The Foreign Secretaries (16): Alec Douglas Home

Alec_Douglas-Home_(c1963)Lord Home, Alec Douglas Home, 1960-63; 1970-74

Conservative, under Macmillan and Heath

You can read about the rest of Home’s career here.

On both occasions, Alec Douglas Home was the natural choice for the Foreign Office. However, in 1960 his appointment was initially controversial. He was the first peer since Halifax to take the office, and the press and the Labour Party made hay while they could. It wasn’t for long. In part, that was thanks to appointment of Ted Heath as lord privy seal and Home’s de facto deputy, in cabinet; in part, it was because Home was so evidently suited to the job.

Unlike one recent incumbent, Home eschewed flash, and yet combined style with substance. His first spell at the Foreign Office was one in which his cool hand was important in what were very dangerous times. How significant a role Macmillan played in steadying Kennedy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis is open to argument. Home certainly played some role in steadying both. He was similarly cool-headed in the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Home both recognised the need to work with the Soviets, whilst never forgetting that their ultimate objective was to supplant western democracy. Thus, his measured approach to the winding down of empire and the need to minimise Soviet influence in its aftermath also guided policy. His calm helped steady the occasionally neurotic Macmillan; his clear-headedness never left him.

His time at number ten was brief, and its aftermath bruising, but he was by no means ready to retire. Instead, he took up the post of shadow foreign secretary under Heath: the two had developed an effective working relationship when Home had been foreign secretary; it continued with Heath as party leader and prime minister. In opposition, he travelled extensively. As president of the MCC he was embroiled in the controversy over cricket and apartheid South Africa. He chaired a commission which made plans for Scottish devolution.

When Heath won, unexpectedly, in 1970, Home returned to the Foreign Office he loved. Like before, the Soviet Union loomed large. Famously, in 1971, he expelled 105 Soviet diplomats. Relations with the Soviets did not collapse, and the Soviet intelligence operation in the UK was badly undermined (the ‘diplomats’ were, of course, spies). He sought a solution to the Rhodesia issue, but it failed to win the support of black African opinion.

The great achievement of the Heath government was to take Britain into the EEC. Home had been foreign secretary at the time of de Gaulle’s first ‘non’, and Heath had been Britain’s lead negotiator (you can read about it here). Home believed in the need to enter the EEC, but for very different reasons to Heath. Heath was a passionate European. For Home, EEC entry was in Britain’s interests: Western Europe was central to British foreign policy, and the Americans were very pro-EEC (and British membership). Home worked closely with Heat and Geoffrey Ripon. It was Heath’s achievement, but one in which the elder statesman played a significant role: you can read about it here.

Home was one of only three men since 1906 to have held the Foreign Office twice. He was one of eight since 1906 to have been both foreign secretary and prime minister, and one of ten to be both party leader and prime minister. Like Balfour, he served as foreign secretary after having been prime minister, and was happier and more successful in the Foreign Office. Similarly, he was foreign secretary after having served as party leader, like Balfour, Austen Chamberlain and William Hague. He remains the only man to have been first foreign secretary, then prime minister, then foreign secretary again. He was certainly a foreign secretary of measured substance.


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