November 1963: that was the by-election that was

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
THE outcome of the 1963 Kinross and West Perthshire by-election, held on 7 November, was never seriously in doubt, but it remains one of the most celebrated of post-war by-elections and the only one in which a prime minister stood as candidate.

In the coming weeks, much of the same rural territory will be trodden in the by-election to find a replacement for Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. It is unlikely to be as memorable a happening, though it may be a useful reminder of how much has changed (and how much has stayed the same) since 1963.

An extraordinary sequence of events led to the 14th Earl of Home offering himself to the electorate of Kinross and West Perthshire - a constituency which fitted him like a glove and which he represented until retiring from the Commons in 1974.

There were few more feudal or more solidly Tory corners of the kingdom than rural Perthshire. For most of the electorate, even during the Tory melt-down months of 1963, the appearance of an earl who was temporarily obliged to become a commoner for the purpose of being prime minister, was too good to be true.

It was a year which had produced the Profumo scandal, a series of spy dramas and Dr Beeching's plans for the railways. Harold Macmillan's administration went into free-fall in the opinion polls, and pressure mounted for him to resign. On 8 October, he went into hospital leaving RA Butler to chair the Cabinet.

A file of contenders and party grandees trooped into the King Edward VII Hospital for discussions. These were the days when leaders of the Conservative Party "emerged" rather than triumphed through any electoral process, and on 18 October Macmillan advised the Queen to send for Lord Home - the first peer to become prime minister since Lord Salisbury in 1895.

By the early 1960s, however, the idea of a prime minister in the Lords was unacceptable. This was where chance recent events came to the aid of Home. Earlier in 1963, Parliament had passed the Peerage Act allowing hereditary peers to renounce their titles on accession, or within 12 months of the passing of the Act. The new prime minister quickly set about doing so. He had, however, to remain in Parliament. The Tory MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, Gilmour Leburn, had died in August at the age of 50. George Younger was to be the Tory candidate in a by-election scheduled for 7 November.

Younger agreed to stand down, was found a seat in Ayr instead and never had cause to look back. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, as he now became, was nominated as Conservative and Unionist candidate, and the shortest by- election circus in modern political history was under way. Sir Alec combined the roles of prime minister and candidate.

A colourful field lined up against him, including Willy Rushton. It was the hey-day of BBC Television's That Was the Week That Was, on which Rushton was accustomed to playing Macmillan, while Lance Percival sent up Home.

However, his opening meeting in Killin attracted an audience of 300 who heard Rushton go "lightly and scathingly through the Prime Minister's life" and "frequently mimicking" the great man. Killin had seen nothing like it before. Rushton announced that his candidacy was a protest against "the completely arrogant way Lord Home has moved into Downing Street".

This reflected a widespread resentment and sense of astonishment throughout the country, though Perth and Kinross itself was the least likely breeding ground for such sentiments of lse majest. Sir Alec went on his stately way through the constituency. Opponents protested when schoolchildren were given a half-day to cheer his presence.

The Glasgow Herald reported admiringly how he combined the roles of candidate and statesman. "In the morning, suitably dressed in an old tweed knickerbocker suit, thick woollen socks and stout shoes, he went hill- farming...This evening, he took off, as Prime Minister, for London."

But while the style was quintessential grouse-moors Toryism, the political message makes curiously consensual reading today. When Sir Alec addressed "1,000 cheering women voters" in Crieff, he advised them that the policy of the Conservative Party was "not greedy materialism". To enhance all- round prosperity, he said, "we have set up the National Economic Development Council in which the Government, industry and trade unions are co-operating. For, if Britain is to prosper, all must play their part."

The by-election outcome was never in doubt. The Tory share of the vote dropped to a healthy 58 per cent, the Liberals came second and Rushton received 45 votes.

Asked if he intended to buy a house in the constituency, Sir Alec replied: "Good heavens, no. I have too many houses already." The Liberals called for a ban on opinion polls during by-elections, describing them as "a dangerous interference in the democratic process".

On the same night, the Tories lost Luton where Charles Hill, "the Radio Doctor", had been unwisely elevated to the peerage. Their defeat soon proved to be a more prophetic guide to the mood of the country than Sir Alec Douglas-Home's triumph in the glens of Perthshire.

The writer is the Labour MP for Cunninghame North.