In what has suddenly become a series, (I wonder why?), number two of the shortest serving prime ministers is Alec Douglas Home, 1963-64. If Bonar Law was the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’, Home, Prime Minister for just 363 days, might be (in Peter Hennessy’s words) the ‘unremembered one’.
At least until David Cameron, Home was the last genuine toff to occupy number 10. He was, from the age of 15 at Eton and Christ Church, naturally, known as Lord Dunglass; from 1951 he was the 14th earl of Home. He had the ease of manners that some genuine blue bloods do. In a thoughtful and sympathetic DNB entry, Douglas Hurd described him as one of the most courteous politicians he had ever known.
To add to the air of the gentleman amateur, Home spent his university days concentrating on pastimes, notably cricket. Thus he may only have got a third in History, but he has the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to have played first class cricket: for Middlesex, Oxford and the MCC (he toured South America under Pelham Warner).
That air was misleading. One mighty imagine that his entry into politics came as part of a family tradition. In fact, they had no political tradition to speak of, though his mother was Liberal and he was an admirer of Lloyd George. However, like a number of others of his generation, the charismatic Noel Skelton drew him to Conservatism. Skelton’s Constructive Conservatism (1924) looked to a progressive Conservatism: he coined the phrase ‘property owning democracy’. By that, he looked to winning the working classes from socialism and ‘bridge the economic gulf… between Labour and capital’. Skelton’s followers, nicknamed the YMCA, included the likes of Bob Boothby, Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden.
Another was Dunglass, who entered parliament on the back of the 1931 tidal wave. By 1936 he was PPS to the chancellor, Neville Chamberlain. He was thus PPS to the new Prime Minister in 1937 and accompanied Chamberlain to Munich. Also, in 1936, he married: one of the most stable and happy political marriages of the era. After his master’s death, Home was seriously ill, rendered immobile for two years following an operation on his spine. In that time he developed a deepened Christian faith, as well as a passionate and robust distrust of Stalin and Soviet communism.
Having been a junior Foreign Office minister in Churchill’s caretaker government, he lost his seat in Labour’s 1945 landslide; having briefly returned in 1950, it was as Lord Home that he became a junior minister in the Scottish Office, and then Commonwealth Secretary. When Macmillan moved Selwyn Lloyd to the Treasury in 1960, Home was (controversially, because he was in the Lords) given the Foreign Office.
That might normally have put him in pole position to have a shot at the succession to Macmillan, but he had two disadvantages. The first was that he was in the House of Lords, and the idea of a PM in the Lords was now unacceptable. However, this problem was now surmountable, after Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn, as he would become) had passed a law enabling him to renounce his peerage. As luck had it, a vacant seat was available just when Macmillan was on the wane.
His other problem turned out to be an advantage: to wit, his low profile. Rather like John Major in 1990, Home benefitted from not being like his rivals. In the classic style of Yes Minister, Home told his colleagues he was not a candidate (though in Home’s case he probably meant it). Meanwhile, his rivals reminded their colleagues of the baggage they carried.
The star turn was Lord Hailsham, whom Macmillan had identified as his chosen heir. However, in the weeks either side of Macmillan’s decision to resign, Hailsham was interviewed on television, paraded his wife and baby daughter and showed his brilliance in a speech to conference (when he announced his intention to renounce his peerage, it was received with wild excitement). Envy is not attractive, but it was a powerful political force in 1963, and some of his colleagues clearly resented him. To add to that, the Americans then made their distaste for Hailsham clear. Macmillan, secretly, withdrew his support.
One cannot help but feel that the reason Macmillan adopted Hailsham, and felt able to go in 1963, was that Hailsham would stop Butler. Rab Butler was one of the great statesmen of the age. However, Macmillan and Butler had been rivals since the days of Eden. Home’s entry into the race was clearly a move by many of his colleagues to stop Butler.
Home was helped by a successful conference speech, but his cause was decided by the backing of Macmillan and most of his cabinet: when somewhat dodgy informal soundings were taken, only three cabinet members favoured Butler. The issue then was could Butler be persuaded to serve? Butler’s own sense of duty, Home’s charm and an offer of the foreign office did the trick. In winning the top prize, Home gave credence to Macmillan’s famous description of him to the queen: ‘steel painted as wood’.
Home thus became the last Conservative leader to emerge via the magic circle. It was Home that set in place the election of his successor by a secret ballot of MPs that voted for Heath. It also allowed for the possibility of annual elections and a leadership challenge: thus, inadvertently Home had a role in the fall of Margaret Thatcher 27 years later. He was also one of only three 20th century politicians to go direct from the Foreign Office to Number 10 (two other prime ministers who didn’t last too long, Eden and Callaghan, were the others)
Home had an uphill task, however. There would have to be an election the following year, and Labour held a double-digit lead in the polls. At their lowest, the Conservatives were polling in the low thirties. The Conservatives had been in power since 1951, and the later Macmillan years had seen the government’s problems pile up. It was beset by scandal, most famously the Profumo Affair. The economic problems that Macmillan’s governments and only intermittently (and mostly unsuccessfully) grappled with had seen rising unemployment and balance of payments problems. Macmillan’s flagship policy collapsed when de Gaulle said ‘non’ to British entry into the EEC.
Home also faced a new opposition leader. Peter Hennessy sees Harold Wilson as the most effective opposition leader of modern times: sparkling, witty and incisive in the Commons; good on TV, with a modernising, upbeat message and a carefully projected man of the people image. In contrast, Home the laird could hardly claim to be a break from the patrician Conservatism of Macmillan, salmon fishing and the grouse moor. Furthermore, whilst Wilson dominated the airwaves, Home was anything but a natural on television. Famously, he once asked a make-up lady if she could make him look better on television. She replied with a curt no, adding by way of explanation that he had a head like a skull. Home thought that surely everyone’s head looked like a skull. The reply was a blunt no. His wife reckoned that his trademark horn-rimmed glasses cost him the electron. As the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was had it, it was Dull Alec vs Smart Alec.
He also looked like Chalky, the teacher from the Bash Street Kids, as much beloved in the Beano. Perhaps he sometimes felt like him too.
Home may have been a toff, but he proved surprisingly effective when it came to restoring the Tories’ electoral position. The quite patently decent and honourable Home defused the sleaze issue. Furthermore, Reginald Maudling’s reckless ‘dash for growth’ looked as if it might to do for Home what Butler and Heathcoat-Amory had done for Eden and Macmillan (that is, stoked a pre-election boom, even if it damaged the economy afterwards: in Maudling’s case bequeathing Jim Callaghan a balance of payments deficit of £880m). But, it paid electoral dividends and when combined with his calm, patrician manner, it helped engender a process common in political history, the erosion of an opposition lead (and a Labour lead) as polling day approached. By polling day, a Labour score that had been as high as 50% in the polls was reduced to a vote of 44%, hardly more than in 1959.
The Conservative score had been as low as 34% in the dog days of Macmillan, and Hume managed to poll 43%. What he failed to do was to kill off a Liberal revival. After their sensational win at Orpington in 1962, the Liberal poll rating, which had been as high as 22%, had slipped back to single figures in 1964. In the end, though, an 11% vote was enough to give Labour victory (as is explained in an article on the 1964 election, here).
For Home, it was too little, too late. He had, however, turned a potential disaster into a narrow defeat. He would go on to be Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath, making one of two former 20th century Prime Ministers to subsequently occupy the Foreign Office (the other was Balfour); he was, thus, Foreign Secretary when Macmillan failed to get Britain into the EEC, and when Heath succeeded. It also made him one of only three men to hold the office twice (one of those, Eden, held it three times).
Two anecdotes will do to finish. Years later, Home told Hailsham a hitherto unreported story from 1964. Home was staying in Aberdeen when he was followed to a friend’s house where he was staying. Lack of space meant that his security man was stationed next door. A group of students had followed him and knocked at the door. Home himself answered, and was told that the students were going to kidnap him. Home’s reply was to suppose that if they did, it would probably guarantee him a majority of two to three hundred. He then asked for a few minutes to pack, offered them beer and that was the end of the business. And Home told no one, because had the story got out his bodyguard would have been sacked.
The other story goes that once, on a train to Berwick, an elderly lady approached him to say that both she and her husband were great admirers, and that they thought he would have made a very good prime minister. He, with typical wit and good grace, replied that he had been once, but only for a very short time.
Here’s Home interviewed after the 1964 election.
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