The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Tribute to Lord Home – 16 October 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons Tribute to Lord Home, on 16th October 1995.


The Prime Minister (Mr John Major): A week ago Alec Douglas-Home, Lord Home, died at his home, The Hirsel. Alec Home was one of those people who light up politics with their integrity. I believe that the whole House will wish to join me today in sending our deepest sympathies to his family.

I was not privileged to know Alec Douglas-Home when he was Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary; I only had the pleasure of meeting him many years later. But even in those days, as someone who watched politics from far beyond this House, I felt from a distance that here was a man of many qualities and few pretensions. He believed that people with privileges had, with those privileges, to accept obligations. He could have chosen the leisured life of a Scottish laird, but he chose to accept obligation and a duty to public service. When fate called him to serve in the highest office, he disclaimed his historic titles, a step that no one in his position could possibly have taken lightly.

Alec Douglas-Home was a modest and a likeable man–a man of dignity, charming, witty and gentle. It is not surprising that he inspired affection among those with whom he worked and among millions who never met him. He never let public life take over. He was happiest with his family, fishing the River Tweed, studying the racing form book or on the cricket field. During one election, he abandoned the election campaign for a day playing cricket, which I think is a perfectly proper sense of priorities for an Englishman–and a very enlightened sense of priorities for a Scottish man. He was a good cricketer too, the only Prime Minister ever to play for MCC. Alec Home was a family man. His wife Elizabeth, the love of his life, was both his inspiration and his most resolute champion. She shared not only his triumphs and difficulties but his sense of humour. Both of them were devoted Christians, but perhaps only Elizabeth Home could have described the parliamentary Christian wives as the “holy hens” and escaped without rebuke.

Alec Home first stood for election in Coatbridge, as Alec Dunglass, in 1929. He was shocked by the poverty and hardship that he found there. Two years later, elected for the neighbouring constituency of South Lanark, itself no stranger to poverty, he had already formed his strong belief in one nation policies. By the end of 1935, he was parliamentary private secretary at the Ministry of Labour. A few months later, Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, invited him to become his parliamentary private secretary. Suddenly, with Neville Chamberlain’s elevation to Prime Minister, Alec Home found himself at the very centre of government. Although he did not accompany Chamberlain on all his foreign travels, he was with him at that crucial meeting in Munich with Hitler. Alec Home was not, of course, personally responsible for the agreements reached, but, with a loyalty that was characteristic of the man, he would never subsequently criticise Chamberlain’s actions.

At the outbreak of war, Alec Home was keen to serve. To his bitter disappointment, he was declared unfit. When tuberculosis of the spine was diagnosed, year upon year of painful treatment followed. With his spine rebuilt, his parting words to his doctors were typical of the man’s gentle, self-mocking humour. He said, “You have achieved the impossible; you have put backbone into a politician.” Time and time again during his subsequent political career he demonstrated that backbone. He dared to criticise Churchill for the Yalta agreement and the way in which it treated Poland. But three months later, in a typical Churchillian move, Alec Home was appointed to the Foreign Office for a spell lasting only a few weeks before the 1945 election. It was, however, an important step in his political development.

Five years later, Alec Home returned to the House. Only 12 months beyond that he inherited the titles that took him to the other place. He heard the news in the Chamber. He immediately rushed away, only to discover outside the Chamber that he had forgotten his spectacles. In keeping with the tradition of the House, his return was barred now that he was a part of the other place.

With the return of a Conservative Government, Alec Home was appointed to a new post as Minister of State, Scottish Office. He cared deeply about Scotland and about the Union. He once said, “I have always taken the view that we have successfully borrowed the canniness of the highlander to make a living out of the Englishman.” In 1955, Anthony Eden promoted Alec Home to Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. It was a time of unsettling change for the Commonwealth, which was struggling to adjust to the end of Empire. Alec Home was central to the Commonwealth’s evolution, taking particular responsibility for developing economic co-operation. During that period, he held also the offices of Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council.

Harold Macmillan increasingly relied on Alec Home’s wise and honest advice. In 1960, Macmillan made him Foreign Secretary. Alec Home quickly established authority across the world during an especially sensitive period in international relations. He displayed firmness in challenging the Soviet Union and he resolved a serious international crisis in Asia. He performed his role as Foreign Secretary as he did every role, without pretension.

The sight of a British Foreign Secretary climbing from an aeroplane in a rumpled tweed suit amused many foreign dignitaries. As Macmillan later said, “The Foreign Secretary has been accused of many things but never of being the best dressed man in the Cabinet.” I do not know why I look around to see whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is with us this afternoon, but I am sure that there must be a reason.

When Macmillan resigned, Alec Home did not at first see himself as a candidate; but when it was clear that he was best placed to unite the Conservative party, he became one. As Prime Minister, he did unite the party. I believe that he restored confidence in political life. Just as he promised, people knew that they could rely on his plain, straight talking. He introduced the controversial retail food prices index legislation, which brought competition to the retail industry and lower prices for the consumer. He interrupted his Christmas holiday to take decisive action to prevent a bloodbath in Cyprus. Time after time he ensured that Britain came to the assistance of her Commonwealth partners in Africa.

The tribute to the mark that Alec Home made as Prime Minister was not that he lost the 1964 election but that he came so close to winning it. After his resignation as party leader, he served loyally under my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), in opposition, and later once more as Foreign Secretary. His stature as an ex-Prime Minister enhanced his role across the world. After he returned to the Lords, he continued to be a source of wise counsel, and he was able to enjoy his retirement back home in the house that he loved so dearly for all his life. He was once again able to pursue the life of the Scottish gentleman that he had remained for all of his days.
Alec Home’s politics are best summed up in his own words. He once said:

“I want to get away from this `us and them’; Britain is one nation–it belongs to us all, and we belong to it”.

Some have said that Alec Home was a politician of another age. The greatest tribute that I can pay him today is simply this: I profoundly hope not.