Tuesday, 2 February 2010

By-elections of the Century - a Guest Post by Strathturret

Strathturret has kindly written the following which may well rekindle memories in those of us of more 'mature' years and it will certainly be of interest to younger generations. May I thank him for allowing us to share his reflections. (The second part will be published later this week).

By-elections of the Century (No 1)

I have been lucky enough (being a political anorak from an early age) to have lived through two by-election campaigns described at the time as the ‘by-election of the century’.

1963 Kinross & West Perthshire

1963 was the year which contains my first political memory, which was the Christine Keeler scandal. This involved John Profumo the War Minister in Harold Macmillan’s Tory government who eventually resigned after he had lied to parliament about having an affair with Ms Keeler a nightclub hostess, who was also involved with a sundry collection of business men, gangsters and a Russian spy. Being young I did not understand what it was all about but I do remember saying to my mother, ‘Why don’t they call a street after Christine Keeler?’

I digress. I think we were on holiday in August when our Tory MP and Scottish Office minister Gilmour Leburn died. George Younger of the beerage was lined up to be the new Tory MP for Kinross and West Perthshire; at the time the safest Tory seat in Scotland. Then Macmillan’s problems escalated from his war ministers dalliances with a good time girl to his own water works. He resigned in October believing he was seriously ill and a new leader had to ‘emerge’. This excitement broke at the Tory Party Conference of that year. The capable Rab Butler was the favourite but just as in 1957, when Macmillan had succeeded Eden, he was overlooked in favour of the 14th Earl of Home who was foreign secretary at the time.

Home, as plain ‘Lord Alec Dunglass’ had been bag carrier to Chamberlain on his infamous trip to see Hitler in Munich when he had returned with his famous ‘piece of paper’. Now a peer Home seemed an unlikely leader to take on the newly elected technocratic and streetwise Labour leader Harold Wilson.

However, Lord Home emerged as the new Tory leader. The only slight problem was he did not have a seat in the House of Commons. However, a recent change in the law exploited first by Tony Benn allowed him to renounce his hereditary peerage. That’s where the timely death of Gilmour Leburn came in.

Gentleman George Younger stood down as prospective Tory candidate and was soon rewarded with a safe seat of Ayr and Sir Alec Douglas-Home as he became was selected as the Conservative & Unionist candidate for Kinross &West Perthshire. We then needed the formality of a by-election when the new prime minister had to get himself elected as an MP. So highly unusually there was an interregnum when Sir Alec was PM but neither an MP nor peer.

This was a period of great excitement in Crieff which was the largest town in the constituency and its central point. Could the PM be deposed? This was an unprecedented situation, constitution crisis, etc, etc. There were mock elections at school, everyone was wearing Tory badges much to the annoyance of Labour supporting teachers and one of my school friends was pictured shaking hands with the PM on the front page of the Daily Express, then the biggest selling paper in Scotland. The national press and TV and radio people besieged the area. The editor of the local paper appeared on the 'Tonight' political programme. At that time ordinary people considered it a huge honour that a man such as Douglas-Home was going to be their MP. The national press depicted Douglas-Home very much as a typical ‘grouse moor’ toff.

Like all big by-elections, there were crank candidates; Willie Rushton the satirist stood. This remember was the time of ‘That was the week that was’ and Private Eye was a new and radical magazine! One anecdote I remember was that in rural areas a burly squad of gamekeepers were employed to eject trouble makers who dared to ask any awkward questions of the great man at meetings. Arthur Donaldson SNP leader at the time championed the party. I think the representatives of the Labour and Liberal parties were unknown and disappeared without trace.

We had a repeat of the excitement of course in the General Election of 1964 when Douglas-Home was Prime Minister and a close election was expected. This time we had Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) standing as a Communist, who made the wonderful quip that,

‘Sir Alex is the apotheosis of mediocrity’.

Sir Alex was educated at Eton and Oxford obtaining a third class degree. He was however a fine cricketer and was one of the few MPs who had played first class cricket. He did admit that when there were complicated economics issues to be solved he resorted to getting out a matchbox and counting matches.

Indeed, his own quote on the No 10 website says:

There are two problems in my life. The political ones are insoluble and the economic ones are incomprehensible”

The results make interesting viewing now 47 years later.

click to enlarge

There are some classic and pointed quips about Douglas-Home from Grieve (MacDiarmid) during the 1964 campaign which are still relevant today.

‘He is in fact a zombie, personifying the obsolescent traditions of an aristocratic and big landlord order, of which Thomas Carlyle said that no country had been oppressed by a worse gang of hyenas than Scotland. He is not really a Scotsman, of course, but only a sixteenth part of one, and all his education and social affiliations are anti-Scottish. Sir Walter warned long ago that a Scotsman unscotched would become only a damned mischievous Englishman, and that is precisely what has happened in this case.’

And still very pertinent in the light of Iraq;

‘He is a yes man of the Pentagon as was exemplified by his statement that the British people would willingly be reduced to atomic ash in defence of his (Sir Alec’s) notion of freedom.’

Grieve had been of course a founding member of the National Party one of the fore runners of the SNP before being expelled due to his communism. I think he was also expelled from the Communists for being a Nationalist!

In the 1964 General Election Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Con) got 16,659 votes winning easily. Labour finished second with 4,687 votes. CM Grieve polled 127 votes. In the General Election, Wilson’s Labour Party was victorious winning by 4 seats overall thus ending 13 years of Tory power.

Sir Alec had only been Prime Minister for a year and resigned as Tory leader in 1965 to be replaced by Ted Heath who was the first elected leader of the Tory party. Sir Alec was MP for K&WP until he stood down in 1974 being replaced by Nicky Fairbairn who just held the seat by 53 votes from the SNP in the second election of that year. What a change 10 years had made!

After he was elected in 1963, Douglas-Home was I think asked if he intended to buy a house in the constituency. He said something like goodness gracious no, I already have six houses, what would I need another one for! He was little seen in the constituency although I remember he caused a stooshie when he turned up at Crieff Games in 1965 as chieftain wearing a lounge suit. He said in his defence that as a Borderer he didn’t wear the kilt. At that time the Tories had a full-time agent in Crieff who I imagine did all the nitty-gritty grafting for a grandee. Interestingly, Douglas-Home was last Tory leader to be a genuine toff and educated at Eton until the arrival of David Cameron.



subrosa said...

What a great recollection. I was just becoming slightly more aware of politics and I think Peebles had a labour MP. Looking at Wiki, Peebles had been in and out of the central belt catchment although to all residents it was border country.

Jim Baxter said...

James Harold Wilson, in the campaign for the 1964 election, from time to time referred to Douglas-Home as 'The 14th earl'. Home's response - 'I expect he's the 14th Mr Wilson'.

Garry Gritter said...

Great article!

Keep up the good work.

Andrew said...

Excellent Strathturret!

Re the satire reference, Private Eye carried a cartoon by "Trog" (Wally Fawkes?) lampooning Home's remark about being brought up in Lanarkshire(?) "among his own people"
It showed a dressed-to-kill Home shooting game, while under the surface he was standing on, cramped miners were hewing coal.
Never forgot that cartoon-- obviously.

Strathturret said...

Thanks for that one and comments.

As I was only 9 at the time my reading material was somewhat limited!

David Farrer said...

"He did admit that when there were complicated economics issues to be solved he resorted to getting out a matchbox and counting matches."

This is a point in Sir Alex's favour. If today's Keynesian "economists" had used this method the financial crisis would not have occurred.

2612 said...

I lived in Kinlochrannoch from 1970-72, which was within the constituency. From what I heard, Douglas-Home was well-regarded by most of the locals, but I could detect rumblings of general discontent. It seemed to me that the SNP (who at that time had just one seat, the Western Isles) were on an upward roll.

Douglas-Home stood at the first 1974 election and won; but he stood down for the second. Nicholas Fairbairn was the Tory candidate, and he won by just 53 votes!

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