Foreign Policy Home-work

Alec Douglas-Home was one of Britain's best ambassadors this century. By Patrick Cosgrave; Alec Douglas-Home by D R Thorpe, Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
In 1963, when I was an undergraduate in Dublin, I bought my first pair of spectacles. Somewhat to the bafflement of the optician I insisted on the half-moon variety, because that was the kind worn by the British Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Home whom, I was quite certain, would very shortly become Prime Minister, and whose precepts about and practice of international diplomacy I greatly admired. Home did become Prime Minister and I, naturally, followed the next year in British politics with a proprietary interest, being more than a little distressed when he was defeated in the general election of 1944.

Over the subsequent years I got to know Home, not intimately, but fairly well, in the way that a political journalist can get to know a senior politician. But the spectacles were to come back to haunt me. At a dinner party not long before her death, I put to his wife my thesis that the most remarkable thing about the 1964 campaign was not that he lost, but that he so nearly won.

After all, he had inherited a party in turmoil and a national economy teetering on the edge of an abyss. He faced, in Harold Wilson, probably the most consummate party political tactician of our time. He had to re- familiarise himself with the House of Commons after years of absence, and he had only months in which to establish his authority. "Yes", said Elizabeth Home. "It was very close. It was those bloody glasses that did for him. But, there, he wouldn't change them."

She may well have had a point, for great affairs often turn on what, in retrospect, may seem to be trivial matters. Home's brief time as Prime Miniser was dogged by the sedulous campaigns of Harold Wilson, Private Eye, and many cartoonists, to portray him as some sort of buffoonish squire who had wandered into the modern world from the grouse moor and thought he could run a government.

However, the time has passed when concentration on Home's short period at the head of affairs should be allowed to overshadow the crowning achievements of his life. He was twice Foreign Secretary, first during the premiership of Harold Macmillan, and then during that of Edward Heath. These were two very different leaders to serve but, as Mr Thorpe brings out very well in this diligent and admirable biography, there was a seamless consistency to the conduct of British foreign policy throughout both his periods in office which did a tremendous job in restoring Britain's self-respect, and earning her the respect of others, which had been lost in the years following the Suez disaster.

Mr Thorpe has the singular advantage of unfettered access to Home's personal archive, though it is important to add that his research took him far beyond this privileged terrain. The book was, moreover, undertaken at Home's invitation. Readers tend to approach work undertaken in such circumstances with suspicion, for it is easy to believe that the writer will be over- partial to the subject. Since this is the fullest account of Home's career which we are likely to see for many years it is vital, therefore, to stress that Mr Thorpe has been meticulous in research and scrupulous in the objectivity of his judgement.

Home wanted a Scottish biographer, and Mr Thorpe is particularly good on the Scottish nature of his character. It was this that gave him that inner steeliness of character which made him such a formidable international negotiator. Many a foreign diplomat, initially beguiled by the easy charm of his manner, came to rue a passage of arms with a diplomat who thoroughly expressed, throughout his official life, a belief in the truth of Curzon's dictum that the first rule of diplomacy was to know your own mind, and the second to make sure that the other man knew it too.

But there was much more to Home than an innate Scottish grittiness. He was widely and deeply read and thus was able to develop a profound understanding of the workings of international relations. This understanding provided him with a bedrock of certainty in his diplomatic dealings which was invaluable to his country.

Home also had the enviable gift of expression of difficult or unpopular concepts in simple, intelligible terms. This gift was most brilliantly expressed in his delightful 1983 book, Letters to a Grandson, which it behoves any aspiring diplomat to read.

His depth of understanding also gave him another advantage over his contemporaries in office. He understood better than any of them (and certainly better than Harold Macmillan or Edward Heath) the consequences of the end of empire, but he looked on that ending with an unsentimental eye. He set himself to exploit the complex balance of power which existed in the new world to Britain's advantage.

No-one saw more clearly than Home the possibilities open to a medium- sized power operating in a complex international system, to operate the system to its advantage here and there. He did much to develop our relations with the United States, and repair those with France, while his relations with the Soviet Union were a perfect blend of firmness and patient diplomacy. He also saw that the Soviet Union could not last and predicted its dissolution almost to the year of the dissolution itself. This country has been graced by many considerable Foreign Secretaries but, in my judgement, there has been none to match Alex Douglas-Home since the great Lord Salisbury.