Sir Raymond Whitney: MP and diplomat who had a torrid time in the Cultural Revolution


There is a tendency to regard those who do not make it to the top of their chosen profession as failures. Ray Whitney would not have agreed. He had three careers, each bringing their own satisfactions, first as a soldier, then a diplomat and finally as a parliamentarian. Along the way he managed to make a fair amount of money in business, although he lost £650,000 when the Local Government Network, which he set up and chaired, crashed in 1994.

He first hit the headlines when posted to Peking as First Secretary. While China's Cultural Revolution was underway the Chinese whipped up a storm of protests about the British suppression of demonstrations in Hong Kong and delivered an ultimatum about the supposed ill-treatment of Chinese journalists. Whitney and the outgoing British consul were assaulted by the Red Guards at Shanghai airport on 25 May 1967. A fortnight later in Peking a mob broke into the British Embassy and Whitney was among those kicked and jostled.

Worse followed. When the Chinese ultimatum expired on 22 August the Red Guards blockaded the embassy and later that night broke in. The British staff retreated first into an inner room and then to the secure zone. The Chinese set fire to it and battered down the steel door with a ram. The Head of Chancery, Donald Hopson, was felled. Whitney organised a rugby scrum around the only female staff member and headed out of the compound, at full tilt and under incessant blows, seeking a friendly embassy. Inevitably they lost their bearings, but some friendly Chinese soldiers ushered them into the Albanian embassy. Their own embassy was left to burn.

Whitney was awarded an MBE but for almost a year he was in effect a prisoner. The granting of an exit visa in June 1968 was the first sign not only of a thaw in diplomatic relations between Britain and China, but also that the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end. Whitney retained his affection for China, acting as interpreter when a delegation visited the Commons in 1980 – he jocularly remarked that the visitors had been in disgrace, probably cleaning toilets, when he was in Peking. He took part in the first British parliamentary delegation to China, and from 1997 until 2001 chaired the All Party China Group.

He brought his diplomatic career to an end in 1978, his final appointment being headship of the Foreign Office's Information Research and Overseas Information Departments. They were engaged in counter-propaganda, but Whitney always denied that he was a "spook".

His resignation allowed him to fight and win a by-election at the safe Conservative seat of Wycombe, which he held at five general elections, although boundary changes to the disadvantage of the Conservatives made the task of holding it much harder in 1997. He stood down in 2001. Probably his most significant contribution to policy came from his tour of southern Africa on behalf on Margaret Thatcher to assess the chances of a Rhodesian settlement; his previous experience as deputy head of the FCO's East African Department fitted him for the job. He concluded that the best chance of avoiding black totalitarianism was an internal settlement between the white leader, Ian Smith, and Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Ultimately Muzorewa lost out to Robert Mugabe, and, rather later perhaps than Whitney anticipated, his prognostication was justified.

Whitney combined strongly right-wing views with staunch support of British membership of the European Community. He was one of those chosen to promote the party's proposals for trade union reform in March 1979 and his 10 Minute Rule Bill to make ballots compulsory in union decision-making passed by five votes. With the Conservatives in government he served briefly as PPS to Nigel Lawson and Peter Rees at the Treasury (1979-80), but then, disappointed at the slow progress made with trade union reform, pursued election to the backbench Employment committee, serving as vice chairman (1980-83).

As chairman of the Conservative party's Foreign Affairs Committee (1981-83) he was notably hawkish over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – he had earlier launched an all-party campaign for Britain to boycott the Moscow Olympics. However, when Argentina invaded the Falklands he urged a diplomatic solution. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he was made Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Foreign Office in June 1983, with Argentina and the Falklands part of his brief. In September 1984 Mrs Thatcher moved him into a junior post at the DHSS, He aroused controversy by his attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had claimed that Mrs Thatcher was creating a "divided society", but lost his post in September 1986, a victim of the Health team's perceived inability to refute Labour allegations of Tory cuts.

Far from resenting his dismissal and calling it a day, Whitney remained in the Commons as an active and loyal backbencher. It was reported that he had turned down an offer of the Governorship of Hong Kong, and probably his most significant role was that of Chairman of the Positive European Group, where he rallied support to secure passage of the Maastricht Treaty Bill. But he also chaired the all-party Latin America Group for a decade after 1987, and in his last term in the House chaired the all-party groups on China, Argentina and Hospices.

Whitney was also active in the Centre for Policy Studies and as a convinced supporter of the need to reform the finances of the NHS, he advocated health insurance vouchers in National Health Crisis – A Modern Solution, published in 1988. Very much his own man and usually a pillar of the right, he was also an active supporter of British membership of the ERM and the Euro and a supporter of Ken Clarke's bid for the leadership in 1997.

Outside the Commons, he chaired the Business Television Corporation (1988-89), The Cable Group (1989-97), and Windsor Cable Television (1989-97), as well as the ill-fated Local Government Network. An earlier venture, chairmanship of Dial Publications, where he acted as supervising editor of Westminster Analysis, came to an end with his appointment as a minister, but he probably made more money as a consultant, not least to Glaxo Holdings (1987-96), than he did from his other business ventures.

Whitney was proud that he came of working class Conservative parents, although progress to Sandhurst had meant that he followed a very different path in life. An intelligent and courageous man, articulate and witty, if on occasions blunt to the point of tactlessness, Whitney made hardly any enemies. In his later years he became an active lay reader in his local church at Sunninghill. Earlier he had greatly enjoyed writing, producing and acting in amateur theatricals, and to the end he enjoyed a good game of golf.

John Barnes

Raymond Whitney, diplomat, businessman and politician: born Northampton 28 November 1930; First Secretary, Peking 1966–68; Head of Chancery, Buenos Aires 1969–72; MP (C) Wycombe 1978–2001; OBE 1968, Kt 1997; married 1956 Sheila Prince (two sons); died 15 August 2012.