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Black and white portrait image of a balding white man in a suit
Lord Alec Douglas Home, 1969, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/174

Some former Prime Ministers got themselves to 10 Downing Street driven by a tunnel vision bordering on the obsessed. Others seemed to make it happen by accident rather than design.

Lord Alec Douglas-Home falls into the latter category and this viewpoint has possibly diminished his Parliamentary legacy. In this article, I aim to re-evaluate Douglas-Home’s varied career. As you’ll see he had an uncanny knack of being in the mix of various seminal moments in twentieth century history.

Whatever the scene, regardless of the outcome, he’d forever be wonderfully understated.



When artist Suzi Malin was commissioned to paint Lord Douglas-Home for the National Portrait Gallery, she decided to picture him in the confines of his family estate. Situated across 100,000 acres in Lanarkshire Douglas-Home was always a laird at heart with an unabashed love of the land. While his father fought in World War One, he sent his son at Eton sketches of exotic birds taken from the Gallipoli front. Not greatly interested in academia he still went on to study history at Oxford University, excelling more in extra-circular activities whether playing cricket or drinking champagne than earnest scholarly endeavour.

Back in Scotland his post-graduation pathway gravitated towards the army or church. However, Douglas-Home came under the tutelage of local Conservative MP Noel Skelton a progressive thinker who encouraged him to follow suit.   In the 1931 General Election he won a seat in Lanarkshire, he celebrated through the streets brandishing an outsized Union Jack. Established in the Commons, he went head-to-head with Labour’s notorious ‘Red Clydesider’ group regarding unemployment. A firm believer in minimising state benefits his numerous battles against James Maxton were Press Gallery box office, though in the communal smoking room, all was quickly forgotten between the pair.

(Read Douglas-Home speak on Industrial Depression

European Situation Debate, September 1938, Parliamentary Archives, House of Commons Hansard Vol 339


Suez Crisis Article, October 1956, Parliamentary Archives, BBK/H/187


Earmarked as one of the Conservative ‘Bright Young Things’ in 1936 Douglas-Home was headhunted to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to Neville Chamberlain. Two years later he travelled to Munich assisting him as he strived to broker peace with Hitler. Wartime saw Douglas-Home infirmed by a serious spinal injury where the only chinks of light came from the loving care of his wife Elizabeth and young children. Like many party contemporaries, he fell asunder to an immense Labour voting tide in the post-war election turning his attention to Scottish affairs and the repercussions felt by Clement Atlee’s nationalisation programme on heavy industry.

On his father’s death, Douglas-Home received an ancestral earldom taking a place in the Upper House as a hereditary peer. This coincided with the Conservatives returning to power and in 1955 he was appointed Commonwealth Secretary. Once again, a storm was brewing on the international arena and in the following year’s Suez Crisis, he was entrusted with keeping Commonwealth nations on board, even when not wholly supportive of the government’s actions. Harold Macmillan rewarded Douglas-Home’s loyalty by making him Foreign Secretary and this tenure witnessed seismic events such as the 1961 Berlin Wall Crisis that defined the Cold War era.

A modern act of Parliament bound with a red ribbon.
Peerage Act, 1963, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1963/c48


Blue front cover of the report
Lord Denning’s Report: Profumo Affair, 1963, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/11/874/1661



Since having his political progress stymied by a hereditary peerage Tony Benn sought to have it quashed legislatively. Douglas-Home at this juncture had bigger fish to fry as he participated in Nuclear Test Ban talks with the Russian and American superpowers. Benn's Peerage Act hit the statute book in July 1963 as the fallout from the Profumo Scandal severely weakened the Conservatives. Suffering from a prostate illness Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister and a leadership contest was underway. No clear ‘heir apparent’ emerged so it was all to play for, even if Douglas-Home initially distanced himself from the fray.

Fellow peer Lord Hailsham was the marquee name on the candidacy list. Staged that October the party conference in Blackpool became a parade ground for prospective leaders. The succession was consultative based not engineered by a ballot as Hailsham wasted little time throwing his hat in the ring. Yet his constant grandstanding did him no favours and with cabinet stalwart Rab Butler’s keynote speech flopping the door opened unexpectedly for Douglas-Home. Backed by the hugely influential 1922 Committee he dutifully accepted the premiership minus the usual pomp and ceremony characteristically stating that ‘no one should expect any stunts from me’.

(Read Douglas-Home’s maiden speech as Prime Minister –

black and white photograph of a white man wearing a suit on a busy street.
Lord Hailsham, 1970, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/305


A white man with a smoking pipe signing autographs for a group of women.
Harold Wilson, 1972, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/775



Promptly a seat was found for Douglas-Home in Kinross and after a slight delay he could take office. Harold Wilson didn’t miss the opportunity to pour scorn on the situation saying, ‘half a century of democratic advance ground to a halt with the 14th Earl’. Satirists had a field day mocking his gentrified image, but he brought in Nigel Lawson to oversee speechwriting and Chris Chataway advised him on media duies. On a short leash due to the impending election deadline, his administration passed the Resale Maintenance Bill stimulating economic competition and rubber-stamped a White Paper for regional levelling up.

Twelve months on from seizing the Prime Ministerial reins Douglas-Home now called the nation to the polls. The October 1964 Election was conducted with a combative edge not witnessed for decades. Wilson’s Labour focused on the need for modernisation as the Conservatives deemed their manifesto a ‘menu without prices’. Douglas-Home struggled to appear relevant and refused to discipline Peter Griffiths for not distancing his campaign in Smethwick from racially offensive language. BBC coverage was dominated by the ‘swing’ factor in marginal constituencies and the pendulum finally settled on a narrow Labour victory. The Douglas-Home’s exited Downing Street via the garden.

(Read Douglas-Home pay tribute to Winston Churchill


Britain in Europe Pamphlet, 1975, Parliamentary Archives, PWG/33/26b



Those expecting Douglas-Home to step away from public life were surprised to see him rejoin the Foreign Office in Edward Heath’s post 1970 election cabinet. They had previously worked together on Britain’s failed bid to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in the early sixties. Heath a dedicated Europhile was determined to reverse this historic knockback at all costs. Douglas-Home proved a calming presence during the turbulent renegotiations that followed both in Westminster and on the continent leading to the passing of the 1972 European Communities Act. Notably, he was also the first Secretary of State to visit Communist China.

Adding strings to his bow was a Douglas-Home trait that didn’t waver in his dotage. Accepting the presidency of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) that effectively governed the English Cricketing Board. His self-penned memoirs titled The Way the Wind Blows published in 1975 was a bestseller with critics playfully referencing that country pursuits enjoyed equal coverage to politics. A life peerage was awarded in this period, and he tended to sit alongside Macmillan and Hailsham on the Lords red benches. He died in October 1995 aged 92 with a minute silence observed at the Conservative Party Conference held in Blackpool.

(Read Douglas-Home final speech in the Lords on War Criminals –



Sir Alec Douglas Home by Kenneth Young

The Way the Wind Blows by Lord Alec Douglas-Home

Letters to a Grandson by Lord Alec Douglas-Home

Alec Douglas-Home by DR Thorpe

Uncommon Commoner – A Study of Alec Douglas Home by John Dickie

Oxford Dictionary National Biography – Lord Alec Douglas-Home extract written by Lord Douglas Hurd

Hansard Parliamentary Debates

Lord Home of the Hirsel – BBC Desert Island Discs –

BBC 1964 General Election coverage –

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