Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar

Tory politician and writer whose liberal views and fearless criticism infuriated Margaret Thatcher


Ian Hedworth John Little Gilmour, politician and writer: born 8 July 1926; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1952; Editor, The Spectator 1954-59; MP (Conservative) for Norfolk Central 1962-74, for Chesham and Amersham 1974-92; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 1970-71, Minister of State for Defence Procurement 1971-72, Minister of State for Defence 1972-74, Secretary of State for Defence 1974; PC 1973; Chairman, Conservative Research Department 1974-75; succeeded 1977 as third Bt; Lord Privy Seal 1979-81; President, Medical Aid for Palestinians 1993-96; created 1992 Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar; Chairman, Byron Society 2003-07; married 1951 Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott (four sons, one daughter); died London 21 September 2007.

Ian Gilmour served in Margaret Thatcher's first Cabinet and was one of the first she dismissed from office, in 1981. He was a One Nation Tory, in the tradition of R.A. Butler, Harold Macmillan and William Whitelaw. Like them, he also came from an upper-class background. He was what other wealthy Tories called "seriously rich" and assumed the responsibilities that he believed went with wealth. He also wrote excellent books on British politics and deserves to be regarded as a Tory intellectual.

He was born in July 1926, the first son of Lt-Col Sir John Gilmour (second Baronet), a stockbroker. He was educated at Eton and Balliol and served with the Grenadier Guards. Supported by money from his father's estates in Scotland and holdings in the Meux brewery, he and his family lived in some style in the grounds of Syon Park, in London, and kept a house in Tuscany.

Gilmour, as befitted a grandee, was immensely tall, charming, urbane and had an aristocratic drawl. He balanced his pessimism about politics with a biting wit, often at his own expense and delivered in a deadpan manner. A generous host, he enjoyed conversations about literature, history and current politics. He purchased The Spectator magazine in 1954 and he was editor until 1959. During his editorship he recruited some fine writers, including Bernard Levin, John Betjeman, Henry Fairlie and George Gale. He remained proprietor until 1967 and for a time had Iain Macleod as an editor.

Gilmour was called to the Bar in 1952 and practised for two years in the chambers of Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham). At their first meeting Hogg vigorously reprimanded him for not studying the text books for his Bar Finals. This negligence contrasted with his assiduous reading for his later books on politics. He remained a lifelong admirer of Hogg and supported him in the battle for the Conservative Party leadership in 1963. Gilmour never practised again after 1954.

He was selected, and then elected, for Norfolk Central in a by-election in February 1962. When the seat was redrawn, he moved to Chesham and Amersham and was its MP from February 1974 to 1992. Gilmour was one of the awkward squad. He resigned from the Garrick Club in sympathy with Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been attacked by members following his criticisms of the Queen. He was also a distinctive Conservative, advocating the Palestinian cause in the Middle East, and he supported all the liberal or permissive measures passed in the late 1960s on abortion, divorce and homosexuality and ending capital punishment. Throughout his career he remained on the left of the party.

He served as a minister during Ted Heath's 1970 government and was made Secretary of State for Defence in January 1974. The appointment lasted only a few weeks, as the government was defeated in the "Who Governs?" general election the following month. He then became Chairman of the Conservative Research Department and remained there until Margaret Thatcher won the party leadership 12 months later. The Director of the Research Department was Chris Patten and the two "wets" wrote the party manifesto for the October 1974 general election. What they regarded as Conservatism with a conscience – maintaining full employment and the welfare state – was dismissed by Thatcher as "middle class guilt". Gilmour was close to Heath at this stage and a strong supporter of the leader making the "supreme sacrifice" and offering to stand down in the October general election if it were necessary to form a coalition government.

In spite of his charm, even diffidence, he was fearless in expressing his views. Following the Conservative defeat in the October 1974 general election, he advised Heath to stand down and allow Whitelaw to succeed. Heath rejected the advice and Gilmour regarded Thatcher's subsequent victory as a classic cock-up by the party leadership. Thatcher's first weekend as Prime Minister in 1979 was spoilt by letters from Gilmour and Patten, which she regarded as grossly impertinent. They were protesting at the planned incorporation of the Research Department into Central Office in Smith Square. She raged against such behaviour, which presaged the insubordination Gilmour was to show in her government.

Gilmour was never one of Thatcher's persuasion and it was extraordinary that she made him shadow Home Secretary in 1975, then shadow Spokesman on Defence. In her 1979 government he became Lord Privy Seal and government spokesman on foreign affairs in the House of Commons, effectively number two to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. The two men were good friends, agreed on all the issues, and Carrington was a stout defender of Gilmour.

They also experienced the full brunt of the Prime Minister's dislike of the Foreign Office. Their first task was to dissuade her from recognising the "tame" regime in Rhodesia of Bishop Muzorewa, who had just won an election from which Robert Mugabe and other Patriotic Front leaders had been excluded. Only South Africa would recognise it; the rest of the Commonwealth and Africa called for fresh elections. After protracted negotiations, the Foreign Office line prevailed as did, eventually, Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

The other major problem was to find a formula that would resolve Britain's growing net contribution to the European Community budget. For Thatcher the case was simple: "We want our money back." Although her aggressiveness alienated Germany and France, Carrington and Gilmour managed to strike a deal which would give Britain a substantial reduction in its payments for the next two years. They were well pleased and ordered a champagne breakfast on the flight back home to report to Mrs Thatcher at Chequers. But, as Gilmour wrote afterwards:

Had we been bailiffs arriving to take possession of the furniture, or even Ted Heath paying a social call in company with Jacques Delors, we would probably have been more cordially received. The Prime Minister was like a firework whose fuse had already been lit; we could almost hear the sizzling.

She threatened to resign rather than accept the deal and they countered with their own resignations, if it was rejected. With no agreement in sight, the two adjourned and briefed the press that Thatcher had won a striking triumph. The manoeuvre worked and in Cabinet Mrs Thatcher was isolated.

It was widely known that Gilmour was out of sympathy with the government's economic policy. He was one of the three "wet" cabinet ministers who met for breakfast on the day of Sir Geoffrey Howe's deflationary Budget in 1981. With unemployment approaching three million and riots in the inner cities Gilmour was shocked at such a Budget. He thought of resigning and subsequently regretted he had not.

But he was in Mrs Thatcher's sights for the next reshuffle. He was not a conspirator, had no following on the backbenches, and could be dispensed with safely. Carrington had already successfully interceded on his behalf in January 1981, but Gilmour no longer had his heart in it. He wrote a resignation letter over the summer and released it when he was dismissed in September. It contained the memorable line: "It does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard but it does not do much good if you are steering full speed ahead for the rocks."

He was a regular critic of other government policies, including the abolition of the GLC, rate-capping, failures to increase child benefit, and, of course, the poll tax. But he did not, apart from writing graceful, witty and scholarly books, give a lead to "wets" in the party. He voted for Michael Heseltine in the two leadership elections in 1990. On his retirement as MP in 1992 he took a peerage. He had succeeded to his father's title in 1977.

Gilmour's brand of Conservatism had a diminished following in the 1990s. On the key issue of Europe and the single currency he had no time for the sceptics. Thatcher liked to contrast Gilmour's consensus politics with her conviction politics. But he had strong convictions, born of his sense of British history and reading in Conservative theory and practice. He was his own man and had a carefully considered position based on his knowledge of the facts, his understanding of philosophy and his considered moral viewpoint.

Gilmour was not a good platform speaker; he disliked the theatricality and tub-thumping of party conferences. But with his pen in his hand he was a devastating communicator. He wrote prolifically, on history, politics, and Conservative philosophy. The Body Politic (1969) was a scholarly volume on British politics that some universities adopted as a set book. A series of essays, Inside Right (1977) made the case for his middle way Conservatism against what he dismissed as "Josephism" (the ideas of Sir Keith Joseph), a precursor of Thatcherism. The book is a treasure-trove of One Nation Toryism: "the country can only be well governed from the centre" and "the Tory virtues are respect for tradition, distrust of systems and rationalism in politics, approval of balance and suspicion of zeal." Shortly after his departure from government, his book Britain Can Work (1983) provided an onslaught on monetarism and a defence of Keynesian economic management. Thatcher's aides privately compared him to the Bourbons: he had forgotten nothing and learnt nothing.

Dancing with Dogma followed, in 1992, a comprehensive critique of the Thatcher record. The book drew on a wide range of scholarly research and his personal experience in politics. He chose for the cover a photo of a soignée Mrs Thatcher dancing with himself, looking uncomfortable. She had recently dismissed him from her Cabinet and it was incredible to believe that he had once been a member of her government. He also wrote Whatever Happened to the Tories? (1997) and, in 2002, a study of the early lives of Byron and Shelley. Gilmour was an intellectual and as serious about his writing as about his politics.

There was much of the political crossbencher about him. He was dismissive of Thatcher and her successors as Conservative leader, not least on European matters. Although increasingly bored by his party's manoeuvres he still called himself a Conservative. In the early 1980s he seemed a natural social democrat and it is still surprising that he did not join the newly formed SDP. Roy Jenkins (godfather to his daughter) was one of his closest friends and showed him an advance copy of his Dimbleby Lecture that launched the idea of the Social Democrat Party in 1979. On Europe, constitutional reform (including proportional representation), the mixed economy and dismissal of the approaches of Thatcher and Tony Benn, there was no difference between the two men.

Gilmour's career as a cabinet minister was brief, lasting less than two and a half years. His importance was in representing a brand of Conservatism, in his speeches but even more in his writings. He had a genuine sympathy for all sorts of underdogs and minority causes, neglected by the party at the end of the 20th century.

Dennis Kavanagh

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