History / Politics

2022 Politician of the Year (dead)

The circumstances are not dissimilar. A Conservative government, looking tired after twelve years in office and beset by scandal, dumps its Great Showman as leader. For 2022, Boris Johnson and Partygate, read 1963, Harold Macmillan and Profumo. The question is whether Rishi Sunak has anything to learn from his 1960s equivalent, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

At first glance, there’s not much to suggest any shared ground between the two men, save for the fact that they’re both in that far-from-exclusive category of public schoolboys-turned Tory prime ministers.

The sometime 14th Earl of Home – a title dating back to the 16th century – stood comfortably over six foot and was an ace sportsman: he played first-class cricket for, among others, Middlesex, and represented the MCC against Argentina. Having proved his gentlemanly status at Oxford by representing the XI and taking a third-class degree, he never dirtied his hands with a trade, but entered the House of Commons in his twenties, and had decades of experience in what he probably never called front-line politics, before ascending to the premiership in 1963.

His successor in Number Ten is a diminutive scion of immigrants who may well be a fan of cricket but seems not to have been a loss to Hampshire CCC when he cashed in his first-class PPE degree from Oxford to work in finance. Douglas-Home was elected to Parliament twenty-four years before he entered the Cabinet, where he spent a further eight years before he became prime minister; it’s four and three respectively for Sunak, who was elected to the Commons in 2015.

Sunak is unlikely to invoke Douglas-Home in the way that, say, Margaret Thatcher would namecheck ‘Winston’, but it might just be that Sir Alec has his hand on the shoulder of the Stanford MBA. Douglas-Home’s prime ministerial tenure was 363 days, which used to be considered rather short, but his technique was one that Sunak would be advised to deploy when going into bat.

Douglas-Home’s emergence after Harold MacMillan’s resignation – appointed by the Queen on the outgoing PM’s advice – was both as smooth and as messy as Sunak’s elevation. Just as Sunak might have been denied the Conservative leadership a second time had Boris Johnson dived back into the scrum, so Douglas-Home probably would not have fared well had he been forced to compete in a vote with the charismatic and controversial Quintin Hogg, or the able if diffident Rab Butler.

But once he was in (installed on 19 October 1963, 59 years and a day before Liz Truss announced her departure), Sir Alec – as he officially became later that week, upon renouncing his earldom – was able to unite a potentially fractious party behind him, seeing off an attempt by Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod to spark a boycott of cabinet posts.

Sunak’s appointment of a cabinet relatively broader than that favoured by his two immediate predecessors shows a similar understanding of his parliamentary party. There are still quite a few bastards out there, but as John Major understood – ultimately to vain effect in his case – weak prime ministers need to buy off some troublemakers.

Unlike Douglas-Home, Sunak cannot, as far as one can ascertain, trace his lineage back to a man that James VI of Scotland suggested marry a seven-year-old, or, indeed, further to a man given special dispensation by Pope Martin V to wed a cousin. But his wealth, and the even greater fortune of his wife’s family, has been similarly deployed as evidence of his unsuitability to govern.

Douglas-Home’s aristocratic background ran the risk of making him seem out-of-touch in 1963. ‘After half a century of democratic advance, of social revolution,’ mocked Labour leader, Harold Wilson, ‘the whole process has ground to a halt with a 14th Earl.’

The response was immediate and astute. Douglas-Home’s press man Harold ‘Not That One’ Evans ensured that when Kenneth Harris conducted the first prime ministerial interview for ITN, he was encouraged to question Douglas-Home on that comment. (‘Astonishingly, the television networks had not intended to,’ Evans wrote in his diary.) Douglas-Home replied: ‘I don’t see why criticism should centre on this. Are we to say that all men are equal except peers? I suppose Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the 14th Mr Wilson.’

A neat response, especially coming from a man not in love with TV, a man who was at one stage to ask a BBC make-up artist:

‘Can you make me look better than I do on television? I look rather scraggy, like a ghost.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because you have a head like a skull.’
‘Does not everyone have a head like a skull?’

In his first broadcast as premier he told the country: ‘I never dreamed of holding the position of prime minister. Had I done so, as much as I would have detested the exercise, I would have taken trouble to master the techniques of television.’ It was a particular concern since he was up against one of the first political masters of the medium in Wilson.

Douglas-Home’s opponent had only replaced the late Hugh Gaitskell earlier in 1963 and Harold Macmillan’s diaries contain several approving references to Wilson’s ability, especially compared to his Labour rivals. It might have been a further reason for the Profumo-tarnished prime minister’s supposedly health-led decision to quit.

Wilson’s long-honed mastery of television and the capacity of this former Oxford don to present himself as an ordinary family man from the north country produced a clear contrast with his first two Conservative rivals. The solution for Douglas-Home was to try and be the straightforward alternative to the clever, but perhaps shifty, Wilson. On That Was The Week That Was, after dressing as Disraeli to lambast Douglas-Home for being ‘qualified to do only nothing’, David Frost summed up the coming political contest as: ‘Dull Alec versus Smart-Alec’.

But quietly the prime minister had plenty of political experience to call on. ‘Alec Douglas-Home was not a bad campaigner,’ suggested Dick Taverne (admittedly no Wilson fan, though at that time in the same party). ‘He was very direct on television [which] contrasted well with Harold.’

Batting away criticism of his background with the sense that personal attacks weren’t quite cricket was part of a strategy to make the scion of privilege – leading a party that had been in government for more than a decade – seem a bullied underdog. Such might also have been a reason for his confession to Harris: ‘I have to do my economics with matchsticks’. That should have been a blunder, considering Wilson was a decorated economist who moved from Oxford to the wartime civil service, where he ended up in an important role overhauling the measurement of fuel production. But perhaps the admission conveyed the image of homely common-sense.

Either way, Douglas-Home was able, within a year, to close what had been a large Conservative poll deficit. The 1964 general election should have been a walk-over, but Labour had a margin of victory of just 0.7 per cent of the vote, and emerged with a majority of only four.

The same tactics aren’t available to Sunak. Keir Starmer, like his professed hero Wilson, may be suspected by some of sacrificing straightforwardness for sophistry, but the former chancellor has made economic mastery (whether actual or imagined) his brand. And, rather than a wariness of the camera, Sunak has spent a great deal of time and money on slick social media.

Even so, perhaps the comparison still holds. If Douglas-Home was not a numbers man, he was – like Sunak – known for a specialism, in his case foreign affairs. He had been foreign secretary from 1960 (he was to return in 1970) and before that secretary of state for commonwealth relations, which had been his area of interest as a backbench MP. These diplomatic roles had somewhat insulated him from the domestic political controversies of the Macmillan years, and as prime minister they helped him make the case that he was the right man at a time of heightened Cold War tensions.

Sunak’s focus on finance has similarly distanced him from the popularity-sapping day-to-day rows and debacles that have tarred those who have dealt directly with education, health and home affairs. It has not kept him away from political controversy, but it did allow him to float above them while chancellor.

Starmer lacks a sure grasp of the economic debate, appearing to have delegated Labour’s vision for the economy to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. That might be an opening for Sunak in these difficult financial times. So long, of course, as the prime minister is not himself blamed for the problems. And maybe the Truss interregnum has helped in this regard: it has shifted the ‘credit’ for the present situation away from the man who was at the Treasury for most of this parliament.

If Sunak as front man can be seen as less of an economic gamble at a time when things are deteriorating, that might just save his party. After all, many have speculated that had the almost simultaneous removal of Nikita Khrushchev from the leadership of the USSR and the explosion of a Chinese nuclear bomb happened just before the 1964 election – rather than just as the polls closed – Douglas-Home’s foreign policy experience might well have made him a safe haven for the small number of swing votes that instead helped Wilson into office. The Conservatives had emphasised Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent during the campaign. National security featured prominently in their manifesto ahead of domestic or economic issues, in stark contrast to five years earlier.

Playing to your strengths is not always an option when at the mercy of events, but Douglas-Home as a cricketer knew about playing each ball at its merits. He was at his best on a sticky wicket, and he almost overturned what seemed a big deficit when he went into bat for his party in the 1963/64 political season.

Rishi Sunak is almost certainly not the new Alec Douglas-Home, and the multi-party, multi-national electoral landscape of the 2020s is not the new 1964, the sole modern election where just three parties ended up winning seats (Northern Ireland at the time was monopolised by the united and Tory-allied Unionists, with nationalism even weaker in Scotland and Wales). But there are lessons to be learned. Primarily, that there’s no great harm in being seen as dull and out-of-touch – if, and only if, that image can be tempered with experience and humility.

There’s not much Sunak can do about the experience. Three years in the Treasury – as chief secretary and then as Johnson’s second-choice chancellor – and seven years in the Commons is not much of a record for a prime minister. (Though it’s better than Starmer’s seven years in opposition.) He could do with the humility, though. He gives the impression far too readily of looking rather pleased with himself.

A modest man – whether or not he has much to be modest about – can be an asset in troubled times. The Safety-First PM who followed on from a scandal-ridden showman came within a whisker of winning in 1964; sixty years later the same act could save the Conservative Party again.


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