Alec Douglas-Home (1903-1995) devoted his career to British politics. Serving in the Parliament for many years, he became prime minister in November 1963 and remained in office until the Conservative Party lost the 1964 elections.
Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home was born in London on July 2, 1903, the eldest son of Charles Cospatrick Archibald Douglas-Home and Lilian Lambton, daughter of the fourth Earl of Durham. According to his biographer, Kenneth Young, his family had played an important role in English history for centuries. As the future fourteenth earl of Home, he was heir to 134,000 acres of land and coal mines in Lanarkshire, Scotland. The eldest of seven children, his younger brothers included Henry, an ornithologist; William, a playwright, and Edward. Home was raised at Springhill House in Scotland for the first sixteen years of his life and returned there as an adult after his marriage. His father taught him to love nature and be of service to the poor. As a young boy, a governess taught him at home. In 1913, Home was sent to prep school at Ludgrove, New Barnett, Hertfordshire, where he excelled at cricket. Like most aristocrats of his day, his education continued at Eton. According to Young, "he was a natural leader, unassertively self-assured, cool and fair." Home received a degree is history from Christ Church College, Oxford, and played on the cricket team. He was popular with his peers but not a very good student. He had no particular interest in politics, but rather intended to live a traditional aristocratic life and look after various family interests. He became Lord Dunglass in 1918 when his father became the thirteenth earl of Home. His marriage to Elizabeth Hester Alington in 1936 produced one son, David Alexander Cospatrick, and three daughters, Lavinia, Meriel, and Diana.
Entered Public Service
After becoming aware of the poverty and unemployment near his ancestral home in Lanarkshire, Home decided to run for Parliament. He was not content to manage the family business affairs and did not feel that he was suited to the military. Although his father did not initially approve of this career choice, his mother came from a political family and supported his decision. Home failed in his first attempt, but was elected as a Conservative member from Lanarkshire in 1931. He felt that the Conservative Party would do more to end unemployment in Scotland than the Liberals. Britain, as well as the rest of the world, was locked in the grip of the Great Depression. After Home was returned to Parliament in 1935, he became first private secretary to ministers handling labor and Scottish questions. Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, asked Home to serve as his parliamentary private secretary in 1937. When Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, Home was privy to the events leading to World War II. Although he did not make policy, Home was at Chamberlain's side at the Munich conference of 1938 when he agreed to the partition of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a guarantee of no further territorial claims from the German government of Adolf Hitler. Germany soon broke the agreement and seized the Sudentenland, causing an angry reaction from the British public.
Chamberlain's policy of appeasement had failed and the British people turned against him. Home was a casualty of this failed policy and his career appeared to be over. He later claimed to have learned three important lessons during his tenure with Chamberlain. He learned, in intimate detail, how the British political system worked. He learned that Britain could not negotiate as long as it had a weak military. Lastly, he learned that peace at all cost was a disastrous policy. Home realized that Britain could not win a war without a strong military and support from the French and Americans. The Americans were not ready to go to war and the French had backed out of their agreement with Czechoslovakia. Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany on September 2, 1939. Home remained a member of the Chamberlain government until May 2, 1940, when Winston Churchill replaced him as prime minister.
Home intended to enter active service at the start of World War II, as an officer of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. However, the Army Medical Board rejected his application for military service. When he consulted specialists in Edinburgh, the doctors discovered that he had a tubercular hole in his spine, which kept him out of the war. He became too ill to serve and resigned his commission. He spent the next two years recovering from spinal surgery. While lying flat on his back encased in a cast up to his neck, he tracked the progress of the war effort through reading and discussions with friends. He became convinced that Stalin intended to export Communism. If the Russians chose to be Communist, that was their business. However, if they intended to export their views to other parts of the world, Home intended to stand against it.
In 1944, Home returned to London and to the back benches of Parliament. On September 29, 1944, he delivered one of his most important speeches. Churchill had implied that he was letting Russia have Poland in return for helping to defeat the Germans. Home reminded Churchill that Britain had guaranteed Poland's independence in 1939 and that the treaty was still in effect. Churchill, along with the Americans, gave in to the Russian demands at Yalta. In 1945, Home served as the parliamentary under secretary at the foreign office for two months until the Conservatives lost office and Home lost his seat in the House of Commons. He was out of office for five years, until his party elected him as the Conservative member for Lanark in 1950. When his father died in 1951, he became the fourteenth Earl of Home and took his seat in the House of Lords. Churchill became prime minister again in October 1951, and appointed Home as his minister of state for Scotland. "Home Sweet Home," Churchill's nickname for him, was an effective advocate for Scotland. The Crofter Act of 1955 injected capital in the form of grants and loans into the farming system. Parliament was encouraged to give grants to reforest the area, and the Hydroelectric Development Act spread electricity to remote areas of Scotland. He was also able to get highway funds earmarked for the improvement of Scottish roads.
Flair for Foreign Policy
Home had learned a great deal in his years close to prime ministers, especially with regard to foreign policy. In 1955, he became secretary of state for Commonwealth relations in Anthony Eden's government. Though the post was a minor one, Home was noticed when Eden fumbled in the Suez crisis of 1956. Home held the Commonwealth together through intense criticism. With regard to the question of Rhodesian independence, Home advocated a multiracial government, but was unable to convince the white minority government. When Harold Macmillan became prime minister in 1960, he gave Home the post of foreign secretary, expecting him to be easy to dominate. This turned out not to be the case. After his experience with appeasement in Chamberlain's government, Home became one of Britain's most forceful hard-liners against the Soviet threat. He supported a strong defense against Russia and felt that Britain must join the European Common Market. However, Macmillan acted as his own foreign minister and only took advice as he desired it.
Became Prime Minister
When Macmillian became ill in October 1963, he maneuvered Home into the office of prime minister to avoid seeing it go to Rab Butler. This gave the appearance that Home was not democratically chosen by his party. He was forced to renounce his hereditary title and fight a nasty reelection battle in his home district. He returned to the House of Commons to give his first speech, after an absence of twelve years. The opposition, sensing his weakness, attacked him. Home also had to deal with television, which was a new media for him. His field of expertise was foreign affairs, not domestic policy. He served as prime minister for twelve months, when Harold Wilson and the Labor Party won the general elections of 1964 by a slim margin. After it was over, he reflected that he had a lot to learn in the craft of leadership. He had tried to lead in a straightforward manner, but felt that his term was a little like Daniel being thrown into the lion's den. Home vowed to change the way party leaders were chosen so that no future leader would have to go through what he had. He was only partially successful in party reform.
Home returned to the House of Lords and remained friendly with Heath, leader of the Conservative Party. When the Conservatives were returned to power in 1970, Heath placed him in the foreign office again. There he again worked to settle the situation in Rhodesia, but had no luck with Ian Smith, the leader of the white minority government. British influence in the Middle East was another area of interest, but he was unable to get Israel to abandon territory that it had acquired during the 1967 war. When the Conservative government fell in 1974, Home returned to the House of Lords. He retired in 1992.
In his later years, Home wrote a number of books including his autobiography The Way the Wind Blows in 1976, and Border Reflections in 1979. He served as chancellor of Heriot-Watt University. His hobbies included bird watching, hunting, and fishing at his ancestral homes of Hirsel or Castlemains. Taxes had reduced the family estates considerably, and Home was not among the richest border lords. He died in Berwickshire, Scotland, on October 9, 1995, having devoted a lifetime to British political service.
Further Reading on Alec Douglas-Home
Butler, Lord, et. al., The Conservatives A History from their Origins to 1965, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1977.
Cold War 1945-1991, Gale Research, 1993.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 1999.
Home, Alec Douglas-Home, Lord, The Way the Wind Blows, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1976.
Young, Kenneth, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1970.