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Alexander Frederick "Alec" Douglas-Home, Baron Home of the Hirsel, KT, PC, and formerly 14th Earl of Home (2 July 1903 – 9 October 1995) was a British politician who is definitely the most obscure UK Prime Minister of the post-war period, serving for almost exactly a year from October 1963 to October 1964.

His name, despite appearances, is pronounced "Hume".

An aristocrat by birth, he played first-class cricket in the 1920s as Lord Dunglass (a courtesy title he used as eldest son of the then-Earl of Home) after going to Eton and Oxford. Under this name he was elected as a Conservative MP in 1931 and served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Neville Chamberlain. He was present for the latter's final meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938, following which Chamberlain infamously announced it was "peace for our time" — a prediction that proved spectacularly wrong, although Dunglass always maintained the agreement was necessary to Britain's eventual winning of World War II, giving the country a year's grace to prepare for a conflict it could not have fought at that point.

War did of course eventually break out in September 1939, and Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, but Dunglass continued to serve under Winston Churchill. Attempting to volunteer for active military service however revealed he had a hole in his spine surrounded by tuberculosis in the bone. Without an innovative and hazardous 6-hour operation he would have been left unable to walk within months, but the diseased material was successfully scraped away and replaced with healthy bone from his shin — Dunglass congratulated his surgeon for having "put backbone into a politician". Impressively he remained an MP despite spending the next 2 years largely flat on his back in plaster, but lost his seat in the 1945 Labour landslide. He came back in 1950, yet the following year had to give up his seat in the House of Commons when he inherited his father's earldom and thereby became a member of the House of Lords as the 14th Earl of Home.

Under Churchill's second premiership and those of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan he was nonetheless appointed to a series of increasingly senior posts, including Leader of the House of Lords and Foreign Secretary. The latter appointment, in 1960, was controversial: in terms of ability and experience he was the obvious candidate, but by this point in time there was an expectation that the post would be held by a member of the Commons: it had not been held by a peer (someone with a noble title) since Lord Halifax in 1938–40. After discussions with outgoing Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd and senior civil servants, Macmillan took the unprecedented step of appointing two Foreign Office cabinet ministers: Home, as Foreign Secretarynote , in the Lords, and Edward Heath, as Lord Privy Seal and deputy Foreign Secretary, in the Commons.

Despite the unusual situation, and their very different backgrounds and ages, the pair turned out to work well together. Home was happy to leave Heath in charge of negotiations over Britain's entry to the European Economic Community, while he concentrated on the Cold War where his forcefully anti-communist beliefs were tempered by a pragmatic approach in dealing with the Soviet Union. In this role he supported United States resolve in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in August 1963 was the United Kingdom's signatory to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Then, that October, came a rather odd event.

Macmillan, PM since January 1957, suddenly stepped down when misdiagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. With no formal procedure for choosing a new Conservative leader, things were dealt with by an informal discussion. There were three front-runners: Rab Butler, Quintin Hogg and Reginald Maudling. Many of the Tory grandees were not prepared to serve with one of them, Mac didn't like Butler, Hogg put off many potential backers by his extrovert (some thought vulgar) campaigning, and Butler and Maudling both proved uninspiring at the party conference. And so Home emerged as an unlikely compromise candidate. Macmillan advised the Queen to send for him (on a day where the papers were predicting Butler was about to be appointed), and she enquired of the Earl if he might be able to form a government. Two Cabinet colleagues who disapproved of his candidacy, one of them firebrand right-winger Enoch Powell, indeed refused to serve under him. Yet Butler refused to join them, believing it was his duty to serve, and accepted the post of Foreign Secretary — and the rest of the Cabinet fell in line behind him. The following day, Home was able to return to Buckingham Palace and "kiss hands" with the sovereign to formally take up the premiership.

This is the last time a peer was appointed as Prime Minister, and the last time that the monarch had any say in appointing one. Nobody had been PM from the Lords since the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902, and when there had been a choice of candidates for the post in both 1923 and 1940 such an option had been expressly avoided. Home thus decided he'd best be PM from the Commons, resigned his peerage and subsidiary titles four days laternote , and was parachuted in to a vacant seat in a by-election — after an interim of twenty days during which he was Prime Minister while a member of neither house of Parliament, a situation without modern precedent. Having previously been made a Knight of the Order of the Thistle in 1962, he was now known as Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

The press were critical of the appointment from both left and right, with the Daily Mirror particularly cruelly comparing it (negatively) with Caligula's appointment of his horse as a consul. The leader of the opposition Labour party, Harold Wilson, meanwhile attacked the new PM as "an elegant anachronism", saying that nobody from Douglas-Home's background knew the problems of ordinary families: "After half a century of democratic advance, of social revolution, the whole process has ground to a halt with a fourteenth earl!" Douglas-Home dismissed this as inverted snobbery, observing "I suppose Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the fourteenth Mr Wilson." To their credit, the Opposition retreated, with a statement in the press that "The Labour Party is not interested in the fact that the new prime minister inherited a fourteenth Earldom – he cannot help his antecedents any more than the rest of us."

Alas, these circumstances in which he became PM are easily the most notable thing about his spell in the job.

Douglas-Home inherited from Macmillan a government widely perceived as in decline. His own brief tenure was marked by a gaffe when he made reference to using matchsticks to help him count, which obviously lent ammunition to the Opposition casting scorn on his budget figures. Even foreign affairs conspired against him: the assassination, barely a month into his premiership, of John F. Kennedy removed a US president whom he liked and worked well with and installed one in the shape of Lyndon Johnson with whom he never developed such a good relationship. His administration was really just biding time until the next general election due a year later; perhaps the best-remembered incident from it came in April 1964, when he successfully foiled an attempt by a pair of students to kidnap him by offering them some beer. (He didn't report it to prevent his bodyguard from being sacked.)

At that October's scheduled election, Douglas-Home's speeches on the campaign trail dealt with the future of the nuclear deterrent; but fears of Britain's relative decline in the world, reflected in chronic balance-of-payment problems, helped the Labour Party's case. Another factor may have been public recollection of one of his more regrettable public utterances: during the 1930s "Slump", a period of high unemployment, he had criticised the unemployed for staying in their northern communities, saying that they were foolish to hope for the regeneration of the coalmining, shipbuilding, steelmaking industries, and that they should all move to the southeast of England and seek positions of domestic servants in the homes of the rich! This was remembered in 1945 and again in 1964. The Conservatives' performance was also hurt by Macmillan having torn up a long-standing agreement whereby they and the Liberal Party would hold off on contesting certain seats in order to avoid splitting the votes and potentially throwing those seats to Labour, which ended up backfiring and resulting in them losing several seats to the Liberals (who in turn lost a couple to Labour thanks to vote-splitting), while ending any remote possibility of the Liberals propping up a potential minority Tory government.

The Conservatives only narrowly lost — quite impressive considering they had been in power for thirteen years, and had been severely damaged by the previous year's Profumo Scandal, which would likely have forced Macmillan out regardless — but Wilson's Labour were able to claim a narrow majority with 317 seats, to the Tories' 304 and the Liberals' 9. It has been speculated that the Conservatives, who tend to electorally thrive during times of international turbulence, may have actually won the election if two major foreign policy developments (China's first testing of nuclear weaponry and the removal of Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union) had taken place just hours earlier.

Douglas-Home is therefore one of only two Prime Ministers from the Conservative Party, the other being Arthur Balfour (1902-05), to fail at ever winning a mandate of their own at a general election — not counting Neville Chamberlain (1937-40) or Liz Truss (Sep-Oct 2022), neither of whom ever led the party into one. After only Bonar Law, who resigned the premiership in ill-health in 1923 after just 7 months, he was the second shortest-serving PM of the 20th century at two days shy of 1 calendar year.

Oddly, he once again made arguably more significant contributions to politics after ceasing to be Prime Minister. Notably he would change the method by which Tory leaders were chosen, to a vote among their MPs; previously they just left it up to the reigning monarch as part of the process of choosing a new PM, which obviously wasn't very useful for instances where the leadership became vacant while the party was in opposition. After leaving power there was no immediate pressure for Douglas-Home to hand over the leadership to a member of the younger generation, but by early 1965 a new Conservative group called PEST (yes, really: Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism) had begun to call for a change. So, deciding the time was coming for him to stand down, he set up an orderly process of secret balloting by party MPs for the election of his immediate and future successors as leader — before resigning, voting for Edward Heath (who won the ballot), and stepping away to become a backbench MP.

Or so he thought. Heath offered him the foreign affairs portfolio in his new Shadow Cabinet, and although Douglas-Home accepted many expected this to be a short-lived appointment, a prelude to his retirement from politics. Yet it was a tricky time in British foreign relations, and his experience and character proved vital in handling a difficult situation in Rhodesia where the white-minority rebel government were opposing immediate transfer to black majority rule. Douglas-Home earned praise for his unwavering opposition to the rebel government, and for ignoring those on the right wing of his own party who sympathised with the rebels on racial grounds, which won him the approval even of left-wing Labour MPs such as Tony Benn.

And his second act wasn't done just yet. Labour gained a stronger working majority at another election in 1966, so by 1970 when the next one was due Heath's position looked to be on the rocks — with the risk that divisive right-winger Enoch Powell would replace him as leader. Senior MPs, including Home's old leadership rival Reggie Maudling, believed that if Heath had to resign Douglas-Home would be the safest candidate to keep Powell out. The man himself refused to commit, yet amazingly he was once again on the verge of becoming the compromise choice for his party's leader. To the surprise of almost everyone except Heath, however, the Conservatives won the election that June, with a majority of 31.

This led to the final remarkable twist in Douglas-Home's career, when Heath invited him to join the Cabinet as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. This would make him the last former Prime Minister to serve in the cabinet of a successor at all, let alone in one of the four Great Offices of Statenote , for nearly 50 years — until another extraordinary political comeback saw David Cameron also appointed Foreign Secretary out of nowhere in November 2023 under his fourth successor as PM.note 

Douglas-Home remained Foreign Secretary for the duration of Heath's government, which ended in February 1974 when the next general election resulted in a hung parliament and Wilson's Labour Party returned to power as a minority government. He left the Commons at that October's subsequent election, called by Wilson in the hope of winning a working majority — Labour did win again, albeit with a majority of only 3 seats. He was given a life peerage and became Baron Home of the Hirsel (the stately home near the Scottish border that had been the seat of the Earls of Home since 1611), giving him the distinction of being one of the first ex-hereditary peers to return to the House of Lords as a life peer.note 

In retirement from frontline politics Lord Home concentrated increasingly on his writing and spending time in Scotland, spending less and less in the Lords: as his biographer (and a later Foreign Secretary) Douglas Hurd wrote, "there was no sudden moment when he abandoned politics", but rather "his interventions became fewer and fewer". His last parliamentary speech was in 1989 and he mostly withdrew from public life after the death of his wife Elizabeth the following year, after 54 years of marriage.

He died, just a few months after Wilson, in 1995 at the age of 92 — making him at the time the second longest-lived Prime Minister in history, some seven months short of Macmillan's record; the pair have since been surpassed only by Wilson's successor James Callaghan who died the day before his 93rd birthday. His son inherited his disclaimed title of Earl Home, becoming the 15th Earl, and ironically (given his father's efforts to escape it) became one of the 92 hereditary peers who were elected to remain in the House of Lords after most of them were unseated in Tony Blair's Lords reform; he died in 2022.

Alec Douglas-Home's popular image, when people remember him, was as a Scottish landowner and a decent chap. He really wasn't cut out for the 20th Century, unlike Wilson, but he was likeable, unlike Wilson. If you've read this far down this page, though, you have just spent more time thinking about him than 99.9% of British people in the last half-century ever have.

In fiction

  • Private Eye unearthed an article from the Aberdeen Evening Express (not, as commonly reported, The Scotsman) where in place of the intended photo of a man mentioned in the article, one Baillie Vass (a baillie being a type of municipal officer in Scotland), was accidentally printed a photo of the Prime Minister — but still with the "Baillie Vass" caption. After that, the Eye insisted on referring to the PM by that name and created a joke conspiracy theory about "Alec Douglas-Home" being an impostor and Baillie Vass his true identity, which they kept up until after his death.
    • They picked the joke back up again, as when his nephew Charles Douglas-Home became editor of The Times in the mid-1980s, they called him "Charles Vass". Sadly, the younger Douglas-Home died of cancer in 1985.
  • Douglas-Home appears in Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72, during the period in The '70s when he was Foreign Secretary to Edward Heath. As Heath wins the 1974 election in this Alternate History work, Douglas-Home continues as Foreign Secretary a few years longer and plays a key role in issues such as the occupation of Syria.
  • In the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas, the Doctor was actually elected MP (as "John Rutherford") on an anti-nuclear platform for the duration of Douglas-Home's government.
  • In The New Order Last Days Of Europe, an Alternate-History Nazi Victory mod for Hearts of Iron IV, Alec Douglas-Home is the starting Prime Minister of the Nazi collaborationist Kingdom of England in 1962.
    • As said appearance was a major case of Historical Villain Upgrade this piece of lore was later changed in the Fallen Lion Update. The collaborators are now led by actual Nazi/Facist sympathizers, meanwhile Douglas-Home begins the game as an exile in Kanada, though if the British Rebels can sucessfully overthrow the collaborators he can return as foreign secretary of a potential Conservative Party government under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.