He represented all that was best in his generation . . . everyone trusted him

Lord Home of the Hirsel - better known as Sir Alec Douglas-Home - the only Prime Minister this century to be drawn from the House of Lords, died yesterday at his estate in the Borders aged 92.

Although widely credited as one of the best post-war Foreign Secretaries, Lord Home's year-long premiership, which began in October1963, was characterised by its brevity.

The real significance of his term as prime minister was the watershed it provided between the patrician rule of the old-style grouse-moor Tories and the emergence of their modern successors.

A minute's silence will be observed today at the opening of the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. Yesterday, cross-party tributes piled up for a man whose long career included a spell as parliamentary private secretary to Neville Chamberlain when he made his notorious 1938 "peace in our time" forecast, and who was the last Tory leader to emerge from the party's secret "magic circle" selection process.

The appointment of an "aristocrat" was criticised by Labour and the Liberals. But contrary to forecasts, the gaunt, genteel, old-fashioned Home - who subsequently admitted using matchsticks to work out economic policy - almost held on to power in the 1964 election despite the popular appeal of Labour leader Harold Wilson and Tory disarray in the wake of the Profumo scandal. Labour sneaked in with an overall majority of four seats.

Lord Hailsham, one of the then Tory leadership contenders, confirmed that Lord Home was "reluctant" to be Prime Minister after the resignation of Harold Macmillan.

John Major said Home was "understated and often underestimated", adding: "He was always conscious of the obligations his position placed upon him, which showed through in a genuine concern for the welfare of the whole nation."

Lord Home's health deteriorated markedly in 1990, after the death of Elizabeth, his wife of 52 years.

The Prime Minister's tribute was echoed by Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader. "Alec Douglas-Home was the last of the gentlemen politicians who had no other motivation than public service," said Sir David.

Lord Home's magnanimity - and absence of cut-throat ambition - showed in his gracious acceptance of the post of Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath, his successor when the Tories regained power in the early 1970s.

Sir Edward said yesterday that Lord Home had never had enough credit for almost winning the 1964 election but that he would be better remembered for his work in foreign affairs. "He made his mark as Secretary of State for the Commonwealth and then as Foreign Secretary and he was completely trusted by everyone with whom he was dealing, and that is of the greatest importance."

Lord Callaghan, the former Labour premier, said Lord Home was "a very modest man, with little patience for the sort of hype and soundbite style of today's politics". Labour leader Tony Blair said: "The whole country will be saddened at the loss of a man who served Britain for so long. He loved his country and was a man of great integrity and great compassion."

Baroness Thatcher, who once described the elder statesman as the "wisest man I have ever met", said: "Integrity shone out of Alec Douglas-Home. Everyone trusted and admired him. . . He represented all that was best in his generation."

Lord Home gave up six peerages to become prime minister but finally returned to the Lords after retirement at 71 with a life peerage. Even after his 80th birthday he spoke and voted.

He will also be remembered for his wit. In the early 1940s he lay in plastercast for two years with tuberculosis of the spine. Afterwards, he joked: "The doctors have done the impossible - put backbone into a politician."

Obituaries, page 10

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