John Barnes, Historian

James Douglas

Some of the most influential figures in political parties never catch the public eye and the value of their activity is known only to those actively engaged in policy-making. In later life as a visiting Professor in Political Science in the United States and the author of a number of valuable articles, James Douglas was appreciated by a wider, but mainly academic audience. But the field of activity in which he exercised his exceptionally sharp mind and shrewd judgement for a quarter of a century was that of more focused research designed to help formulate the policies which would enable the Conservative Party to win and retain power. He also played an active role in the discussions in 1964-65 which led to the party electing its leader and was commissioned by Sir Alec Douglas Home to draft the rules to govern that election. Rightly he favoured election by Conservative MPs, although he argued for consultation of the wider party in what was christened his 'Outwards Inwards' scheme. At Home's request he redrafted the rules late in 1974 to make it much easier for an incumbent leader to be replaced and the revised formula contributed to the downfall of both Edward Heath and Mrs Thatcher. It was used on a further three occasions and was then replaced by the present system, which gives decisive power to the mass party - a bad mistake, in Douglas's view.

James Alexandre Thomas Douglas was born in Simla, the son of an Indian army officer and his French wife. He spent his early years in Paris, but was educated in England at Beaumont College and New College, Oxford, where he graduated in PPE. He entered the Civil Service in 1941, rising to become a Principal in the Board of Trade and subsequently in the Ministry of Supply. His interest in the regulation of monopolies dated from his time in Whitehall and as Secretary of a Conservative Party enquiry into the subject in 1962-3 he was the principal author of the report which was published in March 1963 and included in its recommendations the abolition of resale price maintenance.

He had joined the Conservative Research Department in the wake of the departure for Parliament of such former luminaries as Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell, recruited to the post by the Director, David Clarke, as a result of their discussions at another influential organisation, Political and Economic Planning. Under the benevolent eye of its chairman, 'Rab' Butler, the culture of the Research Department resembled that of a university common room and Douglas found it thoroughly congenial.

He became head of the Economic Section in 1955 and was an early advocate of the need to involve the trade unions in the fight against inflation. He recognised that this could only be done if both the TUC and employers organisations assumed more power over their members. The group studying the issue was divided and proposals to bring the law into industrial relations, which had found favour with them, met with a dusty response from ministers. They were revived in more propitious circumstances after the party's defeat in 1964.

By then Douglas was acting as co-ordinator of the policy review under the aegis of Edward Heath, which Douglas Home had set in train. After the 1959 election he had become one of two Research Organisers in the department tasked with looking beyond the next General Election and so well equipped for his new role. With the exception of a sabbatical year in 1968-9, he continued to preside over one of the most ambitious attempts to prepare for government ever undertaken by a political party. Characteristically Douglas's essentially sceptical mind spotted the danger early. In March 1965 he warned his chief that "too many people are doing too many things too superficially" and that the party was spending too much time in instant reaction to problems rather than thinking out ideas. He argued that it was not enough to have clear policies. Rather it was vital to be clear about who they were aimed at. What mattered was the overall pattern of policy, not the detail, and the emerging themes. It was good advice and the policy document that emerged in the autumn of 1965 was built around the themes of Europe, modernisation and efficiency that had been identified in Heath's talks with a small group of advisers, one of whom was Douglas. Throughout the exercise Douglas displayed a valuable combination of academic rigour and political nous, the latter never more evident than in the proposal he and Brendon Sewill authored to bring the policy packages together in a sustained weekend shadow cabinet exercise at Selsdon Park.

Another, even more vital contribution to the party's new approach to campaigning had also originated with Douglas, although it also attracted the support and interest of his chief, Sir Michael Fraser. In March 1960 he had proposed a technical study group on opinion polls. The result was the Psephology Group and it commissioned work on deep-lying attitudes and class influences on voting. One major conclusion was the need to win back previous Conservative supporters amongst social classes C2 and D, who had deserted to the Liberals, or as Douglas memorably put it, "the party of the officers must appeal to the sergeant's mess." Public opinion research became the bedrock of party campaigning thereafter.

Douglas became Director of the Research Department after the party's victory in 1970, but this was a less happy period. He was frustrated by the way the party's leaders retreated into their Whitehall fastnesses and he seemed unable to establish the close rapport with Heath that his predecessor had enjoyed. The Central Policy Review Staff encroached on Research Department territory and the traffic seemed to be all one way. Douglas complained that it was "like firing into a fog". Nevertheless the Department did valuable work on the increasing volatility of the electorate, the continued importance of party identification and the need to woo the C2s, and their research led them to emphasise continually that inflation was now the top issue in voters' minds. Douglas advocated action on both prices and unemployment and there is little doubt that his reflections were among those that caused the Government to alter course on the issue of prices and incomes. He was prescient also on the impact of the Arab-Isreali war in 1973 and advocated an election in December 1973 to secure a mandate to deal with the oil crisis. But he did not like the decision which emerged, to fight in defence of Stage III of the incomes policy, and he counselled in vain that they needed a much better idea of what they were going to do after the election. Although little blame can be attributed to Douglas for the result of the February 1974 election, he was one of the casualties. He welcomed the appointment of Chris Patten as his successor and remained Associate Director for another three years.

His wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1951, was a distinguished academic in her own right, Professor of Social Anthropology at UCL, and when she decided to move across the Atlantic James went with her to develop an academic career of his own. When they returned to London a decade later, their home in Highgate became a feast of good conversation. Incisive and articulate on paper, Douglas was discursive in speech and had an extraordinarily wide range of interests. He loved to talk, but he was also a good listener and had a rare talent for taking half-formed ideas and weaving them together into a brilliant synthesis that startled and delighted their authors. He was by temperament a sceptical Conservative. Always open to new ideas and arguments, he was less than happy with the way his party became more dogmatic and ideological. Nevertheless he was a champion of the consumer. He sat on the Council of the Consumer's Association from 1957 until 1974 and helped to establish Which? One of his legacies as Director of the Research Department was that consumerism, along with urban decay, were the longer-term issues on which the party should be working. That too was prescient.