Smart Alec

Peter Clarke

  • Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 540 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 1 85619 277 6

He was famously (to use LRB-speak) a 14th earl, and this he essentially remained. He had inherited the title from his father, the 13th Earl, and lived at the ancestral family seat, the Hirsel, near Coldstream, to his death at the age of 92; whereupon he was duly succeeded by his son as 15th earl. Indeed, had the Peerage Bill of 1963 not been amended so as to provide that a hereditary peerage itself was not extinguished if the current peer decided to disclaim the title, the 14th Earl of Home would not have agreed to avail himself of the new procedure, even to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. There was too much at stake. The family’s old motto said it all: ‘A Home, a Home, a Home.’ Brought up to believe that there’s no place like it, no race like it, Alec would hardly have let the family down, amid the hubbub of a leadership contest which turned the coroneted head of another contender, the once and future Lord Hailsham, by unmasking him as nothing more than a professional politician out of the chorus line in Iolanthe.

D.R. Thorpe’s reference at one point in this engaging new biography to ‘the insouciant calm under pressure that eight hundred years of history gave a 14th earl’ may suggest an unduly deferential image of Alec Douglas-Home – the name to which he was born and to which he reverted between 1963 and 1974, before retiring from politics as Lord Home of the Hirsel. It was under the courtesy title of Lord Dunglass that he first made his mark in politics, carrying Neville Chamberlain’s bag to Munich in October 1938, but it was as the Earl of Home that he quietly slipped into the Cabinet in 1955. Little wonder that his wife at one point entered the Guinness Book of Records, displacing no less a person than Queen Mary, as the woman who had changed her name most often without the factitious aid of divorce. Little wonder, too, that the British people had so little sense of Home’s identity that the customary processes of the Conservative Party were free to come up with his as the least objectionable name to be drawn out of a hat into which it had apparently never been placed. A trick worthy of the Magic Circle itself! Or so Iain Macleod unkindly said at the time, thus sealing a peculiarly bitter antipathy between himself, as the rising star of the liberal Tories, and a cabinet colleague whose lack of leadership qualificatons up to that point seemed as manifest as his concomitant lack of the proverbial enemy in the world.

Thorpe understandably devotes more attention to explaining how on earth Home got into Number Ten than to anything he did once he got there. This is the most closely argued and documented account we have of the struggle for the Tory leadership in 1963, an occasion of such bloodletting that it panicked the Party into adopting a more transparently democratic set of rules. Not only did Home preside over this major change in the Party’s constitution: he was later chairman of a committee which amended the new procedures with the effect of making future incumbents less secure ‘Alec’s revenge,’ some muttered – and thus sharpened the knives for the successful challenges to Heath in 1975 and to Thatcher in 1990.

The presence of a newspaper cutting among Home’s papers at the Hirsel provides an interesting clue to the mystery of his rise to power. In December 1962 Anthony Howard wrote a piece for the New Statesman under the provocative heading ‘Mr Home and Mr Hogg?’ It was already apparent that legislative change was in the offing, opening the way for the second Viscount Stansgate to begin the spectacular exercise in downward social mobility which allowed Mr Tony Benn to become the arbiter of leftwing politics in the Seventies. That the second Viscount Hailsham might similarly choose to resume the political career of Mr Quintin Hogg was already on the cards. But Howard’s journalistic coup was to broaden the scenario by spotting that the 14th Earl of Home, whose appointment as Foreign Secretary in 1960 had produced weary gibes about Macmillan’s outrageous piece of patronage, had new potential as a hitherto unfancied runner in the leadership stakes. Caligula’s dark horse, it is revealed, became restive in his box, as this unlikely subscriber to the New Statesman pensively devoured its contents (and his wife stuck a copy of the article into the family scrapbook).

Howard’s point was that there is nothing to blight a promising political career like being hailed as a future prime minister. For more than a decade, Lord Hailsham, though a high-profile chairman of the Conservative Party, had been spared this hazard. His abilities were conspicuous to all, not least himself, but so was his ineligibility, once the death of his father (formerly Baldwin’s Lord Chancellor) had precipitated him unwillingly into the gilded chamber, just a year before the 14th Earl of Home came into his inheritance. Their membership of the House of Lords, Howard ruminated in December 1962, ‘may in the end turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them: it has, as it were, sheltered them throughout the crucial years and then put them down safe and sound within a few yards of the winning-post’. The argument could be extended. If Hailsham was thereby saved – temporarily, as it turned out from acting as his own worst enemy, Home’s immunity from ostensibly flattering but potentially wounding speculation was even more comprehensive. If the bumptious Quintin was sometimes wistfully remembered as a might-have-been, Alec was pretty universally forgotten as a never-was-anyway. Smart Alec was never his sobriquet.

If Home acquired the premiership in the way that Seeley once said that Britain acquired the Empire, it was the absent-mindedness of other people that was crucial. It is not unnatural that he should have started taking himself seriously as a future prime minister, once the cards started falling his way. After all, he had been in politics virtually all his adult life. The reproach to some modern professional politicians is that they ‘never in their lives held down a proper job’. Nor did Home; but this passed without comment since nobody expected it of a laird. He was like the king in the New Yorker cartoon: ‘What do you mean, what do I do all day? I reign.’ When he wasn’t busy being 14th Earl, he was hanging about, waiting for the demise of the 13th Earl, rather like another well-known Alec in Kind Hearts and Coronets, though with less sinister intent, of course. What kept Lord Dunglass occupied in these years, apart from a spot of cricket, a daily flutter on the horses, and sometimes setting the Times crossword, was his membership of the House of Commons, in the days when Lanark was more hospitable than it later became to Tory candidates with tenants in the constituency.

In 1936 Dunglass was just the sort of young backbencher to be chosen by the whips as Parliamentary Private Secretary for Neville Chamberlain, who was already marked out as the next prime minister. Popular with his fellow MPs, agreeable and conscientious, Dunglass had the double qualification of lacking overt personal ambitions but not the adequate means needed to keep up appearances. When he accompanied the Prime Minister to inspect the British Expeditionary Force in France shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, the injunction at this moment of crisis for national survival was that ‘the most suitable clothing will be shooting kit, and, for evening wear, Dinner Jacket.’ On the strength of his commission in the Territorials, as the press reported, ‘Lord Dunglass wore a major’s uniform, a crown on each shoulder of his British warm, and probably the only pair of spurs in the BEF.’ His devotion to his boss was a source of comment even among Chamberlain loyalists. Chips Channon, another Tory MP of ample means, wrote in his diary: ‘He admires Neville so much he has even come to look like him.’

In one sense, it was a wonderful apprenticeship for a future Foreign Secretary: to attend the Munich conference, to meet Hitler, to watch him sign the piece of paper which Chamberlain had drafted, pledging the future friendship of Britain and Germany. After the political revolution of 1940, however, all this left a nasty taste. Dunglass was one of those, along with Rab Butler and the inevitable Chips Channon, who drank a champagne toast at the Foreign Office to ‘the King over the Water’ following Chamberlain’s fall from power. It was Dunglass’s opinion that ‘since Winston came in, the H of C had stunk in the nostrils of decent people.’ Not for the last time, he was lucky in being removed from his exposed position by force of circumstances – though it hardly looked lucky at that point. By the time Chamberlain died in November 1940, his loyal bagman was immobilised in plaster on the Hirsel estate, beginning a long convalescence from an operation for tuberculosis of the spine. Though he kept his Parliamentary seat under wartime conditions, Dunglass was out of action until the beginning of 1944. His illness was painful and temporarily disabling, hardly meriting the white feather sent by a relative, but it had its compensations. His enforced withdrawal served as a time for reflection. He read Das Kapital from cover to cover (though remaining unconverted). Thorpe persuasively suggests that it was now that Dunglass acquired ‘identity’, returning to the House of Commons as a stronger figure in his own right. After VE-Day, when the wartime coalition broke up, Churchill acted up to his precept of magnanimity in victory by appointing Dunglass to his first ministerial post in the shortlived caretaker government.

There is little mystery, less drama, in the next stage of the rise of this (by now) long-serving career politician, steadily but unremarkably scaling the rungs of preferment. Once he had become Earl of Home, he stood out in the undemanding milieu of the House of Lords as a thoroughly decent minister, as decently competent as he was decently obscure. Having a big house was no political drawback in those days. The shooting kit still came in handy and Scotland still liked a laird – though 1955 turned out to be the last election to produce a Tory majority north of the border – so Home was happily sent to the Scottish Office. The old Commonwealth was not as gigantic a system of outdoor relief for the landed aristocracy as the Empire had once been; but it still afforded some relief, albeit less gigantically; so, in due course, Home became just the man to run it. His appointment as Commonwealth Secretary took him into the Cabinet at the age of 53. All that was needed, he was advised by a former Colonial Secretary, was to make sure that in appointing a British high commissioner he chose ‘a moderately intelligent ex-public-schoolboy, who fishes and plays golf and takes trouble with the natives’.

This well-judged biography does not seriously pretend that Home was other than a creature of the ancien régime. Thorpe made his name with a life of Selwyn Lloyd, rescuing its Pooterish hero from the condescension of the Tory grandees, He has a rather less assured touch in dealing with one of the grandest of grandees (though one who was politically close to Lloyd for many years). If Macmillan liked to play the toff, Home was a toffs’ toff, effortlessly rising above petty snobbery in ways that revealed his genuinely unassuming nature.

Thorpe points out that Home’s own volume of memoirs, The Way the Wind Blows, which improbably became a bestseller, was largely about his country interests and ‘gave an insight into a vanished way of life, fascinating to the general reader’. It’s a shame that the general reader doesn’t get more of this kind of insight from Thorpe himself, whose main failing is in not giving more sense of the texture of Home’s life in its various phases. What exactly did he do when he was a minister? How did he view his colleagues and look at the world? Since he was Foreign Secretary at the time of Britain’s first attempt to join the EEC, and given that the European issue increasingly dominated Conservative politics during the last third of Home’s long life, it is frustrating simply to be told that he was ‘a late convert to the European ideal’.

What Thorpe does, he does very well. He has benefited from the US Freedom of Information Act in remedying some of the reticences in British public records. His account of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, for example, shows that the British Government agreed to make a base in the Bahamas available to the US on the condition that ‘nothing is to be put in writing.’ It is a neat point to be documented from a written source. The biography also draws on a good deal of unspecified ‘private information’, the origin of which is often to be inferred from the author’s candid statement that he enjoyed the active assistance of Lord Home in his last years at the Hirsel. Thus, on the authority of ‘private information’, we are told that Hailsham’s behaviour in Moscow over the signing of the nuclear test-ban treaty in the summer in 1963 ‘made a deep impression on Home, who felt that such a temperament was not fitted for the role of prime minister, and that if a candidate from the Lords was to enter the fray, it had better be himself.’ Yet Thorpe remains Boswellian in the best sense, not hiding the fact that, for example, when Home had to handle awkward questions as prime minister over attempted censorship of the Kilmuir memoirs, he was ‘economical with the truth’ to the House of Commons.

That Home wanted to become prime minister – if not at any price then certainly on his own terms – is surely evident. It was a job for which, as the prospective vacancy disclosed itself in 1962-3, his whole career seemed to have fitted him in providentially perverse ways: historically a common sentiment at such a juncture among the papabile. The old system for choosing a Tory leader, as Vernon Bogdanor has convincingly argued, disguised an efficient purpose behind the dignified euphemisms about waiting for the right name to ‘emerge’. Any system is open to some manipulation; and a master of manipulation like Macmillan was hardly going to depart without stacking the odds in favour of a successor of whom he approved. That meant, not Rab Butler. Macmillan’s subsequent pained protestations that he had never attempted to fix the succession, scrupulously quoted by Thorpe, are not, we know, to be taken at face value. Macmillan’s own input was clearly important in paving the way to a Home candidature, for which, by the time the decision had to be taken, the inner cabals of the Party were already prepared. Twin causes then made the outcome sure. One was Home’s ambiguous status as a ‘gentleman’, a term of art that was, virtually simultaneously, disappearing from the two great games to which he had a lifelong devotion: cricket and Tory politics. Conversely – a point appreciated only slowly by others – he really wanted to be the last amateur to captain his country. ‘Alec Home played the part of reluctant candidate to perfection’ is how Thorpe puts it.

Nor did Sir Alec Douglas-Home turn out to be such a bad party leader as many supposed at the time. After all, he inherited a divided and demoralised party, in its 13th year in power, and took it within a handful of seats of denying Labour a majority in the general election of 1964. Facing the derision of Harold Wilson, who seemed able to walk on water as leader of the opposition, Home found the perfect riposte in his remark about the ‘14th Mr Wilson’. This off-the-cuff remark turns out to have been crafted by that improbable prime-ministerial joke-writer, Selwyn Lloyd; but it worked so nicely for Home because it was so nicely in character. While Wilson proposed to forge a new Britain at white heat, Home was shrewd enough to appreciate that he had to work at lower temperatures in playing to the deep-seated conservative instincts of the country. As everyone could see, as everyone agreed, ‘Alec was such a terrific gent.’