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.

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