Viscountess Whitelaw: Wife of Tory grandee

Many leading politicians in the House of Commons, to which I was first elected in 1962, had remarkably supportive spouses.

I think of Audrey Callaghan, Ted Castle, Edna Healey, Elizabeth Douglas-Home, Elspeth Howe, Laura Grimond, Evelyn Macleod and Beryl Maudling. Another such was Celia Whitelaw, wife of Willie Whitelaw, Ted Heath's Chief Whip, and subsequently Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister: "Every prime minister needs a Willie," as Margaret Thatcher famously put it. Whitelaw was generously loyal to Thatcher, who had pipped him in the contest for leadership of the Tory Party.

Celia Whitelaw had her own views – which she kept to herself until Willie was in his grave in 1999. Sufficient to say that had the Whitelaws been in Downing Street from 1979-90, recent British history would have been very different. For example, there would not have been a miner's strike or a Falklands War and British industry would not have been decimated.

Celia inhabited a different planet from Thatcher and the distance between them was encapsulated when Thatcher inscribed a copy of her memoirs for Whitelaw, "To Willie and Cecilia". Pamela Graham, the Whitelaws' fourth daughter, reflected: "that indicates how little she knew about us. My mother has never been called anything but Celia. Obviously Mrs Thatcher had got some secretary to look up the name of Willie's wife in a reference book."

Celia Sprot was born the younger daughter of Major Mark Sprot MC of Riddell, by Melrose, and his wife Meliora, the daughter of Sir John Adam Hay, ninth baronet of a line created in 1635. Celia was close to her grandfather, being educated by governesses, before being sent to the new school at Oxenfoord Castle in Pathhead, with a reputation for Spartan conditions.

My first knowledge of Celia Sprot came when Willie Whitelaw's aunt, Rhoda Whitelaw, a battleaxe of an Edwardian lady, came bounding into our house to tell her friend, my mother, another of the species, "My dear, my nephew Willie has got himself engaged to a delightful country girl. Most suitable." And a country girl is precisely what Celia Sprot was.

Whitelaw had been a regular game-shooting guest at the Riddell Estate before 1939, and on leave in 1942 he proposed. They were married on 6 February 1943 at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Subsequently Whitelaw was in the thick of fighting with the Scots Guards in Europe – he was awarded the MC for bravery – and was one of the first into Belsen. From being, in his own words, "happy-go-lucky", he returned a battle-hardened Scots Guards officer.

The last time I saw Celia was at a small party which my wife gave for her father's regiment, the Royal Scots Greys. She was proudly wearing a diamond Scots Guards brooch – "my most valued possession." She had volunteered for the ATS, and recalled being fitted out with tailored uniforms before being posted to Edinburgh Castle as a clerk in Scottish Command.

After Willie left the army in 1947 Celia helped him run his family estates in Lanarkshire and Dumbartonshire. During his first attempts to enter the House of Commons, fighting East Dumbartonshire in 1950 and 1951, she earned the admiration of the successful Labour MP, Cyril Bence. She was hugely helpful to Whitelaw, not least in energising the Tory ladies, among whom she was extremely popular. She made Whitelaw impregnable on his political home front.

From 1955 until he went to the Lords in 1983, she was an invaluable presence in his constituency of Penrith and the Border while he was engulfed in the stratosphere of British politics. She cultivated a beautiful garden at their home at Ennim, outside the village of Great Blencow near Penrith, becoming a pillar of the Lakeland Horticultural Society, and Vice President of the Penrith and District Gardeners andAllotment Association. She worked for the Cumbrian Branch of Barnardo's the British Red Cross – she was its Cumbrian president – the Eden Valley Hospice in Carlisle and the Children's Foundation.

After Willie died in 1999 Celia moved to Scotland to be near the third of her daughters, Mary, at Haystoun, near Peebles, and her brother, Colonel Adrian Sprot MC, who described her to me as "my other half". No major British politician was more fortunate in his spouse than Viscount Whitelaw Kt.

Cecilia Doriel Sprot, political spouse: born Lilliesleaf, Roxburghshire 1 January 1917; married 1943 William Whitelaw (died 1999; four daughters); died Edinburgh 5 December 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing