Alec Douglas-Home

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Sir Alec Douglas-Home, c. 1963

Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, Baron Home of the Hirsel, KT (born 2 July 1903 in Mayfair, London, England; † 9 October 1995 in Berwickshire, Scotland, 14th Earl of Home from 1951 to 1963) was a British politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1963 to 1964. Douglas-Home belonged to the Conservative Party. In 1951 he inherited the title 14th Earl of Home, which he renounced in 1963.

Douglas-Home was the last member of the House of Lords to be appointed Prime Minister to date, but resigned his peerage (as announced before his appointment) shortly afterwards, and with it his seat in the House of Lords, to face a by-election to the House of Commons. In addition, Douglas-Home was to date the last Prime Minister to serve in the Cabinet of one of his successors after the end of his own term; he served as Foreign Secretary in Edward Heath’s government between 1970 and 1974.


Political rise

Douglas-Home was born in Mayfair, London, the eldest son of the Scottish peer Charles Douglas-Home, 13th Earl of Home, and as his Heir apparent held the courtesy title Lord Dunglass from 1918. His brother was the playwright William Douglas-Home. Educated at Eton College and Christ Church, College, Oxford University, he became a Member of Parliament in 1931 as a Conservative MP. His aristocratic background facilitated his political rise within the Conservative Party. He was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1937, and as a result witnessed at close quarters the late attempts to avoid a major war by negotiating with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938. During World War II, Douglas-Home was unfit for military service due to a sudden onset of tuberculosis in his spine, which caused him to live for several years almost entirely lying down and with supporting bandages.[1] After his recovery he took part again in meetings of the House of Commons from 1943 and expressed himself among other things critically to the negotiations of the conference of Yalta. 1945 he became parliamentary private secretary in the British Foreign Office. He lost his parliamentary seat at the House of Commons election on 5 July 1945; he regained it in 1950. When he inherited his father’s seat in the House of Lords and became the 14th Earl of Home, he was forced to give up his seat in the House of Commons in 1951. From 1957 to 1960 Douglas-Home was leader of the House of Lords. In 1960 he was appointed Secretary of State. In 1962 he was knighted with the Order of the Thistle.[2]

The major events of his time as Secretary of State were the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he strongly supported the US position. A key success of Douglas-Home’s diplomatic activities was the 1963 treaty banning nuclear weapons testing.

Prime Minister

In 1963, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan unexpectedly resigned following the Profumo affair, when a medical diagnosis incorrectly gave him no hope of recovery due to prostate cancer. At the time, Conservative Party rules stipulated that its party leader should be determined by the decision of the party’s elder statesmen. Although Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler was the favourite of the majority of Conservative MPs, the elder statesmen preferred Douglas-Home. Some indicated they did not want to join a cabinet of Butler or the other potential candidate, Quintin Hogg. There was also the public image of the potential successors: Butler was judged by Macmillan himself to be unsuitable and was seen as colourless and weak in decision-making, while Hogg was seen as erratic and vain and was too obvious in his bid for the office of party leader, which was considered undignified or vulgar by the public at the time.[3] In contrast, Douglas-Home was known to have integrity and integrity, and had few opponents in the party. This made him seem an ideal compromise candidate.

Outgoing Prime Minister Harold Macmillan briefed Queen Elizabeth II on the views of the party’s notables. Although it was argued that he had no right to advise the Queen on forming a government and the Queen had no obligation to accept his advice, the Queen appointed the Earl of Home as Prime Minister. Douglas-Home, first British Prime Minister born in the 20th century, saw it as inappropriate to be a member of the House of Lords as Prime Minister (it is widely believed that Lord Curzon was not appointed Prime Minister in the 1920s because of his position in the House of Lords). He took advantage of the recently passed Peerage Act 1963 to relinquish his earldom (along with subordinate peer titles) on 23 October 1963. Instead of his peer title, he henceforth used the title “Sir”, which he was entitled to as a Knight of the Order of the Thistle. By renouncing, he lost his seat in the House of Lords and was able to stand for election in a by-election in the safe Scottish constituency of Kinross & West Perthshire. He won the vote by a clear margin.

The government was too damaged to survive after thirteen years of uninterrupted Conservative rule, and the House of Commons election on 15 October 1964 was won by Labour and the new leadership of Harold Wilson. It was during this election campaign that Douglas-Home made his most famous statement, with Wilson repeatedly jibing that Douglas-Home, as the 14th Earl of Home, was not a man of the people. Whose reply was, “As far as the fourteenth Earl is concerned, I think Mr Wilson, if you think about it, is the fourteenth Mr Wilson.” (As far as the fourteenth earl is concerned, I suppose Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the fourteenth Mr Wilson.)[4] Considering the poor state of the governing Conservative party, the election result (Labour won only a slim majority of four seats) was considered quite respectable, so Douglas-Home, who was highly respected in the party, remained party and opposition leader for the time being.

After his term of office

As party leader in 1965, Douglas-Home ensured a change in the procedure for electing the party leader, who from then on was elected by members of the parliamentary party. When he resigned in July 1965, Edward Heath was elected to succeed him. During the following years Douglas-Home was loyal to Heath, who came under pressure within the party, especially from the right (including from Enoch Powell). When Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, Douglas-Home returned to the Foreign Office. The successful accession negotiations with the European Community were his greatest success.

He returned to the House of Lords from the House of Commons in 1974 , when he was elevated to the title of Life Peer , Baron Home of the Hirsel, of Coldstream in the County of Berwick (named after his family seat, The Hirsel, in the south of Scotland).[5] After the defeat of the Heath government by Harold Wilson in the two 1974 elections (28 February and 10 October 1974), Douglas-Home retired from the front row of politics, but continued with interventions from the House of Lords into his nineties. Douglas-Home was the third longest-lived British prime minister after Harold Macmillan and James Callaghan.


In 1953 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.[6]

Marriage and offspring

He had been married to Elizabeth Hester Alington (1909-1990) since 1936. With her he had three daughters and a son, David, who inherited him in 1995 as the 15th Earl of Home.


  • The way the wind blows. An autobiography. Collins, London 1976, ISBN 0-00-211997-8.


  • Douglas Hurd: Home, Alexander Frederick Douglas-, fourteenth earl of Home and Baron Home of the Hirsel (1903-1995). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • D.R. Thorpe: Alec Douglas-Home. Sinclair-Stevenson, London 1996, ISBN 978-1-84275-191-6.

Web links

Commons: Alec Douglas-Home– Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. Keith Laybourn: Fifty Key Figures in Twentieth-Century British Politics. Routledge, London 2002, ISBN 0-415-22676-7, p. 134
  2. The London Gazette: No. 42815, p. 8275, 23 October 1962.
  3. Peter Henessy: Winds of Change. Britain in the Early Sixties. Alan Lane, London 2019 ISBN 978-1-8461-4110-2 pp. 234ff.
  4. Ben Pimlott: Harold Wilson. HarperCollins, London 1992, ISBN 0-00-215189-8, p. 3.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 46441, pp. 13203 f. , 24 December 1974.
  6. Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783-2002.(PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, retrieved 21 December 2019.
Predecessor Office Successor
Charles Douglas-Home Earl of Home
1951-1963 (relinquished title)
David Douglas-Home
(from 1995)