OBITUARIES: Lord Home of the Hirsel

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''If'' was Rudyard Kipling's most popular poem; and he came to hate it because of its popularity. It was Harold Wilson's favourite poem; and Wilson never tired of quoting it. Two lines of the poem (which famously concludes, ''Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!'') seem to me particularly to apply to Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home, briefly - from 1963 to 1964 - Prime Minister and subsequently, as a life peer, Lord Home of the Hirsel. Before his return to the House of Commons (on his appointment as Prime Minister) Home had held various government offices but, most notably, he was Foreign Secretary from 1960 to 1963 and, again, from 1970 to 1974.

The Kipling lines preceding the conclusion of the poem, which fit exactly Home's character, are:

If you can meet with Triumph and

Disaster

And treat those two impostors just

the same.

Alec Home was certainly, in Kipling's meaning, a Man; and he met Triumph and Disaster with an unruffled serenity which was the essence of his nature.

Perhaps the most characteristic event in Home's life came in August 1965. As is now held by all reputable historians, he had become Prime Minister in October 1963 as a result of a brazen piece of trickery (in which Home himself had no part) by his predecessor, Harold Macmillan. (Macmillan was determined, above all else, to deny the succession to R.A. Butler.) The methods employed to outmanoeuvre Butler were such as to give an impetus to moves within the Conservative Party (moves inspired by Humphry Berkeley) to have future leaders chosen by ballot among Tory MPs.

After his narrow defeat by Labour in the general election of 1964, Home set in motion the process by which a system of election would be established. Partly because his national electoral defeat had been so narrow, and partly because of his unforced good nature, Home would have been a certain winner in the party poll of August 1965. To much amazement, he declined to stand, Berkeley being one among the many who urged him to be a candidate. ''If they want me,'' he said, ''I will serve. But I won't go begging for it.'' Thereafter he loyally and effectively served Edward Heath as shadow Foreign Secretary and Foreign Secretary.

Home was born in 1903 into a wealthy landed family, possessed of two great Scottish estates, in Berwickshire and Lanarkshire. As with many aristocratic families - particularly the Border families - the wealth and respectability of the Homes was founded on a somewhat murky (if distant) historical background: family tradition has it that the distinctive pronunciation of the name - ''Hume'' - came about because the first Earl of Home, in the course of a cattle-rustling raid into England, was ambushed by indignant cattle owners. Striving to rally his troops, the earl roared, ''Home, Home'', so his men decamped. The pronunciation was changed that night.

Of the four sons of the 13th earl, Alec was the only one to manifest, early in his life, an interest in politics. (His father had none.) William became a playwright, noted for his light comedies, and Henry (father of the late Charles, editor of the Times) a reclusive ornithologist. ''I think it began,'' he once told me, ''because as a boy I was fascinated by history. But it only really developed when I married Elizabeth.'' This was in 1936. Elizabeth was the daughter of the formidable historian C.A. Alington, Home's headmaster at Eton and, at the time of the marriage, Dean of Durham.

However, when he married, Home had been MP for Lanark for five years. His campaigns in one of the toughest of the Scottish seats showed a capacity for taking political flak (he once had to escape potentially violent hecklers by climbing through a rear window and dropping from the first floor to the ground) which, in due course, was to surprise those who fell for Harold Wilson's description of him as effete. He suffered, too, in gaining international sporting distinction, twice having a thumb broken when playing international cricket for MCC. (He was the only prime minister who ever played the game at that level; and his only prime ministerial sporting rival was Edward Heath, when he skippered Morning Cloud to victory in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 1969.)

From very early on Home was a reclusive child of the countryside. His father began to teach him to shoot and fish at the age of six, and these two sports absorbed him for the rest of his life. (He never learnt to ride properly, as he was afflicted with a weak back.) To the despair of his mother, he was intensely shy outside the family circle. He hated the company of other children. ''My mother,'' he told me, ''was constantly having children's parties, or packing me off to parties at other houses. I found it positively mortifying. I just wanted to spend my time with a book, or out with William and Henry and a rod or a gun.''

Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, however, brought out the inherent geniality of Home's temperament. He was never distinguished as a scholar, and left university with a third-class degree of which he said, later in life, rather ruefully, ''I'm afraid I spent rather too much time at the wicket.'' None the less, the vision of an outer world to which Oxford introduced this scion of a somewhat obscure landed family served the Conservative candidate in Lanark in 1931 well. Home brought a larger understanding than was common among Tory candidates in the Scotland of that time to the grim, and sometimes desperate, affairs of a depressed local economy.

His historical reading had brought him to a deep, and later profound, interest in international relations, which was wonderfully expressed in his Letters to a Grandson (1983). Home could absorb the most complex of political information and, for a speech, distil it with simple lucidity. He was never a great orator - his voice was too light, for one thing - but to the end of his life he had a directness of utterance which had great appeal. Thus, for example, when he was Foreign Secretary in the government headed by Harold Macmillan, he addressed himself to the refusal of the Soviet Union to pay her dues to the United Nations. Mindful of the fact that a speech in Preston would be closely scrutinised in the United States, he took the central slogan of the 18th-century American revolutionaries - ''No taxation without representation'' - and inverted it. So far as the Soviet Union was concerned, he said that there should be ''no representation without taxation''. Shortly thereafter the Russians paid up.

Until 1935 Home's understanding of foreign policy was derived entirely from his reading of history. In that year, however, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, appointed Home his Parliamentary Private Secretary, an unpaid dogsbody's job which, none the less, gave Home a priceless opportunity to see at close hand the inner workings of the most momentous period of international relations in the 20th century.

To the end of his days Home maintained that the Munich Agreement of 1938 (he accompanied Chamberlain to his meeting with Hitler in that city) was justified, on the grounds that it gave the United Kingdom time to re-arm. Some historians doubt that any serious effort at rearmament was undertaken. But the record shows that Home, unlike Chamberlain, had no doubts about the malignity of Hitler. Already a major in the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, he intended to serve in the forthcoming war.

Misfortune then struck. His back had been giving him increasing trouble. He was diagnosed tubercular and, in accord with the medical wisdom of the day, consigned to bed. At a stroke, Home was taken away from both work and pleasures. Because of agreement between the parties which formed the coalition government in May 1940 he remained MP for Lanark. By the terms of that agreement the life of Parliament was prolonged for the duration of the war and, in the event of the death of a sitting member, his party would have a free run in a by-election. There was nothing, therefore, to be done in Lanark.

Left without politics, unable to fight, shoot or fish, Home could only lie, or sit, and read. He adopted a reading habit which he kept up until old age: three books were always on the go - a straight novel, a detective story and a work of history, for preference political biography. He also acquired a hobby judged a trifle bizarre by his friends. He learnt the theory and practice of flower- arranging. Almost to the end of his life he did all the flower- arranging at the Hirsel, the family seat in Berwickshire, ''because I was best at it, and if I didn't do it nobody else would anyway''. His naturally sunny temperament sustained him during the war years, but another misfortune awaited him: in the general election of 1945 he lost Lanark.

Home returned to the Commons when the Tories won the 1951 general election and was made Minister of State at the Scottish Office, where he served for nearly four years, concerning himself mainly with the problems of Scottish agriculture, on which subject he was, of course, already an expert. For most of that time he was in the Lords (he had succeeded as 14th Earl of Home on his father's death in July 1951). In 1955 he became Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and in 1957 he added to this post that of Lord President of the Council, with a brief to oversee the merger of the Commonwealth and Foreign Offices. But there was considerable astonishment when Harold Macmillan made him Foreign Secretary in 1960. In opposition ranks there was outrage. The Labour Party believed that the Foreign Secretary, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should always sit in the Commons. They were also convinced that Home would be merely a mouthpiece for the Prime Minister.

But, whereas it is the law that the Chancellor should always be in the lower house (because it has sole control over money bills), the position over the Foreign Secretary was merely a convention. (There would be no bar to a prime minister sitting in the upper house, but it would, of course, be impractical, as Home decided in 1963.) And Labour was soon disabused of the notion that Home would be other than his own man. His knowledge of foreign policy was profound. His utterance was trenchant.

Home and Macmillan were in general agreement on policy, but there were differences of emphasis between them. Home was far less starry-eyed than Macmillan about joining the Common Market. He was content to leave the detailed negotiations to the Lord Privy Seal, Edward Heath. But he kept a sharp eye on progress, argued powerfully in Cabinet against giving too much away and, with a prescience that was beyond Heath and Macmillan, warned his colleagues that President de Gaulle would veto British entry.

De Gaulle's veto was one of many blows struck against the faltering Macmillan government. The economy was in serious difficulty. A series of scandals, mainly connected with Soviet espionage - the Vassall affair, the defection to the Soviet Union of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess - was followed by the news that John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, was associated with a prostitute, Christine Keeler, who was friendly with an attache at the Soviet embassy, and had lied to the House of Commons about the affair. Macmillan was both disillusioned and weary. He developed a prostate problem and, in October 1963, decided to resign. He was determined above all else that R.A. Butler, the obvious candidate, should not succeed him and, there being no system of election for Conservative leaders, was able, by a series of unscrupulous manoeuvres, to procure the succession for Home. (Home played no part in the Macmillan plot - at one time he tried to withdraw from the contest.)

The new prime minister faced formidable problems, not least of which was the refusal of Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell to serve him in Cabinet, both men having been Butler partisans. He had no experience of economic policy. He had little time - a general election had to be held at the latest within a year. He had to find a seat in the House of Commons (recent legislation had enabled him to disclaim his title). And, finally, he was faced by Harold Wilson, the most brilliant Labour leader of modern times.

Having won a by-election, Home faced the most difficult year of his life. Labour possessed a commanding lead in the opinion polls, and Wilson regularly wrong-footed him in the House. But Home's shining integrity, his essential decency, and his command of foreign policy at a tricky time in international relations all got through to the electorate. He lost the general election of 1964, but only just, Labour having a majority of only three. ''It was not remarkable that Alec lost,'' observed a colleague. ''It was a miracle that he so nearly won.''

Largely because of disgust with Macmillan's scheming, the Conservatives decided in future to elect their leaders. In the first contest, in 1965, Home having declined to stand, Edward Heath became leader. Home served him loyally and, after the Tory victory of 1970, served again as Foreign Secretary, signalling his forceful return to the job he loved by expelling 115 Soviet diplomats who, he believed, were spies. The autumn of his executive career demonstrated his continued grasp of policy, and his decisiveness, though the most important matter of foreign policy, joining the EEC, was kept in the hands of the Prime Minister, who took British membership of the Community as his principal cause in politics.

After the unexpected Conservative defeat in the general election of February 1974 Home announced his retirement. It was to be an active retirement. He made many speeches in the House of Lords (where he had returned as a life baron) and even during recesses worked two hours a day on official papers. Although he handed the administration of his estates over to one of his daughters he exercised a general supervision of his land. He fished, accompanied by a black Labrador, and looked after the two and a half acres of beautiful garden at the Hirsel. ''The back's troublesome,'' he told me in 1989, ''so I do the gardening lying flat.'' I asked how this was possible. He rose and lay flat on his back on the carpet and mimed how he went about the job. ''There are advantages,'' he said. ''One can see the roots.''

Home was a wonderful companion. The warmth of his personality and the readiness of his wit captivated all who knew him. In defence of his country's interests, however, he was a man of steel, and his profound knowledge of the history and practice of foreign policy was invaluable to Britain in dangerous times. Yet he could have given himself an easier life on his estates. Especially after 1974, nobody could have gainsaid him if he had retreated to the Hirsel. But he continued to labour in the public service. He was a great servant of the nation.

Patrick Cosgrave

Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, politician: born Coldstream, Berwickshire 2 July 1903; styled Lord Dunglass 1918-51; MP (Unionist) for South Lanark 1931-45; PPS to the Minister of Labour 1935-36, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer 1936-37, to the Prime Minister 1937-40; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign Office 1945; MP (Conservative) for Lanark 1950- 51; succeeded 1951 as 14th Earl of Home (disclaimed his hereditary peerages for life 1963); PC 1951; Minister of State, Scottish Office 1951-55; Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations 1955-60; Deputy Leader, House of Lords 1956-57; Leader, House of Lords, and Lord President of the Council 1957- 60; Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1960-63; KT 1962; MP (Unionist) for Kinross and West Perthshire 1963-74; Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury 1963-64; Leader of the Opposition 1964-65; Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1970-74; created 1974 Baron Home of the Hirsel; married 1936 Elizabeth Alington (died 1990; one son, three daughters); died Coldstream 9 October 1995.

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