Alec Douglas-Home: An underrated model premier

9 Mar 2017

For all the monikers ascribed to former prime ministers, the most charming of all must be that given to Alec Douglas-Home who Peter Hennessy affectionately dubbed the 'most famous flower-arranger in British political history'. The gentle self-effacing, distinctly rural charm of Home, his notoriously efficient work rate and sound judgement made him the model British diplomat, perhaps even a model premier.


Despite his two spells at the Foreign Office, one at the Commonwealth Relations Office, and various other posts including Lord President and Leader of the Lords, relatively little has been written about Alec Douglas-Home. Admittedly his premiership was short, rather inconsequential and 'becalmed in a sea of satire and scandal' as Douglas Hurd, one of Home's successors as Foreign Secretary, memorably put it.


However that doesn't mean that Home's political existence is in any way diminished in value. Firstly his premiership with becalmed beginnings (resulting from the end of Macmillan's premiership), saw the almost complete reparation of the government's morale and its support in the country. When the Conservatives lost the 1964 election, it was only by a very small majority, and this remarkable recovery was in large part due to Home's leadership.


At the Foreign Office particularly, Home's calmness under pressure, his ease and ability to avoid rushed, knee-jerk judgements made him a well-respected and most crucially, a trusted diplomat, entirely at home at any international conference.


Home's achievements: managing decolonisation; advising Macmillan and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis; signing the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and overseeing Britain's entry into the European Community make him in essence the key figure in Britain's transition from its former Imperial status.


The unlikely presence of Alec Home throughout what we think of as distinctly modern events which transformed Britain makes his involvement all the more remarkable. It would be quite a stretch to mark Alec Home as a modern man but he represents essentially the last but entirely glorious gasp of Britain's aristocratic ruling elite. Indeed, Alec Home's accession to the premiership was facilitated in large part by Tony Benn's Peerage Act, which allowed both the 2nd Viscount Stansgate (as Benn was known), and the 14th Earl of Home, to renounce their hereditary titles. With his aristocratic lineage came a gentile existence more centred on Home's beloved home The Hirsel than Number 10. Country pursuits, most notably fishing, formed the basis of Home's extra-political activities. His over half-a-century long marriage to Elizabeth Alington allowed Home a devoted and seemingly calm personal life.


Home's typically aristocratic manners, calmness and composure have in the past been characterised as insouciance. This could not be further from the truth. Throughout his career, his patriotism and sense of honour coupled with an unwavering devotion to public service were remarkably strong, without being overtly promoted.


The character and approach to government that Alec Home demonstrated throughout his political life is a model by which we would all be better off were more of our politicians to follow it. Indeed as John Major, with Alec Home the most honourable and decent man who acceded to the premiership, has said Britain's negotiation with the EU should be conducted with 'a little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric.' Major went on to argue that 'it is much easier to reach agreement with a friend than a quarrelsome neighbour.' In this I'm sure that his contemporaries would say that it is hard to imagine Alec Home as anything other than a friend.





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