Pondering the plight of former Prime Ministers
for my last Scottish Review
article a fortnight ago has led me back to the life and times of one of the most remarkable former premiers of the post-war era, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Of all the monikers ascribed to former Prime Ministers, Alec possesses the most charming; Peter Hennessy affectionately dubbed him the 'most famous flower-arranger in British political history'. In an interview with the schoolboy Gyles Brandreth, the Prime Minister admitted that, in his 'darkest moments', he turned to flower-arranging, believing there to be 'nothing more soothing or satisfying'.
Educated at Ludgrove Preparatory School, Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, Home was a talented cricketer, playing in the Eton XI, before going on to play first-class cricket for Middlesex and Marylebone, a feat unequalled amongst British Prime Ministers, perhaps to the cricket-loving Sir John Major's chagrin. As the heir to a hereditary title, Lord Dunglass (as Alec then was) sat in the House of Commons from 1931 to 1945, as the Unionist member for Lanark, losing his seat to Tom Steele in the Labour landslide of July 1945. Despite regaining his Lanarkshire constituency at the 1950 General Election, Alec was forced to vacate his seat on becoming the 14th incumbent of the Home Earldom on his father's death in July 1951.
Now Lord Home, Alec spent five years as Commonwealth Relations Secretary during Anthony Eden's premiership and the first three years of Harold Macmillan's, before moving to the Foreign Office in 1960 in the reshuffle that took the previous incumbent Selwyn Lloyd to the Treasury. As both Commonwealth Relations and Foreign Secretary, Home played a significant role in Britain's transition from its long-held imperial presence, albeit favouring a more gradualist approach which brought him into confrontation with Iain Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Home's gentle, self-effacing charm and distinctly rural lifestyle, coupled with his notoriously efficient work rate and sound judgement, made him a model British diplomat and allowed him to steady the ship of state after Harold Macmillan's turbulent departure in October 1963. Renouncing his title under the Peerage Act 1963, which also allowed Tony Benn, the 2nd Viscount Stansgate to return to the Commons, Home became the Member for Kinross and Western Perthshire until his eventual retirement from frontline politics at the October 1974 General Election.
After being narrowly defeated by Harold Wilson in the October 1964 General Election, Home served as Edward Heath's Shadow Foreign Secretary and moved into the Foreign Office when Heath unexpectedly, and for the only time in four attempts, ousted Wilson in June 1970. In his memoirs, Heath writes with real fondness of his friendship with Home, recalling that, when Charles de Gaulle died in November 1970, he extended an invitation to his Foreign Secretary to join the British delegation heading to the memorial service in Notre Dame. After explaining that the Prince of Wales, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson would all be in attendance, Heath was astonished to hear Alec decline his invitation, replying 'Oh, I don't think so, thank you. With all those former Prime Ministers you won't need your Foreign Secretary'. Heath's reminder that Home was also a former premier was met with a giggle and the acknowledgement 'Oh, so I am! 'd quite forgotten'.
For Douglas Hurd, one of Home's successors as Foreign Secretary, Alec 'was not capable of Macmillan's flights of imagination' but was an accomplished and effective practical politician. In addition to becoming a trusted tutor on foreign affairs to Margaret Thatcher after she unexpectedly became Tory leader in 1975, one of Home's greatest contributions to public life after leaving the premiership was to the cause of devolution for Scotland.
In August 1968, three months after his infamous 'Declaration of Perth' which positioned the Tories in favour of devolution, Edward Heath appointed Home to the chair of a Scottish Constitutional Committee (SCC), to flesh out his party's commitment to a legislative Assembly. For Home, the committee was a proactive response to the looming Scottish question, which had been reopened by the SNP's Winnie Ewing's memorable victory in the November 1967 Hamilton by-election.
In his 1976 autobiography, The Way the Wind Blows
, Home reflected that 'the itch for some further decentralisation of power from Westminster to Edinburgh has never been far under the skin'. He went on to assemble a committee of parliamentarians, civic leaders and academics – all with an interest in Scotland and constitutional affairs – to examine the 'possibilities of the devolution of greater political responsibilities to Scotland'. As a leader, Kenneth Young remarked that Alec was 'an excellent chairman, able to steer a body and diffuse tensions', rather than a 'go-getting managing director'.
Whilst Home came to support the creation of a new Scottish legislature, as a Minister of State at the Scottish Office in Winston Churchill's peacetime Government, he had previously helped resist the call for devolved Government in Scotland, in favour of greater administrative devolution. Besieged by agitation for home rule, with a petition by the Scottish Covenant calling for a Parliament receiving two million signatures in 1949, Churchill memorably instructed 'Home, sweet Home' to 'go and quell those turbulent Scots, and don't come back until you've done it'.
The SCC's report, Scotland's Government
, published in March 1970, changed the dynamics of the devolution debate and put the Conservatives, who would later become the biggest obstacle to a new Scottish legislature, firmly in favour of some devolution to Scotland. Calling for the modernisation of Scottish industry, greater cooperation between central government and Scotland, an Assembly with some legislative powers – to be known as the Scottish Convention (to prevent confusion with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) – Scotland's Government
unsurprisingly emphasised the importance of maintaining the United Kingdom. Its insistence that Scotland could have greater autonomy within the Kingdom, whilst preserving the ultimate authority of Parliament, prompted an infamous cartoon in Scots Independent
of a man leaving a bookshop, holding a copy of Scotland's Government aloft, and proclaiming 'Ah asked fur the New English Bible, an' look what she gied me'.
After a decade of frenetic debate about devolution, which was to culminate with the referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly on 1 March 1979, Home was again called upon to tackle the question of whether Scotland should have its own legislature. On 14 February 1979 – in a very genteel Valentine's Day massacre of the Government's proposals – he outlined his concerns about the Labour Government's Scotland Act in a televised speech at the University of Edinburgh, highlighting how the Scottish people had been invested with the 'very heavy responsibility' of 'setting the pattern of life for future generations of Scotsmen'.
Whilst he had been an early adopter of an Assembly, he raised concerns about the exact terms of the settlement that the Labour Government had pursued, arguing that Scotland was already over-governed – a condition which the Scotland Act would exacerbate, without settling devolution's constitutional difficulties and without introducing a system of proportional representation. A Borderer and hereditary Earl and landowner by birth, Home's concerns about the lack of a proportional voting system chimed with the fears of fellow landowners, with the Scottish Landowners' Federation, a significant and highly influential lobby in Scottish public life, making the case that proportional representation was essential to prevent rural areas being 'swamped by the towns' in the new Assembly.
Debate about Home's involvement has centred on whether he did truly believe in devolution or was merely doing his 'duty'. Home understood and sympathised with concerns that the governance of Scotland was too remote, with larger departments in Whitehall, in his words, having a tendency to think of Scotland 'as somewhere near the North Pole'. He was, however, insistent that devolution must be what he called 'an extension of the United Kingdom Government to Scotland'.
Dignified, constructive and supportive to his successors, Home was widely respected and had become a model former premier, but it is clear that his contribution to the referendum campaign damaged his standing in some corners of Scotland's public life. For Christopher Harvie, a prominent 'Yes' campaigner and historian, Home had 'begun his career by betraying one small nation' (a reference to his time as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Neville Chamberlain) and 'ended it by betraying another'.
Forty years on from that referendum, Alec Douglas-Home appears to be something of an anachronism today; a hereditary peer, an aristocratic Prime Minister, even perhaps, a Scottish Conservative. However, in a sense, he can be seen as a vision of a better politics. Modest, decent, respectful and respected, dedicated to duty with a deep sense of public service, Home is everything that the majority of today's leading Conservatives are not. As one of his earliest biographers put it half a century ago, Home was a 'true patriot' in an age of 'increasing veniality, of double-talk and double-think' who stood out as a 'pillar of probity, looked up to by his countrymen, his integrity unquestioned even by those who disagree with him'. How times have changed.