The real-life Duke of Omnium in Trollope: honourable, decent, straightforward

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The Independent Online
Only one Conservative prime minister has had a shorter tenure than Alec Home. This was Bonar Law (1922-23) who resigned because of ill- health in May 1923 and died a few months later. Maynard Keynes, who knew him well, wrote words which could be applied to Alec Home too.

The public, he said, have regarded Bonar Law as ''a great public servant whose life of austerity and duty has served them rather than himself''. And he went on: "Many politicians are too much enthralled by the crash and glitter of the struggle, their hearts obviously warmed by the swell and pomp of authority. We have preferred to be governed by the sad smile of one who adopts towards the greatest office in the state the attitude that whilst of course it is nice to be Prime Minister, it is no great thing to covet, and who feels in office and not merely afterwards the vanity of things."

Alec Home's smile was never sad, but otherwise the description fits. He was certainly not an addict of ''the crash and glitter''. He was naturally pleased to be Prime Minister. ''Only a fool,'' he wrote, ''would deny a feeling of gratification at occupying the honourable place of First Minister of the Crown.''

It does not follow that the pleasure continued throughout his year in office. ''If I have a regret,'' he wrote, ''it is that, by reason of the fact that I never dreamed of holding the position, I had taken no particular steps to prepare myself for it. Had I done so I would have soaked myself more thoroughly in domestic issues rather than specialising so completely in foreign affairs.''

There have been highly successful prime ministers who specialised in foreign policy. Palmerston and Salisbury are obvious examples. But they lived in an era when the national economy was regarded rather as the weather is today - something outside the scope of politics or ministerial responsibility. Anthony Eden was the first ex- Foreign Secretary to occupy Number 10 since the Second World War - indeed, the first since Lord Salisbury, and he was never at ease in dealing with domestic affairs. Yet during this century, with rare exceptions, it has been the home front where elections have been won or lost.

Home also suffered from the extraordinary concatenation of circumstances which made his elevation possible at all: the Peerage Renunciation Act; the timing of Harold Macmillan's unnecessary (as it turned out) resignation; Macmillan's determination to dish Rab Butler; the ''Magic Circle''; the questionable methods used to assure the Queen that Home was the man the party wanted. If one adds to these the ''grouse-moor image'', the 14th earldom and a singular lack of telegenic appeal, it is easy to understand the problems of a premiership which was largely an election campaign. Home was no good at the ''soundbite'', though by saying that he presumed Harold Wilson was the 14th Mr Wilson he did manage to put a stopper on one particularly silly form of electioneering - inverted snobbery.

Given all these handicaps, the surprise was not that he lost the election of 1964 but that he very nearly won it, reducing a Labour lead of some 12 percentage points to only 0.7. But loss is loss, however narrow the margin. There was the inevitable backlash. He was right to resign after making arrangements for an electoral system to choose the successor; though it will long be argued whether the system was a good one.

Alec Home was a very distinguished Foreign Secretary, but he was not a great Prime Minister. If one seeks an analogy it should perhaps not be found in the history books but in fiction. Alec Home was the real-life Duke of Omnium in Trollope's The Prime Minister, honourable, decent, straightforward. When the Duke resigned and was asked to join the Cabinet of his successor he at first said that Caesar could not serve under Pompey but after an interval changed his mind.

Alec Home did not hesitate to serve under Heath, and his second spell at the Foreign Office was perhaps the highlight in the career of one generally acclaimed as the nicest man in politics during the 20th century.

Robert Blake