Obituary: Viscount Whitelaw

Patrick Cosgrave
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:33

WITH THE death of William Whitelaw, a particular and admirable tradition in British politics has come to an end. Whitelaw held high office for longer than any his contemporaries who saw active service in the Second World War. He was a bluff Scottish squire who became the mainstay of two Conservative administrations of very different character, under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

One of the few who saw his potential was his Labour contemporary Richard Crossman. Just after the Tory victory in the General Election of 1970, Crossman said to me at a dinner in Oxford, "Watch Whitelaw. He is going to be one of the most formidable British politicians for many years to come." Thereafter, observers of Conservative politics were to learn that Willie Whitelaw's extraordinary combination of utter loyalty to the leader of the day and shrewdness in the conduct of political business would serve to give him great power in national politics. His career lasted almost 40 years; only in 1991 did he resign the deputy leadership of the Conservative Party, poor health having forced him, three years earlier, to give up the burdens of cabinet office, as Leader of the House of Lords.

Despite the plethora of his ministerial appointments after his election to Parliament in 1955, Whitelaw was a somewhat reluctant politician. He always described himself as "a farmer". His other passion was golf. In 1953 he was a Walker Cup selector and, in 1969, to his unfeigned and overwhelming joy he was elected Captain of the Royal and Ancient. Indeed, he once observed that this gave him even more pleasure than the Companionship of Honour to which he was appointed in 1974.

Whitelaw had a privileged childhood, but it was marred by tragedy. Born in 1918, and brought up on the family estate at Nairn, he was an only child, and fatherless, his father and three uncles having been killed in the First World War. In 1955, when he moved to Cumbria, he had the crumbling family home, Garthshore, pulled down, recording in his memoirs, "I am glad I did so, because our family would have hated seeing our house as a ruin . . ."

Probably partly because he had no siblings, and partly because he spent a great deal of time with his elderly paternal grandparents, Whitelaw was an intensely shy and introspective child who disliked the company of his coevals, hard though that is to credit of so convivial and ebullient an adult. (He also, on first acquaintance, hated golf.)

Though never exactly a duffer at school, Whitelaw was hardly in the first intellectual rank. None the less, he managed to get a place at Winchester: this was his mother's choice, made over the objections of his grandfather, who wanted him to go to his father's old Scottish school, Glenalmond. His first couple of terms at Winchester were deeply unhappy. It was far from Nairn. He had to mix with other boys. He remained overpoweringly shy. Then, suddenly, he began to get on with his housemaster, Major "Bobber" Robertson, who was to become a lasting influence on his life, and whose memory he cherished. "The Bobber" encouraged his golf, and got him involved in team games, especially cricket.

Within a brief time a gregarious young Whitelaw began to emerge and, though his academic performance was never to be outstanding, he performed well enough to gain a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1936. He obtained a Third in Law and a Second in History. He also got a Blue in golf. During his three years at Cambridge he neither joined a political party, nor took any part in student politics, "one", as he later wrote, "of the rare subsequent members of the House of Commons who had never been inside the Union".

But war was near and he joined the Scots Guards, and soon procured a commission as a regular officer. Whitelaw enjoyed his training, and decided he would take up a military career. His war was, however, interrupted in December 1942, by his engagement while on leave to Celia Sprot, the daughter of a regular officer. Willie had met Celia when he was eight, and had dreaded her mother's tea parties. Over the years, however, they became friends and, on 6 February 1943, they began an enviably happy marriage, which was to produce four daughters.

Whitelaw saw service in Palestine (where, like a minority of British officers, he acquired a great sympathy for those advocating a Jewish state of Israel) and in France and Germany. Of all his experiences after the Normandy landings he always most vividly remembered his baptism of fire, at the battle of Caumont on 30 July 1944. Major Whitelaw went into action in command of a squadron of 15 tanks. His own vehicle was blown up by a mine, so he resumed command in another. The Germans counter-attacked. In a matter of five minutes three tanks of the squadron had been destroyed. Casualties were heavy. Whitelaw fought his way through, won the Military Cross and, the following year, took the surrender of Lutjenburg, in Schleswig- Holstein. He was by now a second in command of his battalion, and he had seen Belsen.

Though he stayed in the Army until 1947, he was increasingly disinclined to continue with his military career. There were two reasons for this. The lesser was that he had a family and, his grandfather having died, two estates to look after. The greater was the impression made on him by having to write to the relatives of men killed under his command. Having been on excellent terms with all his men, he knew that many of their families were poor and deprived, and he decided that a duty of public service called. On the battlefields of Europe the ameliorative politician of later years was born. He was 29 years of age.

Whitelaw was a good catch for the post-war Conservative Party. In 1950 he fought East Dumbartonshire, where Labour was entrenched. Clydeside was not an easy testing ground for a man who had never made a public speech, but he did well, losing by just under 5,000 votes. In the general election the following year he lost by just over 3,000 votes; but he resolved never again to stand in a seat he judged unwinnable. He did not get his chance until, in 1954, he was offered Penrith and the Border. He won in 1955, moved his home there, and held the seat comfortably until he became Leader of the House of Lords in 1983.

Most neophytes are nervous on entering the House of Commons; but most have had more political experience than Whitelaw had in 1955. He was taken in hand by the Deputy Speaker (a golfing chum), Charlie MacAndrew. In 1956 a cousin, Peter (now Lord) Thorneycroft, who was President of the Board of Trade, invited him to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

He remained with Thorneycroft when the latter became Chancellor of the Exchequer and thus saw all the traumas of the resignation of the three Treasury ministers (the others being Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell) in January 1958. He remained convinced to the end of his life that the three were right to go, on the issue of public expenditure.

In 1961 he became a junior whip. Between 1962 and 1964 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. He then became Conservative Chief Whip, a post he held until 1970 when, following Edward Heath's general election victory, he became Leader of the House of Commons.

In 1972 Heath imposed direct rule in Northern Ireland and sent Whitelaw there to fill the new post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Just as Whitelaw began to believe he was getting somewhere in reconciling the Catholic and Protestant communities - through the creation of a power- sharing executive - he was recalled to London to shore up a crumbling government by using his by now-famed conciliatory charm to bring about a successful agreement with a rampant trade union movement. It was all too late. Against Whitelaw's strong advice (for the Government had a good majority) Heath decided to go to the country in February 1974: he lost.

Whitelaw subsequently, and with great sadness, told friends that he believed that he was on the verge of a solution in Northern Ireland. The failure to procure a settlement in Ulster was the greatest disappointment of his public life. Compared to this, his later problems with the trade union movement and, as Home Secretary, with the British prison system were small matters. Even the Bristol and Brixton race riots of 1981, which aroused panic in the media, and fear in both communities, and which he dealt with with great firmness, caused him less perturbation than what he saw as failure in Ulster.

Whitelaw had put his heart into peacemaking in that troubled province, and that heart was nearly broken by developments after February 1974, when Unionist and Republican intransigence re-emerged in full force. But Whitelaw never felt bitterness towards Heath. All he would ever convict him of was an error of tactical judgement.

Just over a year later Heath (having failed in another general election in October) lost the leadership of his party as well. Whitelaw adamantly refused to stand against Heath in the first ballot of the leadership election. When Heath, soundly beaten, withdrew, he did stand against the victor in the second ballot: Margaret Thatcher gained 179 votes, and Whitelaw 69.

Thereafter he served her (often to the frustration and irritation of politicians more sympathetic to his left-of-centre views than to her right- wing attitudes) with the utmost fidelity, first in opposition, then from 1979 as Home Secretary and, finally, from 1983 as Leader of the House of Lords. In 1988, while attending a concert, he collapsed with a heart attack and, under pressure from his wife and family (as well as his doctor), he retired from office.

The episode of the leadership contest in 1975, and Thatcher's experience from that year onwards, demonstrate one of Whitelaw's most enduring and attractive characteristics - loyalty. He took it into retirement with him, proclaiming to a Press Gallery audience during Sir Anthony Meyer's challenge to Thatcher that, were she to be replaced through a rebellion, he would not campaign for her successor at the next general election. Again, had he stood against Heath in the first ballot in 1975 he would almost certainly have won - probably on that first ballot. But he would not yield to the pleas of his friends to do so.

Margaret Thatcher had cause to be grateful to him for his loyalty on countless occasions, but perhaps most dramatically during the Falklands War. He had the gravest doubts about the despatch of the Task Force, fearing massive loss of life. (He once said that nobody civilised who had once taken part in a war would ever readily countenance another.) But, as a member of the War Cabinet during that conflict, he gave the Prime Minister unflinching support and wise counsel.

His loyalty was not only to the individuals, but to the public service. Whitelaw once said that he would undertake any job he was asked to do in government, as a matter of principle. Both Heath and Thatcher used him as a trouble-shooter, and a jack of all trades. He was very happy as Leader of the House of Commons, but when Heath needed a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland he uncomplainingly undertook that thankless job. Then, when the storm clouds gathered over the Heath government he just as uncomplainingly came back to the Department of Employment.

Between 1975 and 1979 Thatcher's position as Leader of the Opposition was a good deal less than secure. Whitelaw who, by withdrawing his hand from her, could have destroyed her, exercised himself to protect her, not just for her sake but for the sake of the party and - as he saw it - ultimately for the sake of the country. Later, when the government's legislative programme was running into serious difficulties in the Upper House he willingly left his beloved Commons to become probably the most effective Leader of the House of Lords this century. It was the strain of that job which finally broke his health.

He was a great persuader of the recalcitrant. This is not to say that he could not have explosive bursts of temper. When Chief Whip he once hurled an ashtray at a woman MP who was resistant to his attempts to persuade her to toe the party line. A moment later, however, they were having a glass of whisky together, and she ultimately voted the way he wanted her to. When he took over in Northern Ireland he assembled together his junior ministers and the civil servants they were to work with. He had arranged a splendid buffet, with lashings of drink. He made only a very brief speech. "The job we have is impossible," he said, "so we must begin as though we are going to enjoy it."

He was not a great man with words in public, and his accusation that the Labour Party were going around the country "stirring up apathy" is probably his most celebrated malapropism. In private, though, he could be hypnotic, and not a few rebels were turned from their course when he looked at them with his soulful oyster eyes and they concluded that they could not bear to hurt Willie, for he so identified with each of his many tasks that they became personal to him; disagreement seemed almost sinful.

Willie Whitelaw was a great servant of several ministers. He was a great servant of two prime ministers, and a great counsellor to them well. He was a great servant to his party. But most important - and this is how he would like to be remembered - he was a great servant to his country.

William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, politician and farmer: born Edinburgh 28 June 1918; MC 1944; MP (Conservative), Penrith and the Border 1955- 83; PPS to President of Board of Trade 1956, to Chancellor of the Exchequer 1957-58; Assistant Government Whip 1959-61; Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour 1962-64; Chief Opposition Whip 1964-70; PC 1967; Leader of the House of Commons 1970-72; Chairman, Conservative Party 1974- 75, Deputy Leader, 1975-91; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1972- 73; Secretary of State for Employment 1973-74; CH 1974; Deputy Leader of the Opposition and spokesman on home affairs 1975-79; Home Secretary 1979-83; created 1983 Viscount Whitelaw; Leader of the House of Lords 1983-88; KT 1990; married 1943 Celia Sprot (four daughters); died 1 July 1999.

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