Commentary (Daily Telegraph)

Hailsham diary: "How Alec Douglas-Home foiled student kidnappers with beer" (1964 security breach)

Document type: Press
Source: Daily Telegraph , 14 Apr 2008
Journalist: Andrew Pierce, Daily Telegraph
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1p
Themes: Conservative Party (history)

How Alec Douglas-Home foiled student kidnappers with beer

By Andrew Pierce

A bungled plot by Left-wing students to kidnap Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative prime minister, has been revealed for the first time in the coded diaries of Lord Hailsham, the former Lord Chancellor.

The unpublished papers, some of which are written in a shorthand system that was translated by staff at GCHQ, disclose that the Prime Minister averted abduction by offering his would-be kidnappers beer.

He joked that if the students removed him from the political scene the Tories would win the general election, which was due in the autumn, with a landslide.

The incident is detailed in diaries that Lord Hailsham - who was Lord Chancellor in the Heath and Thatcher governments - requested remained closed during his lifetime.

He died in 2001 and they were given to the University of Cambridge's Churchill Archives Centre. They are now being published online by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

They cover Edward Heath's time as prime minister from 1970-74 and are believed to be the only ones in existence from any senior member of his Cabinet.

The diaries reveal Lord Hailsham's closeness to Mrs Thatcher and her often tempestuous relationship with Mr Heath, whom she replaced as Conservative leader in 1975.

But it is the story of the kidnap that never was that will intrigue political historians.

The diary entry for Jan 9, 1977 describes how Sir Alec related the tale to Lord Hailsham and other members of a shooting party at Birkhill in Scotland.

He wrote: "An odd story of the 1964 election never published. Alec (then Prime Minister) was staying with John and Priscilla Tweedsmuir, who had no room for Alec's private bodyguard. He went to the nearest town (Aberdeen?) and John & Priscilla left Alec for a time alone in the house. Knock at the door. Door answered by PM in person.

"Deputation of Left-wing students from Aberdeen University. Said they were going to kidnap Alec. He, 'I suppose you realise if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.' He asked and received permission to pack a few things & was given 10 minutes grace. After that they were offered and accepted beer. John & Priscilla returned and the kidnap project abandoned. The bodyguard swore Alec to secrecy as his job would have been in peril."

The incident took place in April 1964, when the prime minister, who had just announced that there would be an election in October, appeared at the Scottish Unionist conference.

He encountered students from Aberdeen University, who asked him to sign a forfeit for charity in return for not kidnapping him. He signed, gave them £1, and assumed it was all in good fun.

After the conference he drove in heavy fog to nearby Potterton House, the home of his hosts John and Priscilla Tweedsmuir. Mr Tweedsmuir was the son of John Buchan, the author of The 39 Steps, and his wife was a Scottish minister.

Unknown to Sir Alec, the students tailed his car. They planned to contrive an accident, block the car, and take him to a house in Aberdeen for a few hours then release him.

But they lost their nerve and Sir Alec made it to Potterton House. A group of students walked to the house, rang the bell and, to their astonishment, Sir Alec opened it.

He was apparently alone. He let the students take photos and played for time until the Tweedsmuirs returned.

Chris Collins, the editor of, said: "The kidnap prank was one of the worst breaches of a prime minister's personal security in the 20th century, at least that we know of.

"If Home's assailants had been darker in purpose he would have died that night."

The Tories went on to lose the 1964 election, which was won by Harold Wilson's Labour Party.