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Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Prime Minister 1963 - 64

Sir Alec Douglas-Home is often described as being a throw back, an aristocratic earl who somehow became prime minister of modern Britain. Born in London's Mayfair on 2nd July 1903, he was eldest son of the 13th Earl of Home, and was educated at those two traditional places of learning for aristocratic prime ministers, Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford. His school career was good natured, and not marked by too much hard work or vulgar academic achievement. Cricket was a major interest, and Douglas-Home became a first class player, playing for Middlesex. A parliamentary career began in 1931, as MP for South Lanark. Recalling the gentlemanly code of earlier generations, Douglas-Home was not known as being ambitious for high office, but saw the work as a duty and responsibility. He was parliamentary private secretary to Neville Chamberlain 1937 - 1940, then worked at the Foreign Office, and served as minister of state for Scotland 1951 - 55. This was followed by secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, 1955 - 60, and foreign secretary 1960 - 63. Then with the mid-term retirement of Harold Macmillan in October 1963, due to ill-health and the scandal of the Profumo Affair, Douglas-Home seemed the obvious safe choice to take over as prime minister.

The accusation of Douglas-Home being an out of date politician is interesting in light of the role British prime ministers are expected to play. Monarchs in Britain today are figureheads, who exist as a symbol of unity above everyday squabbles. Prime ministers throughout their history have tried with greater or lesser success to mimic this role. It has often been pointed out, by John Major with regard to Elizabeth II for example, that a monarch has not had to fight for their role through personal ambition. This provides a lack of career self interest which allows issues to be discussed in a dispassionate way. A similar point has been made about Douglas-Home: "It was clear to even his bitterest opponent that he accepted the office of prime minister because - rightly or wrongly - he believed it to be his duty to his country. All this gave Sir Alec a moral stature which no other politician of his day could match" (Iain Sproat in The Prime Ministers Vol2 P369). Sir Alec it seemed did not have to make the compromises demanded by ambition, since he did not really have any. In some ways of course an appearance of being above ambition can easily be more image than reality. Monarchs were supposedly placed on their thrones by God rather than personal ambition, when in fact this has long been an illusion designed to strengthen their position. Many monarchs through history have fought bitterly for their thrones. They then have hoped that the flummery of religious symbolism would make it seem as though their position was inevitable and unassailable. It is interesting in this regard that Douglas-Home was the most overtly religious of prime ministers in recent times. According to Sproat he was "perhaps the only important figure in political life who regularly worked into his speeches references to Christianity" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P370). Home worked hard throughout 1964 to try and make sure the Conservatives won the approaching election. Though his sense of politics as a duty was sincere, that didn't mean he did not want to win. It also does not mean that he was unaware that lack of ambition was an image worth cultivating. The sense of needing a figurehead above the political fray was still strong, even in an age which had left monarchs behind. The unfortunate thing for Douglas-Home was that Britain already had a monarch in Elizabeth II. Perhaps, with the position of monarch already taken, they wanted something different in their prime minister.

This something different was provided by Harold Wilson, a hard working ambitious man from a humble background. He seemed to know about economics and the "white heat" of technological change. Wilson attacked Douglas-Home over his acknowledgement that he used matchsticks to help with economic calculations. So in Wilson and Douglas-Home we had the opposition between two approaches to leadership, one appearing monarchical and above ambition, using a smattering of religion to help things along, the other cultivating the image of practical competence. Olga Soffer has defined leaders as those who say they talk to God, and can thus never be rationally challenged, and those who go up hills and count reindeer on the other side. Unlike the talking to God type leader, the counting reindeer leader can be challenged, since anyone can go up the same hill and count the reindeer for themselves. Alec Douglas-Home was in the last analysis a talking to God leader. Using this approach he very nearly achieved a fourth win in a row for his party. But it was the Labour Party under Harold Wilson which just scraped in, with a majority of only four seats. Douglas-Home stepped down as Conservative Party leader in 1965.

For most prime ministers the final loss of office signals an effective end of their parliamentary career. This was not the case with Alex Douglas-Home who continued to serve in government, and became foreign secretary in Edward Heath's administration 1970 - 74. It is perhaps this last career phase which demonstrates that, image-making aside, the interest in service over ambition was genuine for Alec Douglas-Home. Following his long career of service, he died in 1995 at the age of 92.

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