Viscountess Whitelaw: Wife of Tory grandee
Monday 13 February 2012
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.
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