Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of one of history’s most peculiar by-elections. When Kinross and West Perthshire went to the polls on 7 November 1963, it was not strange because of the result. It was a comfortable Conservative hold in a safe Scottish Conservative seat, and while the concept of ‘a safe Scottish Conservative seat’ may need explanation to younger readers, that was unremarkable in a rather turbulent political year. What was surprising is that the Conservative candidate was the incumbent Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
The Kinross by-election was a sequel to the high drama of the Conservative conference in Blackpool in October 1963, which was the first occasion on which there was an overt, legal market in political betting. The sitting Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, announced that he would resign; contrary to later mythology, this was months after the end of the Profumo Affair and owed more to mistaken medical advice than political scandal. The conference therefore took place with leading Cabinet ministers regarding it as an audition for the party leadership, and there was an exciting ebb and flow of enthusiasm for the various possible candidates. Lord Hailsham aroused wild enthusiasm, and equally determined opposition, with a populist campaign in which he renounced his peerage to run as Quintin Hogg, complete with ‘Q’ badges (shades of ‘DD’ in 2005…). Reggie Maudling, the favourite in June, flopped with a badly-delivered and over-thoughtful speech.
The favourites after Blackpool were R.A. Butler and, after a well-received speech, the Foreign Secretary Lord Home. In those days there were no elections for the leader of the Conservative Party. They ‘emerged after a process of consultation’ and the consultation process in 1963 was particularly controversial, and the reverberations from 1963 led to the adoption of elections for party leader in 1965. Macmillan, from his hospital bed, was keen to promote non-Butler candidates, and the whips who consulted MPs and peers, and Lord Dilhorne who consulted the Cabinet, seem to have been steering the process against Butler. It is a moment in history that is still debated by historians. But despite some last-ditch resistance by Butler supporters such as Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell, Lord Home took the Queen’s commission to form a government and was installed as Prime Minister on 18 October.
It was politically inconceivable in 1963 to imagine a Prime Minister governing from the red benches of the House of Lords, and it surely is now. If and when the Lords becomes partially or wholly elected (and despite what happened in 2012, all parties have expressed agreement with the principle), that might change, but it can now be regarded as part of the constitution that the Commons should supply the Prime Minister, and Quintin Hogg (Hailsham) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home,helped to cement the principle. Late 1963 was a particularly opportune moment, as until then peers could not disclaim their titles until Anthony Wedgwood Benn finally won his struggle not to be made Viscount Stansgate in the Peerage Act 1963.
On 23 October Lord Home renounced his titles; the disclaimer covered an impressive six aristocratic titles. Parliament was prorogued until 12 November, which covered the brief anomaly of having a Prime Minister who was in neither House of Parliament.
The newly-minted commoner, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had to get into the Commons. There happened to be a vacant seat at the time, following the early death of the Conservative MP for the glens of Kinross and West Perthshire, Gilmour Leburn, in August 1963. Sir Alec’s nomination papers were rushed to Perth with minutes to spare .The prospective Conservative candidate who, in gentlemanly fashion, gave up his seat in Kinross for his senior, did not go unrewarded. George Younger was elected for Ayr in 1964 and had a long and honourable Commons career until he retired in 1992.
It has been asserted that there is a convention that Prime Ministers (or even party leaders) do not go to by-elections. This clearly no longer applies, if it ever did – David Cameron even went to Bradford West in 2012 and other leaders have also campaigned in by-elections. For obvious reasons, it could not have applied in Kinross in 1963, because the Prime Minister was one of the candidates. Sir Alec made full use of the opportunity to set out the Conservative case and re-acquaint himself with the electorate. In the cattle market in Perth on 26 October, he stated his intention that:
“There will be no lurch to the right, as it was suggested there might be if I became Prime Minister. There will be no lurch to the left either… we are going straight ahead, and straight ahead fast.”
His manifesto stressed economic expansion, higher education and scientific research, an attempt to match Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ and dispel the aristocratic image, but Perthshire was probably not the place to dissociate one’s image from grouse moors. Sir Alec won the election comfortably, with well over 50 per cent of the vote, although the Conservative share fell because the Liberals had not stood in 1959, but came second in 1963. More ominously, on the same day, Labour gained the marginal seat of Luton in another by-election.
Alec Douglas-Home has gone down in history as one of the stop-gap Prime Ministers. While he was never overwhelmingly popular, neither was he decisively rejected by the electorate (his approval ratings hovered around 44 per cent). His government in 1963-64 presided over a period of rapid economic growth and modernisation and investment in public services, and Labour’s victory in the October 1964 election was very narrow. Perhaps another leader – perhaps Reggie Maudling – could have won it for the Conservatives but Sir Alec’s performance in his only election as party leader was far from disgraceful.
Sir Alec retired from the House of Commons in October 1974, returning to the House of Lords as Lord Home of the Hirsel. He bequeathed the constituency to Nicholas Fairbairn who held on by 74 votes over the SNP. His successor was not entirely to Sir Alec’s taste, and – with the cultured disdain that only the Scottish aristocracy can manage – he noted that ‘Yes, I heard that he campaigned in Crieff wearing lilac gloves’. Fairbairn’s death in 1995 caused a more conventional by-election shock when the SNP swept to victory and the Conservatives fell to third place, a harbinger of the 1997 wipe-out in Scotland.
Other than during general election campaigns, when nobody can claim to be an MP, the three weeks between 18 October and 8 November 1963 were the last time a Prime Minister has not been in the House of Commons. Despite silly claims about the legitimacy of Prime Ministers Callaghan, Major and Brown (this is a parliamentary democracy…) Alec Douglas-Home was Britain’s last unelected Prime Minister. The circumstances were very peculiar – the happenstance that Tony Benn’s Act gave existing hereditary peers a brief window of opportunity to disclaim, which coincided with a particularly turbulent Conservative leadership election. One can confidently expect that a Prime Minister standing in a by-election will not be happening again any time soon.
D.R. Thorpe Alec Douglas-Home London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1996
J. Dickie The Uncommon Commoner London: Pall Mall Press, 1964