedious as the century wore on. In Enemies of Promise (1938) Connolly vividly described Alec Dunglass:

He was a votary of the esoteric Eton religion, the kind of graceful tolerant sleepy boy who is showered with favours and crowned with all the laurels, who is liked by the masters and admired by the boys without any apparent exertion on his part, without experiencing the ill effect of success himself or arousing the pangs of envy in others. In the eighteenth century he would have become Prime Minister before he was thirty; as it was he appeared honourably ineligible for the struggle of life.

Connolly, 294

Little in Dunglass's record at Eton or Oxford contradicted this verdict. He distinguished himself at cricket, taking four Harrow wickets at Lord's for thirty-seven runs on a rain-sodden pitch in his last year before a crowd of about 20,000. He moved smoothly up the ladder to become president of Pop, the self-elected society whose members wore coloured waistcoats and were at that time, according to Connolly, the true rulers of Eton. At Christ Church he was tutored by J. C. Masterman, an important and long-lasting influence. He managed only a third-class degree in history (in 1925), hampered partly by illness but to a greater extent by a range of non-academic activities, which included hunting, cricket, bridge, and champagne, of which cricket remained the most important. He did not bother with the debates of the Oxford Union.

But something had been stirring beneath that pleasant and easy-going surface. Years later Home wrote an airy account of his life called The Way the Wind Blows (1976), a book full of anecdotes about politicians, grouse, and salmon. With one or two exceptions it did not probe deep into the author's emotion. But near the beginning of the book Home described his father's departure for Gallipoli in 1915 with the Lanarkshire yeomanry. The earl took his son down to London from Scotland for the start of his prep school term at Ludgrove. Father and son spent the night in a hotel, parting at bedtime because the earl had to leave early for Southampton next morning to join his regiment. 'I shall never forget the long night of agony in the King's Cross Station Hotel which I somehow came through; squeezed of all emotion but fear and rage at the folly to which man could descend.' This is strong stuff for a lad of twelve, but no one who knew Home could doubt its truth. 'Ever since then, while I revere the patriot, I have detested the jingo tub-thumper, the narrow nationalist and the advocates and practitioners of violence' (Home, 43).

Early career in politics

After Oxford, Dunglass toured South America playing cricket for the MCC before returning to Scotland to pick up the threads of a laird's traditional life—the Boys' Brigade, the yeomanry, Burns clubs, and nine 20-pound salmon in one morning. But for a perceptive young man these activities so close to the central belt of Scotland could not be separated from the experience of many fellow Scots nearby who were losing their jobs in coal and shipbuilding. Against his father's wishes Dunglass became involved in politics. It might seem from the background so far described that his loyalties would automatically be tory, but that would be to misread both the man and his family. His mother was a Liberal by instinct, his father unpolitical, and much of his early admiration went to Lloyd George, who was entering the sunset of his own political career as a powerful advocate of strong measures against unemployment. But these choices, then as now, often depend on the luck of direct personal magnetism. Dunglass was drawn into the circle of an up-and-coming Scottish Conservative, Noel Skelton, MP for Perth. Skelton was a contemporary and friend of Anthony Eden. It was Skelton who in one of the essays published in his book Constructive Conservatism (1924) coined the phrase 'property owning democracy', which Eden later made his own. If he had not died of cancer in 1935 Skelton would have been a leading figure alongside Eden, Butler, and Macmillan in the post-war renaissance of the Conservative Party. Skelton encouraged Dunglass to fight the 1929 election as the Conservative candidate for Coatbridge, a mining town 10 miles east of Glasgow. Labour had held the seat in 1924 and the tide in Scotland had swung markedly towards Labour since then. So it was no surprise that Dunglass was defeated. An uncertain apprentice in public speaking, he had a rough time from hecklers. He lost decisively, but was not deterred. Not for the last time, luck was on his side. Almost at once the more promising, though narrowly Labour seat of Lanark lost its Conservative candidate, and Dunglass was adopted. He was swept into the House of Commons in the landslide of 1931, standing as a National Unionist. He was immediately asked by Skelton, now a junior minister at the Scottish Office, to serve as his unpaid parliamentary private secretary.

So in his late twenties the form of Dunglass's Conservatism was set. It remained unchanged through his life. He valued deeply the traditional values into which he had been bred. At the same time he was a shrewd observer of reality, of the way the wind was blowing. He distrusted abstract philosophizing, whether of left or right. He had no rigid devotion to the free market or to any other economic or social creed. He disagreed with those who regarded each ditch as the one in which they had to die. He favoured defence in depth, believing that Conservatives should use their traditional skills not to avert change but to guide it. Thus he believed that Churchill was wrong in the early 1930s to oppose the constitutional concessions in India. At different times in his career he favoured a degree of protection for industry, an elected Scottish assembly, and the banning of the hereditary peerage from the House of Lords. During his premiership in 1963–4 he was caricatured by the left as an unthinking reactionary, but the facts of his career speak otherwise.

Chamberlain and Munich

That career moved decisively forward in February 1936 when Dunglass was appointed parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, who kept him in that position when he succeeded Baldwin as prime minister the following year. Chamberlain excelled in the competent transaction of business, a political talent which Dunglass valued highly and practised when he himself briefly became prime minister. But Chamberlain lacked the personal charm which makes competent administration palatable to wayward colleagues—a gift which his parliamentary private secretary possessed in abundance. He developed a strong admiration for the prime minister, tacked on to the loyalty which he would have shown anyway. The premiership was short and disastrous. Chamberlain took Dunglass with him to his final meeting with Hitler at Munich in September 1938. Dunglass went as an aide-de-camp rather than a policy adviser, and sat in outer rooms while the talks proceeded, eating unwanted food and watching the repeated changes in Goering's uniform. He travelled with Chamberlain on the fateful return journey through London, when the king made the mistake of inviting the prime minister to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, followed by Chamberlain's even greater mistake of proclaiming, quite out of character, 'peace for our time' from his own first-floor window in Downing Street. Dunglass defended the Munich settlement all his life. He believed that there was no possibility of successfully defying Hitler in 1938, and that the year gained was essential for the military preparations which Chamberlain had set in hand. But he was not at the time required to justify Munich in public. In this respect he was luckier than Butler, junior minister at the Foreign Office; the label of Munich was only lightly attached to him in later years. But he accepted immediately a quite different burden, the care of an exhausted prime minister. Chamberlain, walking in the woods at Chequers, suddenly felt that he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Dunglass persuaded his father to issue an invitation, and Chamberlain spent ten days at the Hirsel in October, at first fishing, then shooting, then beginning on the red boxes as the cloud of exhaustion lifted. Dunglass was in charge of the hospitality. This was easy, for he shared to the full Chamberlain's enthusiasms as a naturalist and an outdoor sportsman. Twice in later years, in 1956 and 1963, he had further occasion to support and advise a failing prime minister. 1940 was the bleakest year of his own life. He joined in the bitterness which Chamberlain's supporters felt in the immediate aftermath of his fall in May—a bitterness focused not on Churchill, the new prime minister, but on the raffish types who accompanied him into his office, such as Bracken and Boothby. Dunglass continued to serve Neville Chamberlain in his last and powerless office as lord president of the council. But in the autumn Chamberlain was dead of cancer, and a sudden thunderbolt struck Dunglass. He presented himself for a medical examination in Edinburgh as a prelude to rejoining the Lanarkshire yeomanry for active service. A hole was discovered in his spine surrounded by severe tuberculosis. A new and dangerous operation was performed, after which Dunglass was encased in plaster for nearly two years. For a physically active man, this sentence of almost total immobility during the decisive years of the war was an appalling blow: 'I often felt that I would be better dead' (Home, 86).

Marriage and the Second World War

But there was strong help at hand. Four years earlier, on 3 October 1936, Dunglass had married Elizabeth Hester Alington (1909/10–1990), second daughter of the Very Revd Cyril Argentine Alington, dean of Durham and former headmaster of Eton. They had four children: (Lavinia) Caroline (b. 1937), Meriel Kathleen (b. 1939), Diana Lucy (b. 1940), and David Alexander Cospatrick (b. 1943). The serene success of their marriage, which lasted fifty-four years, was evident to anyone who saw them together or who heard either speak of the other. Elizabeth was gentle and invariably courteous in manner, but there was no doubting her strength, which was exercised in the cause of whatever was straightforward. She rarely expressed strong political views, but her skill as a judge of individuals was added to the native shrewdness of her husband to make a formidable combination. Her support during these two testing years was decisive in securing his recovery. The experience reinforced one of the fundamental facts about his life, namely that his family and its background were more important to him than political success.

Dunglass used his years in plaster to re-educate himself. He read books for which there had been no time during the cheerful years of champagne and cricket at Christ Church. It was a turning point. No one who knew him would suppose that the reading list was entirely solemn; characteristically in his autobiography he provides a long list of novelists whom he devoured, beginning with John Buchan and ending with Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. But these were overshadowed by Marx, Engels, Dostoyevsky, and Koestler, together with the classics of nineteenth-century English political biography. On this reading he built an unpretentious but solid foundation of belief which went deeper than politics. He thought about the religion which he had hitherto taken for granted, one result being the declaration of faith which appeared rather unexpectedly in the middle of his autobiography. He called this 'a weak witness of Christianity' (Home, 81–2), but in fact it was a firm though modest statement based on God the creator and the two commandments of Christ. Perhaps no other modern politician could convincingly have slipped such a chapter into a book about family, sport, and politics.

At this time another theme took deep root in Dunglass's mind—partly from his reading, partly from a friendship formed during his illness with a Count Starzenski, who was serving as a tank gunner after escaping from Poland, where he had worked before the war as private secretary to the foreign minister. The books and his new Polish friend persuaded him that the main threat to Britain after the defeat of Hitler would be Soviet imperialism. Nothing which happened during his later career shook this well-researched conviction, which he had formed well before it became fashionable and which became the mainspring of many of his later decisions on foreign policy.

After his recovery and return to parliament in 1944 Dunglass found early evidence to justify his suspicions. He was bold enough to criticize the Yalta agreement in the Commons because it transferred Polish territory to the Soviet Union and fell short of elementary standards in international behaviour. Churchill bore no grudge and appointed Dunglass as under-secretary at the Foreign Office in the caretaker government of summer 1945. The prospect of a period of steady work in what had become his main interest was shattered when he lost Lanark by nearly 2000 votes in the Labour landslide of July 1945.

Opposition and office

For the next five years Dunglass relapsed, without complaint, into the kind of life which would naturally have been his had he never felt the pull of politics. A directorship of the Bank of Scotland, a few articles in the press, increasing care of the two Scottish estates as his father grew old—to these he added continued cultivation of the Lanark constituency. In the general election of February 1950 his persistence was rewarded when he recaptured the seat by 685 votes. The sitting member, Tom Steele, had five years earlier written to the Daily Worker thanking the local communists for their support. A connection which had seemed harmless in 1945 looked more sinister in 1950; Dunglass republished the letter and exploited it to the full. This was a legitimate election tactic, but it showed what was sometimes forgotten, that beneath the surface of a gentle, even simple manner he possessed the instincts of a shrewd political operator.

Once again the road of a promising career in the Commons was open, but once again it was blocked. Dunglass had to give up his newly regained seat when he became the fourteenth earl of Home on his father's death in July 1951. By now his main patron was James Stuart, a chief whip of legendary skill who was the leading political figure in Scotland, becoming secretary of state when the Conservatives won the election of October 1951. Churchill took little interest in junior ministerial appointments and Stuart had no difficulty in allocating to Home the new post of minister of state at the Scottish Office. His work lay in Scotland rather than the House of Lords, and must have been thoroughly enjoyable. For this was a golden age of Conservative strength in Scotland based on political and economic contentment, before the collapse of traditional industries and the resurgence of nationalism. Home built up a reputation for steady good sense and skill in handling people, which led the next prime minister, Anthony Eden, to promote him to the cabinet as Commonwealth secretary in April 1955. Eden understood that the usefulness of the Commonwealth depended not on any pretensions to political or economic strength as an institution but on the personal contacts which enabled it to act as a lubricant in the world's affairs. The Homes undertook a huge tour of the Commonwealth between August and November 1955. But the prime minister who had made such a shrewd appointment dealt the Commonwealth a near fatal blow in the botched Suez enterprise of 1956. As at Munich in 1938, Home was quietly there, near but not quite at the centre of disastrous events. Though himself loyal to Eden, he warned him of the unhappiness of cabinet colleagues, in particular Butler. His correspondence with Eden when the latter fell shows a genuine sadness and sympathy. By the imperceptible process characteristic of British politics he found himself month by month, without any particular manoeuvre on his part, becoming an indispensable figure in the government. Harold Macmillan confirmed him in office, and for the next few years his main preoccupation was to bind up the wounds dealt by Suez to the idea of a modern multiracial Commonwealth. As this task came to an end, another subject began to fill his red boxes, which in turn became the next testing strain for the Commonwealth. The effort spent by British politicians on the future of central Africa between the start of the federation in 1953 and Lord Carrington's final settlement of the Rhodesian question in 1980 was immense. The strains in the federation were becoming formidable while Home was at the Commonwealth Office. He respected and supported the efforts of Roy Welensky to bridge the gap between black aspiration and the interests of the white settlers, but showed no particular passion in anyone's cause. For him it was a matter of managing as decent a transition as possible from British sovereignty to a successor regime. Home worked in close friendship with the colonial secretary, Alan Lennox Boyd, but could never strike up a good relationship with his successor, Ian Macleod. This was a matter of temperament rather than belief. Macleod was a hard, tense, imaginative party politician, far removed from the atmosphere of calm, unintellectual discussion leading to reasonable compromise in which Home naturally thrived.

Foreign secretary

In the summer of 1960 Harold Macmillan wished to transfer his foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd to the Treasury. On grounds of talent and experience Home would have been a natural successor if he had still been in the Commons. There had been no example since the war of a foreign secretary in the Lords. When despite this Macmillan announced Home's appointment as foreign secretary on 27 July, there was an uproar in the press which the Labour Party prolonged with enthusiasm. Like all such artificial commotions it died down after a time (and indeed was not renewed with any strength nineteen years later when Margaret Thatcher appointed another peer, Lord Carrington, to the same post). The argument that the government's foreign policy must be presented in the Commons by a member of the cabinet was met by the promotion of Ted Heath as lord privy seal, based with particular responsibility in the Foreign Office. Thus began a close fifteen-year partnership between Home and Heath which served both men well—indeed, helped each of them to the premiership. Home was as different in character and upbringing from Heath as he was from Macleod, but with Heath his relationship ran smoothly from the start. Neither man lived in the other's pocket nor attempted a social relationship which would have been artificial. But Heath felt and, equally important, required from others a consistent respect for the elder man, and Home gave Heath steady support in the various scrapes in which the latter found himself over the years. Because each had given serious thought to getting the relationship right, Home moved in relation to Heath from superior to subordinate without any serious friction.

During his periods as foreign secretary from 1960 to 1963 and from 1970 to 1974, Home saw himself essentially as a navigator. He did not regard it as his job to scale high peaks and plant his personal flag on them. Rather, his purpose was to steer a vessel without mishap down a river made dangerous by imperfectly charted rocks and rapids. As Commonwealth secretary he was already familiar with the task of managing with skill the decline of the British empire. To this he now added the task of frustrating the attempt of the Soviet Union to dominate the world, which he had foreseen and analysed during his wartime illness. This was the consistent theme which ran through his principal decisions and speeches. He did not believe in noisy diplomacy or theatrical flourishes. Indeed he relished and used the amusements and small adventures of traditional diplomacy. For example, he formed a cautious though friendly relationship with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrey Gromeko. But he wrote:

Such are the amenities of international public life, and they are necessary to sanity. But one must always force oneself to remember—odious and boring though it is—that all Communists are devoted to a single end—victory over every other creed and every other way of life.

Home, 250

Practical examples were not slow to come. Khrushchov as Soviet leader compensated for his relative moderation compared to Stalin with occasional rash and dangerous lunges against the West. In January 1961 he lodged an unprovoked ultimatum against the western portion of Berlin. The West refused to budge. Khrushchov followed in 1962 with the dispatch of missiles to Cuba, an act bound to test to the full the courage of the new American president, John Kennedy. Historians will continue to argue about the importance of the role played by Harold Macmillan and his colleagues in keeping Kennedy steady yet strong during the critical weeks of October 1962. What is not in doubt is Home's role in keeping Macmillan steady. The two men got on well together, but were very different. Macmillan's calm was assumed with difficulty by a skilled actor who knew its importance as a political technique. Beneath his calm at moments of crisis bubbled all manner of anxieties and complex emotion. To Home, by contrast, calm came so naturally that he could effectively communicate it to others. He was not capable of Macmillan's flights of imagination but was by now expert in keeping policy close to the ground, making full use of its contours. The combination worked well. Home earned the respect of skilled practitioners like Dean Rusk, and also of the foreign service. He was customarily brief in speech and on paper. He did not skimp the detailed work in his boxes, but had the gift of extricating from each document the essential point, and communicating a clear decision on what should be done.

Prime minister

The Macmillan administration lost impetus in 1963, becalmed in a sea of satire and scandal. Home was not particularly involved in the Profumo affair. His main enterprise that year was the negotiation and signature in Moscow of the nuclear test ban treaty, one of the most significant staging posts on the road to détente. But he privately advised Harold Macmillan to step down as prime minister before the next election, which had to be held at latest by autumn 1964. Macmillan did not resent this advice from a friend, but it was not welcome; indeed he persuaded himself that Home's real view was that he should stay. There is no need to record here the story of Macmillan's indecision during the autumn of 1963, both as regards his own future and the identity of his successor once illness appeared to force his hand. Clearly Home during most of this period had virtually excluded from his mind the thought that he would or could succeed Macmillan as prime minister. This was not because he doubted his own ability, for in this he always had quiet confidence. Nor was his peerage any longer an obstacle since, as a result of Anthony Wedgwood Benn's efforts, the law had been changed to enable hereditary peers to renounce their titles. But Home, though by now widely respected among those who knew him, was not yet a household name. A general election could not be more than a year away, and the Conservative Party badly needed a well-known leader to rally it from the setbacks of 1963. This might be Hailsham, well qualified as a trumpeter; or Butler, with his subtle intelligence and unrivalled experience; or conceivably Maudling, an up-and-coming new man. At cabinet on 8 October when the succession was discussed Home said that he was not a candidate. This was the only notable occasion in his life when he acted in a way which some criticized later as not honourable. The criticism was unwarranted. What Home said on 8 October was a statement of present fact, not a pledge for the future; but Ian Macleod and Enoch Powell later regarded it as misleading and therefore wrong. Events moved rapidly. Senior members of the party began to put it into Home's mind that he should stand. Luck put cards into his hand. Macmillan charged him as the president that year of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations to tell the party conference at Blackpool on 10 October of Macmillan's decision to resign. This propelled Home to the centre of the stage. His own foreign affairs speech at the conference went well, whereas in different ways Butler and Hailsham mismanaged their own opportunities. The party conference had no say in electing the party leader, but the publicity which it generated influenced the outcome. Meanwhile soundings in the traditional manner were being made among Conservative MPs and peers, and the results reported to Harold Macmillan in his hospital sickbed, so that he could make the decisive recommendation to the queen. Macmillan himself had earlier favoured Hailsham, but doubts about Hailsham's judgement were increased by American unhappiness over the way he had handled his part in the test ban negotiations. The soundings pointed to the less than emphatic conclusion that Home would have less difficulty in forming and carrying on a government than any of his rivals. Macmillan was content with this, and advised the queen to ask Home to form a government, which she did on 18 October. He had already checked with his doctor that his health could stand the strain. By another stroke of luck the safe Commons seat of Kinross and West Perthshire was vacant. The remaining hazard was that Butler would refuse to join a Home government and so make his task impossible. Macleod and Powell were for this reason anxious that Butler should indeed refuse; but Butler, true to his own tradition of diffident but determined public service, agreed to serve as foreign secretary. Home became prime minister on 18 October 1963. Five days later he disclaimed his peerage for life, becoming Sir Alec Douglas-Home (having been made a knight of the Thistle the previous year).

The twelve months of Home's premiership were not dramatic in British history. The prime minister scaled no peaks; his vessel hit no rocks. The most striking world event was the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Home had worked well with Kennedy but found it hard to build a relationship with his successor, Lyndon Johnson; indeed the two governments staged a substantial row on the issue of British trade with Cuba. Rhodesian affairs drifted slowly in the wrong direction. The Commonwealth prime ministers met in London. In domestic as well as foreign affairs the prime minister was quietly competent in the transaction of business. The main argument of substance concerned Heath's proposal to abolish retail price maintenance. The plan roused fierce opposition inside the Conservative Party, many of whose members thought it folly to antagonize small shopkeepers in the run-up to a general election. Heath showed his determination. Home would almost certainly not have originated the measure himself, but he was persuaded of its merits, and Heath had served him well. As a result Home staunchly supported his colleague. Thus the first and one of the most important acts of liberalizing the British economy, in a series later known as ‘Thatcherite’, was carried through by Heath and Home, neither of whom rate in the history books as disciples of Margaret Thatcher.

But the main preoccupation of British politicians was the forthcoming election. Everything pointed to a substantial Labour victory. Labour was led with skill, sometimes with brilliance, by Harold Wilson. The Conservatives had been in office for thirteen years. They were caricatured as old-fashioned and upper class; they seemed to play into the hands of their opponents by choosing a grouse-shooting earl as their leader. Home had once admitted that he used matchsticks to do his sums; Wilson promised in contrast to mobilize for Britain the white heat of the technological revolution. Home disliked television appearances and found the quarrelsome noise of the House of Commons distasteful, whereas Wilson thrived on both. But when the contest came, right up against the deadline of October 1964, it did not go entirely as expected. The campaign was noisy, and the prime minister fared particularly badly at the hands of hecklers in the Bull Ring at Birmingham. Labour won, but narrowly, winning 317 seats against the Conservatives' 304. It was enough, but not a walkover, and the Conservative Party was not demoralized as in 1945 and 1997. During his premiership Home had gradually asserted himself as an honourable leader, albeit in an unfashionable tradition. The poisons of 1963 slowly drained out of British political life in 1964, making possible a straightforward election with no backdrop of scandal or what was later called sleaze. Home's decent, matter-of-fact premiership helped to bring this about, and his riposte to Harold Wilson gained him a place in the quotation books and scored a palpable hit: 'As far as the fourteenth Earl is concerned, I suppose Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the fourteenth Mr Wilson' (Oxford Book of Quotations).

Opposition, and return to the Foreign Office

But a defeat was a defeat. Back in opposition Home quickly changed the rules for electing a Conservative leader. He responded to the widespread criticism of the secretive way in which he himself had been chosen in 1963 by what Macleod in a famous Spectator article had called the 'magic circle'. The new rules, which placed the power firmly and openly with Conservative MPs, lasted with one revision until they were in turn criticized after the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Home did not at once resign as leader of the Conservative Party. Many of his friends as well as his wife wanted him to continue. But the criticisms which he had felt bound to endure while governing the country became intolerable to him once that responsibility had passed. 'My reaction', he wrote, 'was boredom with the whole business' (Home, 220). On 22 July 1965 he told the 1922 committee of the parliamentary party that he intended to step down. Ted Heath was elected to succeed him under the new rules. Home served as shadow foreign secretary during the following five years of opposition, travelling the world, maintaining his foreign contacts, and wrestling as president of the MCC with the baleful influence of apartheid on the aborted English cricket tour of South Africa. Returning to his earlier involvement in Scottish politics, he supported Heath's declaration at Perth in favour of devolution and chaired a commission which produced a plan for a Scottish assembly. Much pain and damage to the union would have been avoided if the Heath government had later acted on that report.

Home was by now the unrivalled elder statesman of the Conservative Party. His appearance at each year's party conference was greeted with tumultuous applause, in which guilt mingled with affection. Senior members of the shadow cabinet turned to him in early June 1970 when it looked as if Labour would win a third election victory in a row, an outcome which would have condemned Heath to failure and compelled him to resign as leader. Home refused to discuss the issues in advance, and Heath confounded all expert opinion by winning a satisfactory majority on 18 June. Home returned with pleasure to a second stint at the Foreign Office.

As during Home's previous tenure of that office between 1960 and 1963, Britain's desire to enter the European Economic Community quickly came to the fore of events. Once again Home had alongside him a fellow cabinet minister, this time Geoffrey Rippon, who handled the actual negotiations under the active supervision of the prime minister. But Home was more than a bystander. By temperament and background he was some distance removed from Heath's passionate commitment to a united Europe. All the more important was his steadfast support for British entry, which he based on a clear assessment of Britain's place in the modern world, and in particular her relationship with France and Germany on the one hand and the United States on the other. Home brought the traditional analysis of Foreign Office diplomacy to bear on the European issue, and reached the same conclusion as Heath by another route, thus providing the right of the Conservative Party with much needed assurance. Otherwise his main concerns at the Foreign Office were again the Soviet Union and Africa. In September 1971, after much unproductive correspondence with Gromeko, Home created a sensation by expelling 105 Soviet spies from Britain. This worked well. The KGB suffered a heavy blow and the roof did not fall in on Britain's relationship with the Soviet Union. Largely as a result of his efforts a compromise agreement was reached with Ian Smith, the rebel white prime minister of Rhodesia, which would have led in stages to African majority rule. To Home's great disappointment a commission led by Lord Pearce reported in May 1972 that most Africans rejected the proposals, which then fell.


After Heath's defeat in the election of February 1974 Home's active political career came to an end. He accepted a life peerage, as Baron Home of the Hirsel, in October 1974, and re-entered the House of Lords. Two years later he published a good-natured autobiography, with perhaps more anecdotes than insights, which he called The Way the Wind Blows; it was an instant success. As the years passed he spent more time in Scotland, with his family and the country pursuits which gave spice to his life. There was no sudden moment when he abandoned politics, but his interventions became fewer and fewer. In 1990 his wife died two months before her eighty-first birthday. The gap thus torn in his life could never be repaired. Margaret Thatcher rightly wrote: 'Goodness and kindness radiated from Elizabeth to all the people she came in contact with' (Thorpe, 460). For five years he lived on at the Hirsel, well nursed and cared for, but with the light gradually fading. He died of bronchopneumonia at the Hirsel at the age of ninety-two on 9 October 1995.

Home was the fourteenth earl of Home, the thirteenth prime minister of this country to be educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and the eighteenth prime minister to be educated at Eton. Such a combination, surprising at the time, has become even less probable. Home represented the last flowering of a highly sympathetic tradition of political service based on a mixture of patriotic duty, personal ambition, and inherited land. During the frenetic days of October 1963 Macmillan had written a private memorandum in hospital which he never sent to the queen but which expressed frankly his views on the different men who might succeed him. His comments on Home will serve as a summary:

Lord Home is clearly a man who represents the old governing class at its best … He is not ambitious in the sense of wanting to scheme for power, although not foolish enough to resist honour when it comes to him … He gives that impression by a curious mixture of great courtesy, and even if yielding to pressure, with underlying rigidity on matters of principle … This is exactly the quality that the class to which he belongs have at their best because they think about the question under discussion and not about themselves.

Thorpe, 301


  • Lord Home, The way the wind blows (1976)
  • J. Dickie, The uncommon commoner: a study of Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1964)
  • E. Hughes, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1964)
  • K. Young, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1970)
  • D. R. Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home (1996)
  • C. Connolly, Enemies of promise (1938)
  • The Times (10 Oct 1995)
  • The Guardian (10 Oct 1995)
  • The Independent (10 Oct 1995)
  • Daily Telegraph (10 Oct 1995)
  • The Scotsman (10 Oct 1995)
  • WWW, 1991–5
  • d. cert.


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton
  • Bodl. RH, corresp. with Sir R. R. Welensky and papers relating to Rhodesia
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir
  • U. Birm. L., corresp. with Lord Avon


  • Vivienne, photograph, 1950–59, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Arnold, bromide print, 1964, NPG
  • J. Musgrave-Wood, pen-and-ink, 1967, NPG
  • A. Newman, print, 1978, NPG
  • S. Malin, oils, 1980, NPG
  • A. Arikha, portrait, 1988, Scot. NPG
  • M. Cummings, pen-and-ink, NPG
  • W. Papas, pen-and-ink, NPG
  • W. Weist, pen-and-ink, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • photograph, repro. in The Scotsman
  • photographs, repro. in Lord Home, Way the wind blows

Wealth at Death

£430,296.61: confirmation, 27 Feb 1996, CCI

National Register of Archives, private collection
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Bodleian Library, Oxford
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, Oxford
National Portrait Gallery, London
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
University of Birmingham Library