The Way the Wind Blows by Alec Douglas-Home.
I've been meaning for quite some time now to read more political writings of former Prime Ministers and, in preparation, I've amassed a small collection: Winston Churchill's The Second World War books, Margaret Thatcher's two books The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years, John Major's The Autobiography, and Tony Blair's A Journey, as well as Alastair Campbell's diaries The Blair Years. Then this week by chance in a charity shop I came across Alec Douglas-Home's autobiography The Way the Wind Blows, first published in 1976, nineteen years before his death.
One of my reasons for wanting to read these books is to learn a bit about the time as well as about the personalities. Of course we must treat autobiographies and memoirs, particularly political ones, with some caution. I assume, as is the autobiographers' prerogative, they are airbrushed and the truth sometimes at the very least questionable, perhaps with omissions, and designed at times to excuse, apologise (in a manner of speaking) or paint the writer in a good light. However I'm not so much interested in that aspect, I'm reading these fairly casually with my own politics put firmly to one side. It's an exercise simply in learning and reaching some degree of understanding with the era. With that in mind, on to Douglas-Home.
To give an idea of where Douglas-Home ('Home' pronounced 'Hume', by the way) fits in, here's a list of Prime Ministers since the Second World War:
George VI (1936 - 1952)
Neville Chamberlain (Conservative: 1937 - 1940)
Winston Churchill (Conservative: 1940 - 1945)
Clement Attlee (Labour: 1945 - 1951)
Elizabeth II (1952 - present)
Winston Churchill (Conservative: 1951 - 1955)
Anthony Eden (Conservative: 1955 - 1957)
Harold Macmillan (Conservative: 1957 - 1963)
Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative: 1963 - 1964)
Harold Wilson (Labour: 1964 - 1970)
Edward Heath (Conservative: 1970 - 1974)
Harold Wilson (Labour: 1974 - 1976)
James Callaghan (Labour: 1976 - 1979)
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative: 1979 - 1990)
John Major (Conservative: 1990 - 1997)
Tony Blair (Labour: 1997 - 2007)
Gordon Brown (Labour: 2007 - 2010)
David Cameron (Conservative: 2010 - 2016)
Theresa May (Conservative: 2016 - present)
As you can see, Lord Home was Prime Minister only for a year, from 19th October 1963 to 16th October 1964.
|Alec Douglas-Home in 1963).|
It's worth saying that this autobiography is remarkable in two respects: firstly, it's not the usual vein of "I was born in &etc", in fact I don't recall if Lord Home even mentioned that (he was born, I discovered elsewhere, in 1903), and secondly it's incredibly short for a political biography, dwarfed by Margaret Thatcher's two volumes, and probably less than a third of the size of Blair and Major's. These 280 or so pages, therefore, whip by remarkably quickly. He begins with his childhood,
When I succeeded Mr Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister in 1963, an inquisitive journalist sought out our head game-keeper and asked him, 'What do you know about the Homes?' He was probably bamboozled by the reply: 'Oh, the Homes boys always seem to know which way the wind blows.' Our game-keeper was not thinking of me as a political trimmer, but simply stating a fact of our family life; for my father was a countryman, and a naturalist, and on the right interpretation of wind or weather depended the action of the day. So every morning, as soon as we could walk, our first conscious act was to look and see which way the wind blew. It mattered a lot. When the wind blew icy from the north, he would take us to find the woodcock hidden under evergreen, juniper, holly, yew or rhododendron, besides the springs which never froze. Sometimes we could not see it, but we learned to listen for the unmistakable 'flip' as the bird takes to the air - a sound which is just as reliable as sight.
Lord Home, or Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home to give him his full name, goes on to describe a childhood almost exactly as one would expect for a young upper class boy of the Edwardian and First World War era. His father was Charles Douglas-Home, 13th Earl of Home, who was educated at Eton College and at Christ Church, Oxford where Lord Home was educated himself. His home, The Hirsel, was near Coldstream on the Scottish Borders, and he enjoyed the country pursuits of walking, hunting, egg collecting (no more than one), bird watching, fishing, and the like. Lord Home also gives an account of some of his ancestors, who, in their day, would have fought the famous Percy family of Northumberland. The idyllic years of his youth ended "with a bump" on entering Ludgrove school in Berkshire, then on to Eton. He describes his life, the cricket, the pupils (no serious bullying, he notes), and some of his masters, including "Monty James, with his ghost stories washed down with port" (referring to the author M. R. James).
From Eton and Oxford (where he graduated with a 'Gentleman's Third' having "spent rather too much time at the wicket") Lord Home turns his attention to politics, beginning with standing as a candidate for Coatbridge (Lanarkshire) in 1929, and losing to James C. Welsh, a member of the Scottish Labour Party (Welsh would be defeated in 1931 by William Paterson Templeton): Lord Home's father referred to Welsh as "a good chap". Nevertheless he persisted and in the 1931 General Election stood as a Unionist for Lanark, where he was MP until 1945: unusually for an aristocratic family he was the only MP of the family other than Cospatrick Douglas-Home, 11th Earl of Home who served under the Duke of Wellington as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1828 - 1830). In this time Lord Home married Elizabeth Alington in 1936. He writes also on the period in which he was incapacitated for two years with spinal tuberculosis, when he developed a habit of reading:
Until my bed could be tipped at a slight angle, talking for any length of time was exhausting; so I concentrated on reading everything that came my way. I found most of the gadgets for reading when totally flat - such as a periscope on the chest - could not compare with pillows skillfully placed to support the elbows. That achieved, the best system was to keep three different kinds of book going at once. A history, a biography and a novel or detective story were always within reach.
And from there Lord Home writes on his time as an MP, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, as a Prime Minister and as Leader of the Opposition. He covers, what it was like for him to be Prime Minister (one bit that stuck out was when a member of the public viciously dug her nails into his arms whilst pining his arms down, his 'detective guardians' merely noting "It wouldn't have happened if we had gone by car"), and, as one would expect, the Second World War, meeting Adolf Hitler, who he notes walked with an odd gait ("Twice I saw him walking down a passage ahead of me. I noticed that his arms hung low, almost to his knees, and that they swung not alternately but in unison. I do not know whether this was characteristic of his walk when alone and deep in thought, but it gave him a curiously animal appearance"), the Suez, Soviet Union, Scotland, China, Africa, and even the European Union or European Economic Community (which we joined in 1973): Lord Home wrote,
There have lately been some signs that understanding is beginning to dawn that there is an absolute relationship between work and reward, between individual productivity and the fate of the nation. If democracy with one man one vote can accept and adopt these elementary economic truths, then Britain can resume a place of influence in the world. We have the opportunity, for we are partners in three associations which are of high importance. The European Community, the NATO alliance, and the Commonwealth. We should use them all to the full.
He finishes with a look ahead, fearing the decline in Christianity would be accompanied by a decline in society, morals, and values. He suggested a contribution to this was the Cold War and fear of a nuclear war, making life seem "cheap". Myself, I wouldn't say life is viewed as cheap, but there's certainly an urgency about life now, 'you only live once', 'life is short', etc. His Christianity, which he mentions on numerous occasions, shaped him and his responses to life, and he writes rather calmly, almost serenely on the challenges he, the country, and the commonwealth faced during this era. The blurb on the inside covers begins, "If any Prime Minister of the twentieth century could step straight into such a role in the political novels of Anthony Trollope it would be Lord Home", and I do see that. He could easily have been a character, even a major character, in the Palliser novels. Lord Home is a very interesting man and this was a pleasure to read, though perhaps it could have done with being a little longer. How accurate it was I couldn't say, but it was still a valuable glimpse into politics in the mid-20th Century, which of course gives us insights into our own.