25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 7

The Former Fourteenth Earl


THE picture of our new Prime Minister that haunts me is his reaction to an event that could hardly be called important among Affairs of 'But, mind you, they tell me most of the right people were on the river.'

A joke? I think not.

To look at, he is not resoundingly impressive, not a man for most hustings. Yet he compels attention. His leprechaun look fades as one comes closer to him. The long mouth that seems to be smiling at the corners is fixed, and when he speaks it seems to open from the sides, as if he were speaking partly through his teeth. Gentle, even fey-looking, from a distance, he is slightly frightening when close to—the crocodilian im- pression is reinforced by his habit of licking his lips with a quick flick of the tongue.

The impression is dispelled when he giggles, which he does unselfconsciously in the White House, on the Tory Conference platform, or at journalistic briefings. Then he can seem almost undergraduate, and, indeed, he has a whimsical sense of verbal humour, a sense of the ridiculous.

Yet there is nothing unmethodical about him. Just as he keeps a categorised joke book, his loyalty-winning habit of remembering the name of everyone he has to deal with takes a methodi- cal effort. In part this is a function of manners —one remembers the surprise of the press corps when, at the final press conference of the 1960 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting, Home stood at the door of the conference room in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, his senior officials in line beside him. He received, intro- duced, and was introduced to, the polyglot, polychrome reporters scuttling past, as if it were a relaxed weekend wedding. He is more aloof now, but he is more experienced with the hier- archical access of press to Government.

The charm may seem eccentric, but it isn't. As near-office boy in the Commonwealth Rela- tions Office, one used to have to be on the other end of the telephone to him frequently during weekend or evening. His inquiry as to whether it was 'an awkward time' to do business was as regular as it was humane, like his apologies for 'taking so long' when called in from Lord Salis- bury's (Swinton's, his own) pheasants for an urgent message.

There was the dottier side—the evening he rang with a baffling question for an earnest young official.

'How tall are you?'

'Five foot nine, Secretary of State.'

'You're too short.'

Not knowing how to take this, I was surprised by the rejoinder: 'But I suppose I could let the trousers down. Is your dinner jacket double- breasted?'

His dinner jacket was in the country and he had to address the Indian Test team. With his cricket shirt hidden by a floppy bow tie, he raced into the office to borrow one. 'The last one I borrowed was Mr. Speaker's,' he said, 'but this fits better.'

The very off-the-peg garment was returned by chauffeur, and I didn't expect, or get, a note of recognition. But two days later I was summoned by the Permanent Secretary. 'Lord Home has given orders you are not to be posted,' I was told by this normally disciplinary pundit, 'you are the only man in the office whose dinner jacket fits him.' On another occasion he rang late at night. 'You don't know where my car is?' Where are you, sir?' was the only possible reply. He was dining with Mr. Speaker, and could I also sug- gest where his coat might be? Both, one inside the other, were outside the House of Lords, where he had entered the Palace of Westminster some hours before. But the point of the story (and the reason why he succeeds in captivating both staff and officials) is that he bothered to ring back to say he had found them, in case one was anxious.

He is one of the most instinctively charming men in public life. A man who treats the world in behavioural terms he regards as natural, he is the opposite of all things to all men—he is himself to all men. So surprisingly rare does this seem to be regarded (although it should not sur- prise a political world used to a certain sort of Etonian) that it has seemed necessary to explain his straightforwardness with a series of miscon- ceptions—which have proved fatal to those who did not bother to heap the blackballs before his door as they were doing before each other's.

It beats me, for instance, where the idea could come from that Home has no desire to be Prime Minister. The possession of a title, an innate aloofness, a lack of stage-management in his public persona—these must be put against the fact that Home has been a professional politician since 1931.

James Thurber observed, with respect to public ambition, that the half of America that did not dream of the Presidency 'got themselves to sleep by striking out the New York Yankees.' Home may have once dreamt of a cricket Blue. But subsequently he sat as a back-bencher for fifteen years, came back after a crippling bout of spinal TB, regained a seat after losing in the Labour landslide, held junior Ministerial office, then senior Cabinet posts for eight years—how can this possibly be the picture of a man who never dreamed of 10 Downing Street if the chance offered?

Reluctant to enter a vulgar struggle, perhaps. But not so reluctant that he would not enter the final and bitterest struggle. It must be grati- fying to be a Prime Minister whom everyone likes (though did not support). It must be gratifying to be Prime Minister.

But there is no reason why Home, titleless, should seem very different from what he does now as the Fourteenth Earl—that perhaps has been the greatest error of Tory snobisme. The few non-Ministerial folk at Blackpool who call him Alec by right were those who got him right; the Lady Molly Hugginses rather than those who distrusted the political romanticism of Nigel Birch, the bandwagon-master.

Inevitably, by experience and conviction, he is right-wing in the party spectrum. While his flexibility could be perfectly adequate to let him meet the challenge of producing a progressive image, the question must be, how large is the gap that has to be closed?

The Border background could be as appealing as the aristocratic connection. In that golden country between Tweed and Lammermuirs, the tenant farmers still go to Fettes, have boxes at the Festival opera, and villages of tied cottages round the 'big house.' Lord Lanibton may tour Berwick market and the Kelso ram sales as MP, but the Home world is stratospheric. In a society a generation more secure than any other I know in the South, the grandees are Whiggishly un- clouded.

And, in Government, Home's only domestic departmental experience is for Scotland. Foreign affairs, either Commonwealth or pukka-foreign, are not an education-bed for domestic priorities —even if eight years of Cabinet discussion have made them familiar. Here, too, the gap is in- evitable, and Home has written down his own judgment as an economic tyro.

The fear, then, is not that he will be too tough on Russia, or that he will be a gunboat diplo- matist. It is that he will have a hard time running a Cabinet which is dominated by domes- tic issues. Being a good Prime Minister is a very -different business from being a good depart- mental head. There is no large fine-tuned official body to put up a Prime Ministerial brief. The Cabinet, it is often forgotten, does not vote— the Premier takes its 'sense,' and must steer it towards one through departmental and Minis- terial conflicts.

Therefore he has to know his way about their business, or his direction of priorities is bound to be inadequate. This requires both experience and a tough, untrammelled intelligence—as any- one who followed the Attlee or Macmillan ad- ministrations knows. In the search for a winning Tory image, appearances may count for more than reality. But when the time comes, will Sir Alec Douglas-Home find that many of the right people are on, or even have gone down, the river?