British Foreign Policy in the Shadow of a General Election: The Douglas-Home Government

Andrew Holt
Author of The Foreign Policy of the Douglas-Home Government: Britain, the United States and the End of Empire (2014)

Dr. Holt explores the crucial role of the short-lived Douglas-Home Government (1963-64) upon Cold War relations and British decolonization. With the 2015 general elections fast approaching, the story of Douglas-Home also proffers an illustrative historical example of how an impending poll can affect foreign policy.

Holt DouglasHome

Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Established under Security Council Resolution 186 of 4 March 1964, the force was tasked with preventing further violence between Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities in the aftermath of 1963’s ‘Bloody Christmas’. Still in place today, UNFICYP has become one of the longest running UN peacekeeping missions, and it owed much to the diplomacy of the British government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is also just one of many episodes highlighting the significance of Douglas-Home’s short-lived and oft-overlooked administration within the larger histories of Cold War relations and British decolonization.

From among all the potential Cold War crises to focus upon when Douglas-Home came into office, Cyprus, along with other colonial and Commonwealth related matters, dominated his cabinet’s agenda. Its importance also highlighted the confusion caused by the overlapping responsibilities of the Foreign Secretary, R. A. Butler, and the Commonwealth and Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys. As Britain looks towards the May 2015 general election, the experience of the Douglas-Home government also shows how an impending poll can affect foreign policymaking; Douglas-Home succeeded Harold Macmillan knowing that just a year remained until he would be required to seek a new mandate.

Douglas-Home had become prime minister just two months before the violent events in Nicosia in December 1963. Benefiting from Tony Benn’s Peerage Act, the 14th Earl of Home disclaimed his title and entered Number 10 at a moment when Britain was in an increasingly precarious position in world affairs. The Commonwealth was bitterly divided over racial discrimination in Southern Rhodesia, while Britain’s application for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) lay in abeyance following French President Charles De Gaulle’s January veto. Anglo-American relations also appeared increasingly one-sided, and worse was to come when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Conservative Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964.

The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was temperamentally and politically far-removed from Douglas-Home, and would prove less predisposed towards Britain than his Anglophile predecessor. Relations were further soured by disagreement over American promotion of a scheme to pool nuclear weapons within NATO, which threatened to undermine Britain’s own independent deterrent, and by British plans for the independence of British Guiana (now Guyana), which the US feared might become communist under Cheddi Jagan. There was particular antagonism over continued British trade with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. A deal to supply Leyland buses, for example, was the cause of much anger in the White House and dominated the February 1964 Anglo-American summit.

In spite of these disagreements within the special relationship, British foreign policy was preoccupied with issues related to the country’s former and present colonies. The government faced international criticism for its relationship with apartheid South Africa. It also worked to prevent a white minority government in Southern Rhodesia from unilaterally declaring independence from Britain. East of Suez, there was nationalist violence in Aden, Britain’s only Crown Colony in the Middle East, which encompassed an assassination attempt against the British high commissioner, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis. The confrontation in South-East Asia also peaked in this period, as Britain looked to defend the newly created federation of Malaysia against incursions sponsored by Sukarno’s Indonesia.

This focus on colonial matters exacerbated tensions between the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) and the Foreign Office (FO). The division proved particularly problematic given the centrality of the United Nations to many of these colonial and post-colonial debates. Britain’s Representative at the UN in New York reported to the Foreign Office, despite that many controversial topics, Southern Rhodesia, for example, fell within the CRO’s remit. Thus, on these issues Britain effectively had two foreign ministers—Butler and Sandys—causing confusion among her allies.The Plowden Report recognised that ‘the present system is in many ways inconvenient and at times wasteful and inefficient’, and recommended that the long-term aim should be an amalgamation of the FO and CRO. This goal was finally achieved in 1968.

Throughout the Douglas-Home administration, it was difficult to avoid the approaching election. It hampered attempts by the government to take the initiative. President Johnson regarded Douglas-Home as a stop-gap and was soon looking towards forging a relationship with Labour leader Harold Wilson. The foreign secretary found something similar during his July 1964 visit to Moscow, where the Soviet leadership was unwilling to make deals because of the uncertainty surrounding the government’s future prospects. The election’s main impact, however, was in providing an incentive for the government to avoided difficult decisions. With this in mind, the wish to ‘play it long’ could particularly be seen over Southern Rhodesia, where the government hoped to delay any major crisis until the election was out of the way.

Despite these constraints, Douglas-Home did not shrink from taking decisive action when the situation demanded it. He reacted swiftly to calls for aid in early 1964 from former British colonies Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar, with the latter’s intervention helping put down a coup and the other two combating military unrest. Over Cyprus, the government committed troops in the face of protests from newspapers such as the Daily Express, and endeavoured to find a peaceful solution. Although it held office for less than a year, such quick action by the Douglas-Home government served to enhance Britain’s reputation.