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Sandys, (Edwin) Duncan, Baron Duncan-Sandys (1908–1987), politician, was born on 24 January 1908 at the Manor House, Sandford Orcas, Dorset, the only child of Captain George John Sandys (1875–1937), army officer and politician, and his wife, Mildred Helen, née Cameron, daughter of Duncan Cameron, of Canterbury, New Zealand. His father served with the second Life Guards in the South African War, and again with the British expeditionary force in France in 1914, when he was wounded at Ypres. He was Conservative MP for Wells from 1910 to 1918.

Churchill's son-in-law

Sandys was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he served in the Oxford cavalry Officers' Training Corps and the Oxford University air squadron. After graduating with a second-class degree in modern history in 1929, he was called to the bar by the Inner Temple, but decided in 1930 to join the Foreign Office. He served briefly in Berlin before returning in 1933 to London. He represented the Foreign Office in negotiations for commercial treaties with the Scandinavian countries, and was a member of the British delegation to the abortive world economic conference of 1933.

Sandys's political career began in 1935: in March that year he was elected Conservative MP for Norwood at a by-election, and on 16 September he married Diana Bailey (1909–1963), former wife of Sir John Milner Bailey, second baronet, and eldest daughter of , politician. They had one son and two daughters. Sandys's political fortunes during the 1930s were very tied up with those of his father-in-law. Although Sandys's reputation as a critic of appeasement was sometimes later overstated, he did use the knowledge gained as a member of the Territorial Army to attack the poor state of readiness of UK air defences—a tactic which in 1938 saw him threatened with a court martial but exonerated by the parliamentary select committee of privileges.

Sandys's wartime roles fell into two main phases. In 1940–41 he was in active service, first in Norway and then in Wales as commander of an anti-aircraft regiment. This second posting was cut short by a serious car crash which left him with injuries to both feet that continued to trouble him for the rest of his life. Then from 1941 onwards he resumed his full-time political career and began his rise into ministerial ranks. His appointment as financial secretary to the War Office in July 1941 was initially criticized by the 1922 committee as an example of nepotism. His subsequent effectiveness in office, however, suggested that this complaint was largely unjust. In February 1943 he was made parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Supply and asked to chair the cabinet committee responsible for devising countermeasures to the V-weapons. In this capacity he displayed the activism and attention to detail for which he became renowned, holding his own with the service chiefs in their discussions of how to stop the German weapons, reportedly suggesting the extremely effective step of moving many anti-aircraft batteries to the south coast, where V1s were easier to shoot down, and persisting despite strong cabinet opposition, notably from Herbert Morrison, with a disinformation campaign towards the Germans about where their rockets had landed. He was also responsible for co-ordinating the intelligence effort which identified Peenemunde as the launch site for the unstoppable V2s and opened the way for the base to be bombed. He was sworn of the privy council in 1944.

In November 1944 the dire state of Britain's house rebuilding effort persuaded Churchill to move his son-in-law to the Ministry of Works. Here Sandys proved able to revitalize the reconstruction drive, once more demonstrating a remarkable ability both to push forward policy despite bureaucratic and logistical obstacles and to immerse himself in the details of his brief. It is claimed that Sandys himself came up with the idea of producing prefabricated houses in ‘left-hand’ and ‘right-hand’ models, designed to ensure that the living-room would receive afternoon sunlight regardless of the building's exact location.

The European movement

Given the political importance of the house-rebuilding effort such success might have been expected to produce a rapid political reward. Instead, Sandys's rising ministerial career was brutally interrupted by the general election of 1945 at which he, like so many other prominent Conservatives, lost his seat. Churchill would have liked to have placed him in charge of the Conservative Research Department—a role to which Sandys's capacity to think radically would have been well suited, but which might have led the Conservatives' post-war policy rethink in a much more right-wing direction than was actually the case under Rab Butler's guidance—but this was blocked. As a result, Sandys channelled his considerable energies into the organization of Churchill's post-war campaign for European unity.

Sandys's impact as an organizer of pro-European activity was considerable. He and Churchill had been discussing ideas for European co-operation since the final stages of the war. But it was Sandys who persuaded the leader of the opposition to voice these ideas publicly and to use a speech which he was due to give in Zürich in September 1946 as an occasion to launch an inspirational call to the nations of Europe, and to France and Germany in particular, to unite. This rhetorical appeal was followed up, again as a result of Sandys's prompting, by the establishment of an organized campaign. The ‘United Europe Committee’ was formally established in January 1947 with Churchill as the figurehead and Sandys as the general secretary and driving force. It was the latter who drafted most of Churchill's April 1947 Albert Hall speech, which marked the UK launch of the campaign. Likewise it was to Sandys that the tasks fell of recruiting support within the Conservative Party—Robert Boothby, Harold Macmillan, Lord Cranborne, and others were soon signed up—and of forging those trans-European links without which the campaign could not hope to succeed. To this end Sandys attended the Gstaad and Montreux meetings of European federalists and then, in concert with Joseph Retinger, decided to organize a large-scale ‘congress of Europe’, a plan which culminated in the 1948 meeting in The Hague attended by a stellar roll-call of European politicians. He also became chairman of the international executive of the European movement, a role which allowed him to ensure that pressure for European unity did not fall away after delegates had left The Hague.

Britain's rather ambivalent attitude towards European unity soon began to undermine Sandys's efforts, however. Already at The Hague representatives of the Labour government had been notable by their absence. But Sandys's difficulties were not confined to the opposite side of the House of Commons; within his own party, too, several prominent front-benchers—Anthony Eden and Butler, for instance—and probably the majority of back-benchers, regarded Churchill's and Sandys's Europeanism with suspicion and mistrust. Continental hopes that Britain's aloof attitude and its self-willed exclusion from such early integration efforts as the 1950 Schuman plan were attributable to Labour and would end once the Conservatives returned to power, were therefore dashed in 1951 when the peacetime Churchill government adopted an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the efforts under way on the continent—an attitude which differed little from that of Ernest Bevin and the post-war Labour cabinet. The self-styled ‘Europeans’ such as Macmillan, Boothby, and Sandys himself, who had returned to parliament as MP for Streatham in 1950, could do no more than watch in frustration as the tone and substance of British European policy was shaped by Eden's views and attitudes rather than their own.

Ministerial career

In personal terms Sandys's disappointment was tempered by the resumption of his own ministerial career. His first post-war portfolio, held between October 1951 and October 1954, was as minister of supply. Here his most pressing task was to undo Labour's nationalization of the steel industry, a step which he carried out with a degree of moderation. He also had a first opportunity to think about the way of adapting Britain's world role (and more specifically its military role) to its economic capacity, a question that was central to his later stint as secretary of state for defence. Then between October 1954 and January 1957 he became minister for housing and local government, planning a modernization of local government (which became the 1958 Local Government Act), overseeing a reform of the rental system, introducing slum clearance allowances, and championing pedestrianized city centres.

The apogee of Sandys's political career was reached under Harold Macmillan. Eden's successor did not have an easy personal relationship with Sandys—he spoke often of his ‘cassant’ manner—but he appreciated Sandys's forcefulness, hard work, and capacity to get things done. As Macmillan later put it to his official biographer, Sandys was ‘a very tough man—he wouldn't have any nonsense … and was—quite simply—good at any job you gave him to do’ (Horne, 2.48). He therefore employed Churchill's son-in-law in a succession of demanding posts where an abrasive and forthright hatchet man was seen as being necessary.

The first of these was as secretary of state for defence. Britain had inherited armed services still bloated from the Second World War—a nonsense at a time of steady decolonization and the recasting, if not the disappearance, of Britain's global role. Sandys was thus entrusted by Macmillan with the job of radically pruning Britain's military capacity and adopting a defence posture more in keeping with a medium-size power. This was something the need for which Macmillan had become aware of during his own brief tenure of the defence portfolio in 1954–5. It was also a task, however, which had to be carried out in the face of strong opposition from the armed forces themselves and from many within the Conservative Party, not least Anthony Head, Sandys's immediate predecessor. Sandys threw himself at the challenge with his customary vigour. Both the nature of his mission and the manner in which he approached it quickly won him enemies—he is said to have literally come to blows with Sir Gerald Templar, chief of the Imperial General Staff—but he was able to strike up a surprisingly effective working relationship with Lord Mountbatten, the first sea lord, and produced a wide-ranging and radical defence white paper in 1957 which mapped out a defence strategy for the following decade and cut back much of the UK's surplus military capacity. In order to reach agreement with the service chiefs, Sandys had to drop some of his more radical ideas: his plan to replace all fighters with missiles was abandoned, while Mountbatten was able to win a reprieve for the notion of a navy with global reach. His proposed reorganization of the decision-making structures of British defence policy—with the institution of a powerful Ministry of Defence in place of the multiple service ministries—generated such opposition that it was temporarily disowned by Macmillan (although it was revived later on in Macmillan's premiership). But to have achieved as much as he did, given the entrenched opposition of the military and the emotive nature of the subject, was a tribute to his combative character and an achievement of lasting significance.

In October 1959 Sandys was shifted back to Supply, this time with the brief of breaking up the ministry and forming a new Ministry of Aviation. This bureaucratic reorganization was accomplished, although the second aspect of the job, that of revitalizing Britain's ailing aircraft industry, had barely begun when the minister was once more on the move, this time to the Commonwealth Relations Office. Macmillan had two reasons for moving Sandys. The first was that he was already planning his application to the EEC and used the July 1960 reshuffle to move reliable pro-Europeans into those posts which would be most sensitive during an EEC membership bid. Relations with the Commonwealth clearly fell into this category. The second was that, at a time during which the ‘winds of change’ were blowing strongly through Britain's empire and Africa in particular, the prime minister wanted to counter-balance the liberal instincts of the colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, with someone whose views were less difficult for the bulk of the Conservative Party to swallow. As John Ramsden put it, Sandys was to ‘act as brake to Macleod's accelerator in Africa’ (Ramsden, Winds of Change, 147).

Macmillan's complicated calculations worked in part. On the EEC front Sandys proved an effective operator, listening to Commonwealth grievances during the months before the July 1961 application but then playing them down during cabinet debates, and contributing to the skilful management of the September 1962 Marlborough House conference, in the course of which grudging Commonwealth acquiescence was obtained in the entry terms so far agreed in Brussels. But on Africa his partnership with Macleod was a stormy affair, especially over Roy Welensky and the planned Central African Federation. The colonial secretary threatened to resign over the issue on several occasions and for over a year co-operation between the two ministers was only sustained by dint of frequent intervention by the premier. By October 1961 it had all become too much and Macleod was replaced by Reginald Maudling. This partnership worked no better—Maudling shared his predecessor's liberalism—and in March 1962 the whole central African issue was taken from the two ministers and given to Butler, the deputy prime minister. The most difficult issue of the period had proved beyond Sandys, although his lack of success had much to do both with Macmillan's over-clever attempt to divide responsibility for Africa between two incompatible ministers and the inherent difficulties of an affair which would continue to torment successive British governments until 1979. Central Africa apart, Sandys retained responsibility for Commonwealth issues until October 1964, when the Conservatives lost office. His offer to resign in 1963, when his name became entangled with the Profumo affair, was rejected by Macmillan.

Later career

Despite his seniority, Sandys did not follow ministerial responsibility with a lengthy stint as a shadow spokesman. In 1965 he did help shape the opposition's European policy—an easy task given the similarity between his instincts and those of the new party leader, Edward Heath—but in 1966, after Labour's new electoral triumph, he was dismissed. Quite why is unclear. Heath's ostensible reason was that he wanted fresh faces after the election defeat; others speculate that Sandys was either too right-wing, or somewhat tainted in Heath's eyes by his colourful private life.

Controversy continued to dog Sandys even after 1966. Two years later he became involved in a very public row with Macleod over whether or not the Kenyan Asians, increasingly discriminated against in east Africa, should be able to settle in Britain. In keeping with his very strong views on the subject, Sandys was strongly against immigration being allowed and supported the restrictive measures taken by the home secretary, James Callaghan. And in 1973, the year before Sandys ended his lengthy Commons career and accepted a peerage, as Baron Duncan-Sandys, and the year in which he was made CH, he faced renewed criticism from Heath for the way in which he had been given a very large tax-free payment in the Cayman Islands as chairman of Lonrho at a time when British residents were not allowed to hold overseas accounts. The affair was famously denounced by the prime minister in parliament as ‘the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism’ (Heath, 418). Sandys's first marriage broke down in the late 1950s, and the divorce was finalized in 1960. (His former wife resumed her maiden name, Diana Churchill, by deed poll in 1962, and committed suicide in 1963.) On 19 April 1962 Sandys married Marie-Claire Hudson (b. 1928/9), daughter of Adrien Schmitt, industrialist, of Paris, and former wife of Robert William Hudson, second Viscount Hudson. The marriage was happy, and they had one daughter. Marie-Claire nursed her husband through a long final illness, which necessitated a move from their house in Vincent Square, London, to a flat at 12 Warwick Square. It was there that Sandys died on 26 November 1987, of cancer. He was survived by his wife, their daughter, and the three children of his first marriage. A memorial service was held on 10 February 1988 at St Margaret's, Westminster.


Despite a somewhat tawdry end to his career, Sandys was a remarkable politician. A man of immense energy, he showed himself to have both a creative mind and great doggedness in overcoming obstacles. Lord Orr-Ewing summed up his characteristics well: ‘the man was a steam-roller—he would grind away in first gear and nothing could stand in his path’ (Onslow, 18). Both Churchill and Macmillan made good use of this tenacity. He was also an effective parliamentary speaker, if a little prone to excessive detail, and a conscientious minister whose civil servants came to respect his sheer hard work and attention to the minutiae of policy making. The 1957 defence white paper, perhaps his most significant peacetime achievement, was typical in being substantially drafted by Sandys himself. But while these characteristics made him a very able lieutenant to a political master who knew where he wanted to go, Sandys himself at times lacked the judgement, the tact, and the political flair to rise to the highest office.

N. Piers Ludlow


DNB · The Times (27 Nov 1987) · The Independent (28 Nov 1987) · Burke, Peerage · WWW · S. Onslow, Backbench debate within the Conservative Party and its influence on British foreign policy, 1948–57 (1997) · A. Horne, Macmillan, 2 vols. (1988–9) · J. Ramsden, The age of Churchill and Eden, 1940–1957 (1995) · J. Ramsden, The winds of change: Macmillan to Heath, 1957–1975 (1996) · S. Ball, ‘Harold Macmillan and the politics of defence: the market for strategic ideas during the Sandys era revisited’, 20th century British history, 6/1 (1995) · R. Hansen, ‘The Kenyan Asians, British politics, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968’, HJ, 42 (1999), 809–34 · E. Heath, The course of my life (1998) · H. Evans, Downing Street diary: the Macmillan years, 1957–63 (1981) · K. Young, ‘The party in English local government’, The conservative party since 1900, ed. A. Seldon and S. Ball · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.


CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis · Bodl. RH, corresp. with R. R. Welensky · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · European University Institute, Florence, Historical Archives of the European Communities, European Movement archives · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., corresp. with Sir Harry Legge-Bourke · Welwyn Garden City Library, corresp. with Sir Frederic Osborn


photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£209,010: probate, 25 April 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales