British Conservative Politician and Prime Minister (1963-1964)
Born 1903 Died 1995
Alec Douglas-Home was the the Member of Parliament for Lanark (1931-1945 and 1950-1951) and Kinross and West Perthshire (1963-1974) who at other times sat in the House of Lords as the Earl of Home (1951-1963) and again as Baron Home of the Hirsel (1974-1995). He was a cabinet minister under both Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, being briefly Prime Minister in the period 1963 to 1964, and later returned to government as Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath.
Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home was born on the 2nd July 1903, the eldest son and first of seven children of Charles Cospatrick Douglas-Home, 13th Earl of Home and Lillian Lambton, the second daughter of Frederick William Lambton, 14th Earl of Durham. Although nominally Scottish (his father's Scottish estates amounting to some 100,000 acres and made him the twenty-fifth largest landowner in the country), he was born in London, and was educated at Ludgrove Preparatory School, followed by Eton College where he was president of Pop, and Christ Church, Oxford where he read history and graduated with a third-class degree.
At one time it seemed as if the future 14th Earl of Home might be destined for a sporting career. At Eton he was one of the victorious pair in the annual fives match with Harrow in 1922 and in the same year played in rain-affected Eton-Harrow cricket match where he scored 66 runs, and "took 4 for 37 with his medium-paced out-swingers". He later played a total of ten first-class cricket matches, with a batting average of 16.33 and took 12 wickets at 30.25, playing for a variety of teams including Middlesex, Oxford University, H.D.G. Leveson Gower's XI, the Free Foresters, Harlequins, and the MCC with whom he toured South America under Pelham Warner in 1926-27. The former England captain Gubby Allen, who was at school with him at Eton, described him as "a distinctly good slipper, as well as a useful awayswing bowler and a determined bat." Notwithstanding Allen's opinion and his recognised ability to bat on wet pitches, the view was that he was not quite good enough to have made it as a regular county player. Perhaps it was in recognition of this fact that Douglas-Home turned his attention to politics.
Political Career 1929-1945
Although his father had advised him against a political career, that was nevertheless the choice that he made. Inspired by an up-and-coming Scottish Conservative named Noel Skelton (who amongst other things invented the phrase 'property owning democracy' and might well have gone on to greater things had he not died on cancer in 1935) Alec stood as the Conservative candidate for Coatbridge in the 1929 General Election. He was comprehensively beaten, but nonetheless later won selection for the more marginal Labour held seat of Lanark, where he was successful during the Conservative landslide of 1931, and made his maiden speech on the 15th February 1932 in support of the second reading of the Imports Bill.
His first real government position came in February 1936 when he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, a position that he retained when Chamberlain became Prime Minister in the following year. As such he was present during the various negotiations with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini between 1937 and 1939, and was therefore intimately involved in the policy of appeasement. (And was indeed a staunch defender of the Munich settlement for the remainder of his life.) He
continued to serve Chamberlain even after his fall from power as a result of the Norway debate of May 1940 until the latter died of cancer in the autumn of 1940.
Alec then volunteered for active service only to discover at his medical examination that he was suffering from spinal tuberculosis and required immediate surgery. As a result he spent a whole two years in plaster and took no part in the war. His enforced convalescence provided him with the opportunity to read and he devoured the collective works of the likes of John Buchan, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, but also familiarised himself with the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as establishing both his faith in Christianity and his conviction that Soviet imperialism would be the major threat to Britain at the conclusion of the war.
Although he returned to the House of Commons his prior connection with Chamberlain and appeasement hardly recommended him to Winston Churchill as suitable for office and he therefore remained on the bankbenches where he was one of the twenty-five MPs who protested against the agreement reached at the Yalta conference which placed Poland within the Soviet sphere of influence.
Political career 1945-1963
With the break up of the wartime coalition in May 1945 Alec was appointed Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs during the brief Conservative administration that survived until the
Labour landslide at the General Election of July 1945. Indeed he was one of the election's many casualties, and lost his seat at Lanark. He subsequently became director of the Bank of Scotland and spent much of his time helping his aging father manage his estates.
He later regained his Lanark seat in the 1950 General Election by the narrow margin of 685 votes, helped by the wide publicity he gave to a letter written by his Labour opponent Tom Steele to the Daily Worker thanking the local communists for their previous support. His vitory was shortlived however as he was forced to relinquish it on the 11th July 1951 when his father died and he was obliged to take his seat in the House of Lords as the 14th Earl of Home.
That year also saw a further election and the return of Winston Churchill at the head of a Conservative government, and thanks to the support of James Stuart, then Secretary of State for Scotland, he was appointed as Minister of State at the Scottish Office in October 1951, and in April 1955 when Anthony Eden became Prime Minister he joined the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. He was later made Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords in 1957, and then three years later in July 1960 Harold Macmillan made him Foreign Secretary.
His appointment as Foreign Secretary caused something of a controversy as large sections of the media and the Labour Party regarded it as a constitutional outrage that a peer should be appointed to one of the great offices of state. The main result of this fuss being that Macmillan brought a certain Edward Heath into the cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, specifically to speak for the Foreign Office in the Commons to mollify some of the critics. In office Alec pursued the policy of establishing an independent British nuclear deterrent, whilst he was also involved in the negotiations of the nuclear test ban treaty.
When Harold Macmillan resigned in October 1963, Douglas-Home emerged as his successor in somewhat controversial circumstances and much to the discomforture of his rivals; specifically Quintin Hogg, then the Viscount Hailsham, who was under the impression that he was Macmillan's choice of successor, and Rab Butler who felt that he would have been the party's choice had it been allowed to make one.
Party Leader 1963-1965
Home became Prime Minister on the 18th October 1963, and thus became the first peer to hold the office of Prime Minister since the Marquess of Salisbury in 1895. Circumstances had however changed since 1895, and it was no longer acceptable for a member of the House of Lords to hold that particular office, and five days later he took advantage of the Peerage Act 1963 and disclaimed his peerage for life. Fortunately there was a vacancy at the reasonably safe seat of Kinross and West Perthshire and the previously selected Conservative candidate stood down in his favour, and he was reurned at the by-election.
He took over the premiership at a particularly difficult time for the government. Having won a notable victory in the 1959 General Election the Macmillan administration had later became tainted by a series of espionage scandals, most recently the Vassal and Profumo affairs. Douglas-Home thus faced an uphill struggle to convince the British electorate to re-elect a Conservative government once more. His opposite number Harold Wilson made much of Douglas-Home's status as the '14th Earl of Home' and questioned how anyone from such a sheltered aristocratic background know of the problems of ordinary families; whilst Wilson also made much of his of his unfortunate remark back in 1962; "I could never be prime minister. I do my sums with matchsticks". Douglas-Home retorted by referring to the '14th Mr Wilson' and did his best to poke fun at Wilson's own pretensions. As it turned out Douglas-Home was to be Prime Minister for a mere 362 days, as Wilson and the Labour Party went on to victory in the General Election of October 1964, but the margin of victory was comparatively small and Labour was left with a slim majority of only four seats, which was far below their earlier expectations.
"I have no regrets and shall enjoy my future life"
Douglas-Home continued to lead the opposition until he suddenly announced his resignation to the 1922 Committee on the 22nd July 1965. Following the discontent expressed at the method of his own elevation in 1963, he had earlier implemented a new procedure for the selection of a new party leader by means of a ballot of members of the parliamentary party. In the event the favourite Reginald Maudling lost out to Edward Heath, and Douglas-Home thereafter remained loyal to Heath, serving as his Shadow Foreign Secretary until 1970 when he returned to government as Foreign Secretary in 1974.
As Foreign Secretary he made attempts to solve the problem of Rhodesia, he had little direct input in the major foreign issue of the day, being Britain's proposed membership of the European Economic Community, which was left in the hands of Heath himself and his chief negotiator Geoffrey Ripon. Indeed it does not seem as if he was over-burdened with work, his Permanent Under-Secretary of the time later spoke of how his "desk was usually clear of official papers" whilst at "his right hand was a copy of Ruff's Guide to the Turf".
Following Heath's defeat at the February 1974 General election he decided to stand down from the Commons and left the House at the October 1974 General election. He soon returned to Parliament however being created a life peer as the Baron Home of Hirsel in the following year and regularly attended the House of Lords for the next twenty years, although he kept well clear of political controversy. He wrote his autobiography, The Way the Wind Blows (1976), which has been described as "a book full of anecdotes about politicians, grouse, and salmon", but was otherwise largely free of any political insights or juicy gossip, and later died of bronchopneumonia at his home in the Hirsel at the age of ninety-two on the 9th October 1995.
He was married on the 3rd October 1936 to Elizabeth Hester Alington, the daughter of his old Eton headmaster, the Very Reverend Cyril Argentine Alington, dean of Durham. They had four children, three daughters Lavinia Caroline, Meriel Kathleen, and Diana Lucy, and a son David Alexander Cospatrick who succeeded as the 15th Earl of Home. It was said that he never recovered from his wife's death in 1990 and "was lost without her".
Unfortunately whether as the Lord Home or plain Alec Douglas-Home, he always suffered something of a mixed press, as he looked and sounded as if he was a cartoon caricature of an aristocrat. Richard Ingrams once described him as an "half-witted earl who looked and behaved like something out of P.G. Woodhouse" whilst Bernard Levin bluntly called him a "cretin". However as his obituary in the Daily Telegraph noted he "was the most courteous and considerate of men", made few political enemies and was generally well-liked and respected by his contemporaries.
As the heir to the title of Earl of Home from 1918 onwards, he was known under the courtesy title of the Lord Dunglass, or as Alec Dunglass, and when he later succeeded his father as the 14th Earl of Home in 1951 he became commonly known as the Lord Home. However he disclaimed that title in 1964 in accordance with the terms of the Peerage Act 1963, which allowed every hereditary peer, as a transitional measure, to disclaim his title within twelve months of the passage of the Act. Thereafter he became known as plain Alec Douglas-Home, which state of affairs continued until he was created a life peer on the 19th December 1974 as the Baron Home of the Hirsel, and he became known as the Lord Home once more.
- For his cricketing career see
- Douglas-Home, Alexander Frederick, Baron Home of the Hirsel
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia® Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press.
- Tributes to the late Lord Home of the Hirsel from Hansard 16 Oct 1995
- Biographies of Sir Alec Douglas-Home:
- Douglas Hurd, ‘Home, Alexander Frederick Douglas-, fourteenth earl of Home and Baron Home of the Hirsel (1903–1995)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004