The end of noblesse oblige Alec Douglas-Home: Leader always came to the aid of party and country.


HE HAD BEEN in the House of Commons for two decades when the death of his father in 1951 made him the 14th Earl of Home. He gave up his seat and ascended, as duty required, to the superfluous House of Lords. There, he distinguished himself in Conservative cabinets.

With the government of Harold Macmillan disintegrating in failure, scandal and illness, the "magic circle" of Tory leaders told Lord Home to take over as prime minister in 1963. He reluctantly agreed, renouncing his earldom and returning to the House where commoners could assault him verbally twice a week.

Alec Douglas-Home took a deeply unpopular government and, with dignity and intelligence, brought it in a year almost to survival. But not quite. Harold Wilson's Labor Party squeaked in. Tory meritocrats not born to privilege demanded open selection of leader by the party's members of parliament, which Douglas-Home granted. One of them, Edward Heath, supplanted him as party leader.

Deprived of hereditary title and political position, Douglas-Home might have sulked. Instead, he became a distinguished foreign secretary, fostering the modern Commonwealth and Britain's entry into what is now the European Union.

"Noblesse oblige" is a pretentious phrase used rarely except in irony, meaning "the obligation of honorable, generous and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth." Americans don't know what it means, as there is none in our public life. Now that Lord Home is dead at 92, the British are equally deprived.

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