The Home Secretaries (28): William Whitelaw

PA-9551881William Whitelaw, 1979-83

Conservative, under Thatcher

More than just a home secretary, Willie Whitelaw was one of the key figures in Margaret Thatcher’s first two governments.

Whitelaw came from a Scottish political family. His great-grandfather and grandfather had both been Conservative MPs; the same grandfather became chairman of the London and North-Eastern Railway. Whitelaw’s father died when he was one. Despite his education at Winchester College and Trinity, Cambridge, he was academically undistinguished (a second in History, a third in Law), but won a blue for Golf. Upon leaving Cambridge, he joined the Scots Guards, and was attached to the tank brigade. He won the MC for his leadership in the battle of Caumont, and was promoted. He also made lifelong friendships, notably with the future archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Throughout his life, Whitelaw would have a gift for making friendships. He then served in Palestine, where he was mentioned in dispatches.

By then he had married, and very happily so. By the late ‘forties, Whitelaw was gravitating towards Conservative politics. He entered parliament in 1955. By 1956, he was PPS to the president of the Board of Trade, his second cousin Peter Thorneycroft; he served Thorneycroft in the same capacity when he became chancellor. In doing so, Whitelaw formed a high opinion of the chief whip, Edward Heath: another political relationship that would endure.

In 1959, when Thorneycroft resigned, along with the rest of his Treasury team, Whitelaw went too. However, he returned quickly, serving in the whip’s office under Heath. Once again, Whitelaw’s gift for building friendship served him in good stead; he was now very well known, and much liked, on the backbenches. He then went to the ministry of labour, where his ability to win over officials and work with the opposition was further developed.

NPG x171951; William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, Viscount Whitelaw by BassanoHe had supported Butler in 1963 but, characteristically, his friendship with the new prime minister, Alec Douglas Home, deepened. When the Conservatives lost in 1964, Home went on to make Whitelaw chief whip. In 1965, Whitelaw told Home the time to gohad come. Typically, it did no damage to their relationship. Whitelaw worked closely with Heath, in what were some very difficult years in opposition. Heath was not good at working the lobbies of winning over backbenchers: Whitelaw was. Heath trusted Whitelaw, and his loyalty, and took his advice. In return, Whitelaw gave heath his absolute support, notably over the sacking of Enoch Powell after the Rivers of Blood speech in 1968.

Whitelaw played a key role in the unexpected Conservative victory in 1970. Heath made him lord president of the council, and he acted as Heath’s de facto deputy in the Commons. Thus, for the first time, Whitelaw found himself engaged in some of the most heated debates, notably over the Industrial Relations Act in 1971. It was an experience the naturally conciliatory and genial Whitelaw found uncomfortable, but he also gained a higher public profile: he began to be talked of as a future leader.

_38612453_whitelaw238Whitelaw’s reputation as a man who could work with all sides, and Heath’s trust in him, help explain his appointment as the first secretary of state for Northern Ireland, in March 1972. By then, Northern Ireland had descended into the abyss. The Provisional IRA’s campaign of bombing and murder was now raging at its most bloody. There would be a terrorist incident almost every day in 1972: 479 people were killed in that year. On 30th January, Bloody Sunday, thirteen Catholic civilians had been shot by paratroops.

Previously Northern Ireland had been governed by its own devolved Stormont government, under the aegis of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling (read about him here). Maudling had failed: perhaps anyone would have, but he never really tried. Whitelaw tried. The difficulties were profound, and would prove insurmountable, at least for nigh on twenty years. He tried talking to the IRA: their unbending demand for a British withdrawal soon convinced him that there could be no dealing with them. As he wrote in his memoirs:

The meeting was a non-event. The IRA leaders simply made impossible demands which I told them the British government would never concede. They were in fact still in a mood of defiance and determination to carry on until their absurd ultimatums were met.

The IRA campaign reached a bloody apogee when in Belfast City Centre, 21st July 1972, nine people were killed and more than 100 injured, in July. Like his successors, Whitelaw looked upon security forces to contain terrorism. After Bloody Sunday, Londonderry’s Catholic Bogside had become Free Derry, a No-Go Zone for security forces. Whitelaw authorised Operation Motorman, in which the barricades came down and security forces returned. He also initiated the Diplock Courts, which ended trial by jury after juries had been subject to intimidation.

Whitelaw also looked to a political solution. The IRA was beyond the pale. Similarly, Ian Paisley offered no prospect of compromise. Instead, Whitelaw looked to bring Brian Faulkner’s Unionist Party and Gerry Fitt’s Social Democratic and Labour Party to the table. Using all his considerable abilities and charm, Whitelaw secured a deal. The Sunningdale Agreement saw the creation of a power-sharing executive. When Heath withdrew him from the Northern Ireland Office, Whitelaw believed he was on the verge of some kind of lasting settlement. The failure to secure it remained a lifelong regret.

_382770_willie300Power sharing would be brought down by a Protestant workers’ strike in 1974. By then, Whitelaw was in opposition. Faced with an imminent Miners’ Strike, Heath sent had him to the Ministry of Employment. Whitelaw wanted to do a deal. Given the outcome of the 1972 strike, and in the context of the oil embargo imposed by OPEC in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, he believed that the government would be forced to come to terms with the miners in the end. Many of his colleagues wanted a fight. When the miners voted for a strike, Heath went to the country.

Famously, Heath lost. Whitelaw was made party chairman. When Heath lost again in October 1974, he was fatally holed beneath the waterline. Had Heath gone there and then, Whitelaw would almost certainly have become leader. Had Whitelaw been prepared to take on Heath himself, he would likely as not have won. Furthermore, his loyalty to Heath had been strained by what he saw as his premature withdrawal from the Northern Ireland Office, by Heath’s obduracy in the face of the miners and his desire to stay on after two general election defeats in 1974. Nonetheless, Whitelaw’s public loyalty saw him tied to Heath, and his natural private loyalty led him to stay his hand.

As it was, Margaret Thatcher stood against Heath. Believing she might not get enough votes, some of Whitelaw’s followers voted for her. Heath was finished after Thatcher won the first round 130-119. Whitelaw now entered the race. So did three others: Jim Prior, Geoffrey Howe and John Peyton. The other three muddied the waters, and took 49 votes between them. In truth though, Whitelaw’s 79 votes said something too. Thatcher had her majority.


Whitelaw had not been ruthless enough. It was a decisive moment in Conservative history. Although now deputy leader, Whitelaw and Thatcher shared a mutual distrust. Her found her disloyalty to Heath distasteful, and he had doubts about her judgement. In turn, Whitelaw’s natural consensus politics was an anathema to Thatcher. He led the pro-EEC Britain in Europe Campaign for the Conservatives, with her support, in the 1975 referendum. Her attitude to Europe was more sceptical than his, and his enthusiasm (liked Heath’s, borne of his wartime experience) made her somewhat sceptical of him. She was also wary of his close relationship with Roy Jenkins.

There were rows between them, usually when he believed she was being overly dogmatic. When she spoke of people’s fear of being swamped by immigration in a 1978 TV interview, he offered his resignation. The outcome, though, was telling. He didn’t resign, and Thatcher reined herself in. It was a role Whitelaw would play in government, and it was a loyalty she would cherish.

By the time he returned to government in 1979, he had come to agree with Thatcher about many things. Britain’s continuing economic crises had convinced him of the need to make fundamental changes. The reckless behaviour of the trade unions in the Winter of Discontent had convinced him of the need for far reaching reform. He had also come to admire her, and had also come to believe that his natural role was as a deputy. She had come to value his loyalty, his honest advice, and his ability to keep her Wets (the Heathite moderates from which he had come) on board, and mostly on message.

Whitelaw became home secretary. The successful handling of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980, and his tough stance in face of the riots in 1981 pleased the prime minister. He was a staunch supporter of the police, and he played to the Tory gallery when he promised tougher sentences for young offenders in the form of a ‘short, sharp shock’. There were the usual trip-wires home secretaries face: bombings in London, and royal security issues. One royal story, which saw a man break into the queen’s bedroom, could easily have led to his resignation. Thatcher stood by him.

His real instincts were those of a liberal Tory, and he retained a close relationship with his Labour predecessor Merlyn Rees. His 1981 Immigration Act cut immigration, but Thatcher had wanted it stopped altogether. He may have talked tough over rioters or young offenders, but he tried to reduce the prison population. He supported the independence of the BBC, when many Tories hated what they saw as the left-wing public broadcaster. He paved the way for the creation of Channel Four. He opposed the restoration of capital punishment, something Thatcher supported. When she applauded a pro-hanging speech at the 1981 party conference, he threatened to resign.


For Thatcher, he was too valuable to lose. In the Falklands War, he was the key member of her war cabinet. His old friend, foreign secretary Francis Pym, wanted to pursue a US-brokered deal. Whitelaw sided with Thatcher, and stood by her throughout.

After Thatcher’s victory in 1983, Whitelaw went to the Lords as leader of the House and lord president of the council. He continued to act as a source of advice, but Thatcher became less reliant upon it. By the time he retired in 1987, after a mild stroke, Thatcher rarely sought his advice. At the same time, the caution and pragmatism he had always encouraged, gave way to her more strident and ideological side. He deplored Michael Heseltine’s challenge to her leadership, but then advised her to go after the first ballot. By the 1990s, though, his health had declined: he died in 1999.

williewhitelawWillie Whitelaw was a measured and relatively liberal home secretary who restrained his own party’s instinctive hangers and floggers, and the same instincts in his leader. How far he restrained Thatcher in other matters is more open to question, though it is certainly true that when he left office she became yet more strident and ideological. He remains one of the key figures in the Conservative Party of both Heath and Thatcher. As she was supposed to have said, ‘every prime minister needs a Willie’.

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