When the Earl of Home, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, became the Borders’ first – and only – Prime Minister 50 years ago tomorrow, even his family were surprised.
His wife, then the Countess of Home, heard the news on the radio and, on realising that he had been called to Buckingham Palace so the Queen could ask him to form a government, immediately thought: “Oh no – not in that suit!”
Their eldest daughter, Lady Caroline, who lives near Cornhill, remembers: “He had gone to work in just his everyday suit, and was then invited to the palace, so it was a bit of a shock. We were amazed at the news.”
While there had been much speculation about the successor to Harold Macmillan, who resigned through ill-health in October 1963, the favourites for the job were Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler and Chancellor Reg Maudling.
The other two candidates were Lord Hailsham and Lord Home, who was also in the House of Lords at the time as he held the title of 14th Earl of Home. The latter was seen as the outsider, but, as the battle became one of the most bitterly fought in any Conservative leadership contest, he was chosen for the post despite having expressed reluctance to take it up.
The man from the Hirsel estate, Coldstream, was seen as a compromise candidate – a description which did not do justice to the respect in which he was held and his long career in politics.
“He went into politics because he hoped to help the country during the depression of the 30s, and becoming Prime Minister would never have been on his mind then or later,” says Caroline. “It was not something he sought, but he hoped that he could bring things together because at that time there was quite a lot of division in the government.
“He was very disappointed when they lost the next election just a year later because it was held much sooner than he would have liked. He thought that matters were on the turn and felt that if they had had another six months or so they could have won.”
On becoming Prime Minister on October 18, 1963, he immediately renounced his peerage, becoming Sir Alec as the Queen had earlier made him a Knight of the Thistle. He won a by-election at Kinross and Western Perthshire and moved from the House of Lords back to the House of Commons as an MP. He worked very hard and was less often at home in Coldstream but, according to Caroline, his personality did not change and he remained an unassuming, committed family man and countryman.
Caroline, the eldest of his four children, who was 26 at the time, explains: “He never lost his family touch. The red boxes used to come out with us on picnics by the river and he spent his time trying to escape from the detectives assigned to protect him. They were absolutely charming and became great family friends, but he really liked to be quietly alone with his family and friends.
She adds: “There was no doubt it was disruptive for family life. One time he was whisked from the Hirsel lawn by helicopter after less than two hours’ notice.
“My sister, Meriel, who was married in the March of his prime ministerial year, had hoped for a quiet wedding, but found 150 pressmen outside the church in Coldstream, so it was not exactly quiet.”
Despite the fuss and his workload, the Prime Minister – who loved arranging flowers – still managed to arrange the flowers for his daughter’s wedding.
Every opportunity was taken by the family to spend time together, but as well as running the family estate at the Hirsel in Coldstream, Caroline was also a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, and was therefore not allowed to be involved in politics.
“The royal family was very apolitical, so although I could pick him up from the station I could not go to meetings with him or anything else of a political nature,” she recalls.
“Whenever he came home, he would come off the night train at Berwick, have a bath then go straight into the affairs of the estate, wanting to know what was going on with the men and the work. A charge that was very often levelled at him was that he was out of touch with the man in the street, but that could not have been further from the truth.”
It was an accusation the opposition made the most of at the 1964 general election and the Conservatives, who were also tainted by the scandal of the Profumo Affair, lost to Labour.
Harold Wilson, who portrayed himself as “an ordinary bloke”, became the next Prime Minister.
Sir Alec had served as Prime Minister for 363 days.He continued to be active in politics, however, and although he was replaced by Edward Heath as Tory leader in 1965, he served again as Foreign Secretary in the early 70s. He returned to the Lords as Baron Home of the Hirsel of Coldstream in 1974 and died on October 9, 1995.
Lady Caroline retired from running the Hirsel estate after his death, but has continued to be active in the community, working with the Borders branch of the British Red Cross, Macmillan Cancer Support, and various other local and national organisations.