During these awful and bleak times, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don't always get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I shall publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political heroes who are unfortunately no longer with us. Last week I looked at the life of the Conservative Party's most successful Chairman and Mrs Thatcher's preferred successor, Cecil Parkinson.
This week I'll be looking over the life of one of the Iron Lady's most loyal Ministers and defender to the hilt, Willie Whitelaw and to quote the great lady, "every Prime Minister needs a Willie". He was the "upper class Tory toff" to quote The Mirror, however The Telegraph soon added "loveable" to that quote as he was seen then as the Jacob Rees-Mogg of his day, to some extent! He was evidently from the upper classes and had been the grandson of a member of the gentry and beneficiary of a large countryside estate, but he was in touch with the public from his tough on law and order during his time as Home Secretary to his hilarious and often popular accusations which were thrown left, right and centre towards Harold Wilson during the October 1974 general election when he was Party Chairman.
William Stephen Ian Whitelaw was born on 28th June 1918 at his family estate of Monklands in Nairn, North East Scotland; he was born into the Scottish gentry of landowners, who sustained themselves off rental income from their properties and their country estate. Whitelaw never knew his father, also called William, who passed away when he was a baby from the wounds he had suffered in the Great War whilst serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment. In his autobiography 'The Whitelaw Memoirs' he described the experience as "I cannot remember exactly how I found out, although I remember going to bed that evening and crying. But, like most children of a certain age, my memory was short, and I got over it".Instead, he was raised by his mother Helen who was the daughter of Major General Francis Russell, and his paternal grandparents, including his grandfather, again named William, who had served as the Conservative MP for Perth between 1892 and 1895. His grandfather was the young William's inspiration for getting into politics and creating a living for himself, he had attended Harrow School before graduating from Cambridge to serve as an MP and then as Chairman for, most notably, the London North Eastern Railway from 1923 until he resigned in 1938. Whilst serving as Chairman of LNER, Whitelaw oversaw the inaugural journey of the world famous Flying Scotsman on his railway.
The young Whitelaw attended Wixenford School in Wokingham, a feeder school for Eton, however, he would end up passing the entrance exam for Winchester College before studying at the same place as his grandfather, Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he would prosper and become a keen golfer, a passion he would carry throughout his life as well as joining the Officer Training Corps, a military training unit. In 1939, he was at an Army summer camp, by chance when the Second World War broke out and he was subsequently granted non wartime commission in the British Army, he would go on to serve in the Scots Guards and then the 6th Guards Tank Brigade; he would command a fleet of Churchill Tanks during Operation Bluecoat, a British offensive in Normandy in the Summer of 1944. His battalion's second in command was killed in front of him so he rose to the rank of Major, he would oversee the advance through the Netherlands to Germany when the War ended, he was scheduled to travel to the Pacific before the Japanese surrender was signed and instead posted to Palestine, before the creation of Israel. He left the forces in 1946 to take over the job of running the family estate he inherited from his grandfather in Lanarkshire, however at the end of the War, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery personally awarded him the Military Cross for his services and bravery in Caumont during Operation Bluecoat.
Whitelaw again followed in the footsteps of his grandfather when he chose to run for Parliament at the 1950 general election, standing against the Socialist Labour candidate David Kirkwood in the newly created constituency of East Dunbartonshire. Kirkwood was a trade unionist and had held the seat of Dumbarton Burghs since 1935 and had a few run ins to say the least with Ian MacGregor, as documented in my article below, during the 1930s and the height of the Red Clydeside movement. Whitelaw would be unsuccessful in taking Kirkwood's Parliamentary seat but he would only be within 4000 votes of taking the constituency, he would stand again in the general election a year later but the veteran Kirkwood had stood down – Cyril Bence would take over and retain a similar majority over Whitelaw, he would go on for a career of nearly two decades, spending his whole time in Parliament on the backbenches although serving as PPS to Anthony Crosland and Patrick Gordon Walker. The constituency which Whitelaw launched his career has only ever been held by a Conservative once, in February 1974, Barry Henderson took the seat only to lose it at the resulting October general election to Margaret Bain of the SNP. Jo Swinson would later hold the seat for the Lib Dems from 2005 until 2015 when she lost her seat, winning it again in 2017 but the then leader lost it in 2019.
In 1955, Donald Scott stood down as the MP for Penrith and The Border in Cumbria, after holding the constituency since creation in 1950, Whitelaw successfully held the 13,000 majority and entered Parliament, sitting in the same position on the Government benches as his grandfather had when he was elected in 1892 as MP for Perth. Whitelaw was first elevated to the government by Harold Macmillan in 1961 as a Government Whip and then soon after as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour when Sir Alec Douglas-Home succeeded 'Super Mac' as PM in 1962. Following the disastrous 1964 general election where Harold Wilson romped home with a huge majority, Whitelaw was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet by Sir Alec to Opposition Chief Whip and then appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1967.
When Ted Heath somewhat shocked the nation in 1970 with a general election victory over Wilson with a minuscule majority, Whitelaw was given a full Cabinet seat as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons. Although following Westminster's decision to directly rule Northern Ireland, rather than Stormont, in 1972 he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a significant role at the time as it was the early days of The Troubles. Whitelaw attempted to negotiate with the IRA and create a truce, which he did successfully, although it would only last a matter of days; Seán MacStíofáin, the Chief of Staff for the Provisional IRA met with Whitelaw and although they first appeared productive, the talks soured as quickly as they'd started, with the Secretary of State recalling how he'd found his encounters with him as "unpleasant at the very least". Prisoners, relating to The Troubles, from both sides were given special prisoner status by Whitelaw, this was seen as a compromise to the IRA and he was heavily criticised in the press as Heath said he looked for a hardline approach when entering Office, however, Whitelaw himself wasn't exactly comfortable with the compromises.
By the time the autumn of 1973 came around, Whitelaw was reshuffled to Employment, replacing Maurice Macmillan who had been appointed Paymaster General, this was shortly before the Sunningdale Agreement was signed – Whitelaw was said to have been sceptical of Mr Heath's direction in Northern Ireland by this point although he never officially confirmed his thoughts on the Northern Irish policy apart from when he held the residence at Hillsborough Castle.
Following Heath's Cabinet reshuffle, Whitelaw was made Secretary of State for Employment where he made a big issue of confronting the National Union of Mineworkers over pay demands, which meant he was almost permanently at loggerheads with NUM President Joe Gormley whilst he held that portfolio. However, his time as Secretary of State for Employment was short lived due to the fact the Conservatives lost the general election in February of 1974 with Edward Heath's government being nicknamed the government of U-turns.
Now in Opposition, Whitelaw was appointed Deputy Leader and Party Chairman, there was still a deadlock in Parliament which had resulted from no majority being produced at the general election, consequently leading to the second general election of the year in October when Harold Wilson affirmed his power as Prime Minister. During that second general election, Whitelaw accused Wilson of "going round and round the country stirring up apathy" which greatly resonated with the public, although Labour gained 18 seats in Westminster but were short of 17 for a majority government and therefore had to rely on the Liberals and the SNP for votes. Heath was still hurt from the U-turns of his government and the 1973 miners' strikes which Whitelaw had been put in charge of, due to this fact many Conservative MPs had lost faith in Ted Heath, including pioneers like Sir Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit, Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher.
By the time 1975 came around, Heath was forced to call a leadership election due to the growing concern of support within his own ranks, Margaret Thatcher stood against him and won outright on the first ballot, causing him to resign as leader. Whitelaw didn't stand in the first round against Heath, staying loyal to the leader of the Party although he would come the closest to Thatcher in the second ballot, gaining 79 votes, compared to Thatcher's 146, Sir Geoffrey Howe and Jim Prior's 19 votes each and Hugh Fraser who only gained the support of 16 MPs. Whitelaw attracted the support of many Heath loyalists, including many Shadow Cabinet Ministers, whereas Thatcher had gained the support of most backbenchers, despite this, he remained in the Shadow Cabinet as Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Many thought the evidently more right wing Thatcher would dispose of the 'wet' Willie Whitelaw who had remained loyal to Heath but instead he pledged his loyalty to her and would become one of her closest allies and supporters in the coming years. He retained his position as Deputy Leader in 1976 when Thatcher reshuffled her Shadow Cabinet, dispersing Ian Gilmour as Shadow Home Secretary to Shadow Defence Secretary, subsequently Whitelaw's loyalty was rewarded with being promoted to Shadow Home Secretary as well as Deputy Leader.
Following Thatcher's victory in 1979, he assumed the Great Office of Home Secretary, although Deputy Leader of the Party was scrapped as an official title and he instead became the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, although he never officially held that title. Like mentioned previously, he was seen as someone who would be a natural opponent within of Thatcher but he would be one of her staunchest defenders in government in her first administration, in 'The Downing Street Years' the Iron Lady wrote of Whitelaw "he wanted the success of the government which from the first he accepted would be guided by my general philosophy. Once he had pledged his loyalty, he never withdrew it". During his time as Home Secretary, he was seen to be one of the most hardline of his time, although a 1978 TV interview given by Thatcher on cutting immigration due to people's fears of "being swamped" by mass immigration, he offered his resignation which she refused. By 1980, he had increased the annual salary of Police officers and started an extensive programme of prison building, although more importantly he had come to agree with Thatcher on a lot of policy areas including tough trade union reform rather than negotiation, a policy he pursued when he served as Employment Secretary for Mr Heath.
Willie Whitelaw was massively critical of South Yorkshire Police over their handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case in 1980, although he was never public with his criticism at the time; Thatcher had become so fed up with the failure to arrest and convict Peter Sutcliffe that she considered moving to Leeds and sorting the issue out herself and it was he that dissuaded her from doing so. After he was arrested, Whitelaw was firm in his view that he should never be released from prison and was against his moving to Broadmoor Hospital.
Immigration soon fell down the priority order in favour for tough law and order as the flagship Home Office policy, young offenders were embarked on a military-like programme of punishment, in order to promote discipline and order; this policy proved immensely popular among the public although it was expensive to roll out, it was seen to be effective. Whitelaw's policy of 'short, sharp shocks' was not only popular with Conservative MPs and activists but also the general public, he was seen as a loyal supporter and promoter of the Police as well as tough sentences. Whitelaw had become irreplaceable for Thatcher by the end of 1981 following his successful handling of the Iranian Embassy Crisis when he decided to call on the SAS to storm the building in Princes Square in order to free the hostages, and then his firm approach to dealing with the nationwide riots in early 1981. Whitelaw wasn't entirely in line with Thatcher's new brand of the Conservative Party, he remained close with his Labour predecessor Merlyn Rees, who was seen as being on the right of the Labour Party. By the time autumn 1981 came around, he was ready to propose the British Nationality Act, an update of the Immigration Act, 1971 in order to cut immigration; he was successful in achieving this as immigration did fall, although not as much as Mrs Thatcher would've liked it to.
Taking a step back, he had aimed to reduce the amount of people in prisons across the UK, which somewhat contradicted his tough approach on young offenders, he outlined his views as having a focus on youth offenders as prevention rather than punishment. Whitelaw took firm approaches towards rioters in Toxteth in Liverpool, Brixton in London and across Birmingham and the rest of the West Midlands, these riots were a demonstration against the government and Whitelaw's decision to increase stop and search powers given to Police. Furthermore, he opposed the far right group the National Front and intervened to back Wolverhampton Council in banning all marches for 14 days when they had planned a march through the city centre. Whitelaw nearly resigned at Party Conference in 1981 as Thatcher had applauded a speech in favour of the death penalty, a cause he vehemently opposed, however Thatcher saw this as non-contentious and rejected his offer of resignation, after all her husband of then over 25 years also was strongly anti-death penalty.
When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Whitelaw was one of the most vocal supporters of Thatcher and a key member of her War Cabinet, the Home Secretary was one of the earliest advocates for sending a task force to the South Atlantic to resolve the crisis. His support of Mrs Thatcher's decision to send the military to the Islands was rather surprising to some of his old friends in the Cabinet, most notably Peter Carrington, the Foreign Secretary who had been more in favour of holding out for a diplomatic solution, brokered by the USA. Whitelaw was also one of the key influences on the Iron Lady's decision to give the order to sink ARA Belgrano when it was judged to pose a threat to British forces.
In 1983, Whitelaw stood for re-election as MP for Penrith and The Border, although he had planned on retiring, two days after winning the seat again, he was elevated to the House of Lords with a hereditary peerage, the first awarded for 18 years. He was elevated to the House of Lords as Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith. This was to be one of three of the last hereditary peerages created, the other two being former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan being elevated to the Earl of Stockton, although this wasn't until February 1984 and the other being George Thomas, the former Labour MP and Speaker of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1983, he was raised to a Viscount in July 1983. Thatcher subsequently appointed Whitelaw as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council, remaining in the Cabinet and as Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, a position he would retain until 1991, although he served alongside Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1989.
He faced staunch opposition in the Lords which was still overwhelmingly Conservative at the time, although filled with 'wets', he faced his first challenge when Mrs Thatcher proposed the abolition of the Greater London Council. However, like he had promised his vow of loyalty to her in 1975, he stuck to that and used his amazing capability to win people around to persuade the Lords to pass the government's Bill to abolish the GLC. He would remain as Leader of the Lords and Party Deputy Leader until 1987 and 1991 respectively, he stepped down from the Cabinet in 1987 following a mild stroke and was replaced by John Ganzoni, Lord Belstead as Lords Leader and John Wakeham as Lord President of the Council. In 1991 he retired completely, stepping down from his token position of Deputy Party Leader in the new year, being replaced, but not until 1995, by Michael Heseltine who was then serving as Deputy PM to John Major. He came to despise Heseltine in 1990 when he challenged Thatcher for the Party leadership, saying in his memoirs how they weren't natural allies but had become close, forming an allegiance he had with no other Party leader before or since.
He was charming and witty, he resonated with the public like few politicians can, a "toff" to the tabloids, "Old Oyster Eyes" to satirical magazine Private Eye and the sleepy dressing gown wearing, bushy eyebrowed and cocoa drinking old folk in the corner by Spitting Image; whatever he was, he gained the respect of Party members, the nation and politicians from not just all sides of the Conservative Party but from across the House of Commons and House of Lords.
Whitelaw was loved by most and hated by few, he passed away after several illnesses on 1st July 1999, he was survived by his wife of 56 years, Celia and their four daughters who were unable to inherit his hereditary peerage.
Rest in peace The Rt. Hon. Viscount William Stephen Ian Whitelaw KT, CH, MC, PC, DL, 1st Viscount of Penrith