In the second of his conversations with Lord Home (right), Gerard Noel covers the outbreak of war and the peace accords of 1945
LORD Home, then Viscount Dunglass, was at Neville Chamberlain's side most of that day of doom, September 3, 1939, when the latter announced that unless Germany, within the prescribed time, withdrew her troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between our two countries.
The Prime Minister of the day relied heavily on his loyal Parliamentary Private Secretary, never more so than at that, for Chamberlain, bitter and tragic moment. Thus, "at the outbreak of war," as Lord Home was to put it all these years later, "I had decided, rightly or wrongly, that I ought to see the Prime Minister through to what I foresaw would be an early end to his heavy task".
The young Dunglass, however, greatly missed "the close companionship of regimental life on mobilisation", as well as, even, "the personal sacrifices which are made during war". These were usually of a physical nature but, in the case of Lord Home, though he is too diffident so to put it today, there was the even heavier sacrifice of staying at the side of a beleagured Premier (at the outset of what might be the most perilous martial adventure ever entered upon by Great Britain) rather than, as he would have wished, going off to fight.
When, in May 1940, Chamberlain was succeeded by Churchill, Dunglass tried to rejoin the army. But it was too late. The Army Medical Board turned him down as unfit "every nerve in my body was jangling". It turned out, after a long process of diagnosis, that Alec Home had tuberculosis of the spine, at that time a dangerous and extremely painful disease, virtually incurable.
He underwent a formidable operation necessitating, in the absence of modern drugs, the flaking of the shin-bones in order to graft them on to the affected vertebrae. The operation was performed by Sir John Fraser of Edinburgh, who had just returned from America with the latest techniques at his fingertips, which were extremely "skillful" ones.
The patient's life was saved for the moment but there followed a traumatic period during which the future, if any, looked black indeed. Total immobility was ordered for an indefinite period in order, as Dunglass told his nurses with grim humour, to accomplish what was generally thought impossible, namely to "put backbone into a politician".
What happened next, however, was far from humorous. Alec Home thought he was going to die, while, as he told me the other day, he lay for months and months barely able to move. As we were getting up to leave his Kensington flat he added to the rest of his description, in an almost nonchalant afterthought, "I asked my for bed to be put into the garden. 1 wanted to die in the open air."
But after two agonising years he slowly recovered and could dimly envisage the first rewards of his immense courage during so many months of excruciating pain and various refinements of the kind of "torture" thought to be medically necessary for his treatment.
Despite the discomfort of being in bed for so long in the same position, Home had managed to read voraciously and to learn more than h
probably done at university about literature, politics, diplomacy and history. He was intellectually better equipped than most when returning to the House of Commons later in the war.
He there displayed the quality which has always distinguished him from most other top leading British politicians of modern times, namely total integrity combined with fearless moral courage.
When Winston Churchill returned from Yalta in 1944, with
a humiliating agreement with Russia whereby Britain and the USA were to acquiesce in Poland's loss of all its territory east of the Curzon line, the British Prime Minister said "I have never concealed from this House that personally I think the Russian claim is just and right".
A "new Poland" Churchill hoped would emerge, having been "liberated" (ie been turned over to communism) by the Union. He added "I know of no government which stands to its obligations even on its own despite more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion of Russia's good faith". (Thus Churchill, who had lambasted Chamberlain for conceding too much to Hitler, himself conceded far more to Stalin.) Thus was Poland, the casus Belli, given away with the blame conveniently laid in Britain, to this day, on Roosevelt. The latter was a dying man who nevertheless went back to Washington averring that the Yalta agreement had not been entered into with any enthusiasm on his part.
Home, however, was made of sterner stuff than Churchill and showed himself to be of greater moral fibre. He stood up, a lonely figure on the Tory wartime benches, to ask dramatically "does the Treaty (at Yalta) conform to that section of the Atlantic Charter which reads 'the high contracting parties desire to see no territorial changes that do not confirm to the wishes of the people concerned'?"
The answer was so obviously "no" that Home, though he got no thanks at the time for his moral courage, came gradually to he seen as a man of unusually high stature and wisdom in British politics. I hasten to add that it was not he, the other day, who made any such claim. But the claim can be safely made on his behalf in the light of what actually happened during and after the war.
Many, indeed, had rueful cause later on to remember certain words of Dunglass when, having won the war against Hitler, we were to abandon half of Europe, through the action of our own leaders, to the "bloody baboon" as Churchill had dubbed Stalin.
Home's words were "we could never be a party to a process under which a whole range of the smaller countries of Europe was drawn by a mixture of military pressure from without and political disruption from within into the orbit of another and greater power".
Let these words, then, be part of his epitaph, despite this having been spared for many more fruitful years and may there be many more to come — as a voice of integrity, wisdom and prophecy in one or other House of the Mother of Parliaments.