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Alec Douglas-Home

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Alec Douglas-Home

Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister from 19 October 1963 to 16 October 1964, spending two days short of a year in office.

Alec Douglas-Home’s biography

Alec Douglas-Home had a privileged upbringing. He was an Edwardian aristocrat by birth and a descendent of two of the most powerful families in Scotland. Along with Eden and Macmillan, Douglas-Home was an Etonian. He entered the House of Lords as the Fourteenth Earl of Home, later renouncing his title to stand for election in Parliament as Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Alec Douglas-Home as Foreign Secretary

Though Douglas-Home’s most notable role was as Prime Minister, he was arguably at his best as Foreign Secretary.

The British Foreign Secretary is responsible for all Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development affairs: policy and relations with other states, particularly the member states of the Commonwealth Association and Britain’s involvement in developing impoverished countries.

He occupied the position for two periods from 1960 to 1963. Then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed Douglas-Home and supported his plan for Britain's accession into the European Economic Community (EEC).

Alec Douglas-Home Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home StudySmarter

Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, Dutch National Archives, CC-BY-SA-3.0-NL, Wikimedia Commons.

How did Alec Douglas-Home handle the Cold War as Foreign Secretary?

Douglas-Home took a pragmatic anti-communist approach to the Cold War. Douglas-Home approached the Cuban Missile Crisis with composure, encouraging Macmillan to support US President John F. Kennedy’s plan to resist Soviet threats of nuclear attack.

Negotiating the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

The US and USSR Ministers of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Douglas-Home's skill with foreign policy. He also praised his civility and astuteness in the negotiations leading up to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The Treaty sought to ban nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. The purpose was to ease public anxiety over the danger of nuclear weapons testing and slow down the race between world powers for nuclear supremacy.

Douglas-Home and US and USSR representatives signed the Treaty in Moscow on 5 August 1963. Douglas-Home played an essential role in negotiating the Treaty, a step toward the end of the Cold War.

Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home

Alec Douglas-Home replaced Harold Macmillan when he was forced to resign due to health problems. Douglas-Home was elected informally by the ‘customary processes’ and would be the last prime minister elected without a formal election.

Harold Macmillan supported and essentially selected Douglas-Home. Macmillan believed Douglas-Home would appeal to swing voters, the undecided voters in the upcoming 1964 general election. He was more moderate than another candidate for office, Lord Hailsham, who was strongly right-wing.

Alec Douglas-Home’s policies

Alec Douglas-Home was not actively involved in political processes, which made his tenure a largely unremarkable period. However, Douglas-Home did oversee the introduction of the Resale Price Act.

The Resale Prices Bill of 1964 was introduced to end resale price maintenance, also known as ‘price-fixing’.

Resale price maintenance refers to the system in which manufacturers set the prices for the sale of their goods. Price-fixing protected manufacturers during and after the wars because they could set the prices that kept their industry and its workers afloat.

The concern with resale price maintenance was that it was no longer beneficial to the economy. Chancellor Dilhorne, a member of Douglas-Home's Cabinet, argued in a speech to Parliament that:

By its imposition of rigidity, it subtracts from the competitive vigour and efficiency of the economy.

The bill would benefit the economy, enabling competition between companies to set their prices. The bill's introduction resulted from a successful campaign by then-President of the Board of Trade and future Prime Minister Edward Heath. Thus, the ministry of Douglas-Home introduced the bill that would come into effect in 1965.

Alec Douglas-Home Edward Heath StudySmarter

Edward Heath in 1987, photographer: Allan Warren, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

However, we could argue that Douglas-Home should not have much merit in the passage of this bill due to his lack of economic expertise.

Alec Douglas-Home was considered an incompetent Prime Minister. He was inexperienced in domestic politics and economics. Although he supported the Resale Prices Bill, he had little economic expertise. Douglas-Home even admitted his incompetence in economics, leaving his chancellor Reginald Maudling in charge of the Treasury and appointing Edward Heath as President of the Board of Trade.

Douglas-Home's incompetence was proof that he did not deserve to be Prime Minister and led to the public becoming even more disillusioned with the Conservative government.

Why did Alec Douglas-Home lose the general election of 1964?

Alec Douglas-Home lost the 1964 general election to Labour Party leader Harold Wilson by a narrow margin. Therefore, the Conservatives' loss was due to the loss of votes to the Liberal Party, which received 11.2% of the electoral vote.

Growing disillusionment with the Conservative establishment

‘Establishment’ refers to groups who have historically held elite status in society and who have occupied positions of power. Henry Fairlie coined the term in 1955 to refer to the elite of British society, such as the aristocracy.

As we mentioned before, like Churchill and Macmillan before him, Douglas-Home was a product of Eton. Douglas-Home was also an aristocrat, formerly the Fourteenth Earl of Home, like Macmillan.

But the public had grown tired of the Conservative establishment, which had proved incapable of meeting the demands of modernity. He was as out of touch as the prime minister he replaced, Harold Macmillan.

The scandals of Macmillan’s ministry damaged the reputation of the Conservative Party

John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler, who had an affair with the Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov. Profumo had lied to Parliament and was forced to resign.

The Profumo affair scandal did lasting damage to the image of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives were considered decadent and corrupt and thus unfit to lead the country.

Alec Douglas-Home’s successor

Labour Party leader Harold Wilson was Douglas-Home’s successor. He proved to be the better man for the job. On his part, Douglas-Home had two main disadvantages:

  • Unpleasant personality: Douglas-Home could not perform well in front of an audience. He was visibly inept at dealing with a hostile audience at hustings in the run-up to the general election. Unlike the likeable Wilson, he was uncomfortable on television.
  • Outplayed by Wilson: Douglas-Home was often outplayed in the House of Commons by the astute Harold Wilson.

Alec Douglas-Home Harold Wilson StudySmarter

Harold Wilson in 1967, Wikimedia Commons.

Alec Douglas-Home’s reputation and legacy

Douglas-Home didn’t have a very good reputation as Prime Minister and he certainly didn’t help the already in trouble Conservative Party. He was:

  • Incompetent and emblematic of the decadence of aristocracy: Douglas-Home was strategically selected by Harold Macmillan, who believed he could appeal to swing voters. But Douglas-Home was the wrong candidate at the wrong time: he would not fare well with a public growing tired of aristocratic Conservatives in power, especially not an aristocrat as evidently incompetent and unfit as Douglas-Home.

  • Undeserving of credit: it can be argued that it would be unfair to credit Douglas-Home with the accomplishments of his ministry, when his Chancellor, Reginald Maudling was in charge of financial matters. Douglas-Home can also not be credited for the successful campaign to pass the Resale Prices Bill, as it was the work of the President of the Board of Trade, Edward Heath.

We could argue that Alec Douglas-Home was better suited for the role of Foreign Secretary. He was praised for his insight and composure in negotiating for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and his support of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. It was in this role that Douglas-Home was perhaps at his best. The Times argued that his legacy lies not in his premiership but his role as Foreign Secretary:

He brought to the office [...] his capacity for straight talking, for toughness towards the Soviet Union and for firmness.

Alec Douglas-Home - Key takeaways

  • Alec Douglas-Home replaced Harold Macmillan as the Prime Minister in 1963. The period of his premiership was from 19 October 1963 to 16 October 1964.

  • Douglas-Home was an aristocrat by birth, an Etonian and the Fourteenth Earl of Home. He renounced the title of 'Lord' to stand for election in Parliament.

  • As Foreign Secretary, he backed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's decision to join the EEC and stand with Kennedy against the Soviets. He also negotiated and signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

  • Under the Douglas-Home ministry, the Resale Prices Bill of 1964 was passed. The bill prohibited 'price fixing' for the benefit of the economy, encouraging competition between companies.

  • Douglas-Home lost the general election of 1964 to Harold Wilson due to growing disillusionment with the Conservative Establishment and because Harold Wilson was more competent than him.

Frequently Asked Questions about Alec Douglas-Home

Alec Douglas-Home did not resign as Prime Minister, but he replaced Harold Macmillan, who had left. Alec Douglas-Home’s premiership ended when he lost the 1964 general election to Harold Wilson.

Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister from 18 October 1963 to 16 October 1964. 

Yes, Alec Douglas-Home occupied the position of foreign secretary for two periods from 1960 to 1963 before he succeeded Macmillan as Prime Minister.

Final Alec Douglas-Home Quiz


When was Alec Douglas-Home Prime Minister?

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He was Prime Minister from 19 October 1963 to 16 October 1964. He served two days short of a year.

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Who supported Douglas-Home’s candidacy?

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Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who wanted Douglas-Home to replace him.

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What position in government is Douglas-Home’s legacy, and why?

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Foreign Secretary:

  • He negotiated the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the US and USSR with astuteness and composure.
  • He was competent in his support to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, backing Britain’s accession to the EEC and US defiance of Soviet threats of nuclear attack.

Show question


What is resale price maintenance?

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Resale price maintenance is the system in which manufacturers set the prices for the sale of their goods.

Show question


What is the purpose of resale price maintenance?

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Price-fixing protected manufacturers, particularly during and after the wars, as they could set the prices to keep their industry and its workers afloat.

Show question


Who came up with the Resale Prices Bill (1964)?

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The President of the Board of Trade, Edward Heath.

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Why was the Resale Prices Bill introduced (1964)?

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The bill was introduced to benefit the economy, allowing competition between businesses by letting them set their prices.

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Why should Douglas-Home not be credited with passing the Resale Prices Bill (1964)?

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He was incompetent when it came to economics. The bill was passed under his government, but it was the work of Edward Heath.

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Why was Douglas-Home seen as incompetent?

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He was inexperienced in domestic politics and economics.

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To whom did Douglas-Home lose the 1964 election?

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To Harold Wilson, the leader of the Labour Party.

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Why did Douglas-Home lose the 1964 general election?

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  • Disillusionment with the conservatives was growing. They were seen as corrupt, unworldly aristocrats.
  • Douglas-Home was incompetent.
  • Harold Wilson was more likeable and competent.

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