The Home Secretaries (31): David Waddington

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David Waddington, 1989-90

Conservative, under Thatcher

It is tempting to aver that Margaret Thatcher never found herself able to appoint a home secretary of her own stripe right up until the end. David Waddington, a bluff Lancastrian right-winger noted for a predilection for both the rope and the birch, fitted that bill admirably. 

Waddington was born in Burnley, the son of a solicitor (the family also owned a cotton mill). He went to Sedbergh, and read Law at Hertford College, Oxford, where he was president of the university Conservative association. He was then called to the bar before doing national service, then practicing as a barrister and taking silk in 1970. In 1976, he led the defence of Stefan Kiszko, who was found guilty of murdering a young girl. Kiszko was, in fact, wholly innocent. The defence was not well managed, but the real culprits were the police, who withheld forensic evidence that would have cleared Kiszko. Ironically, it was just as Waddington became home secretary that the unsafe nature of the case became clear. By the time Kiszko was acquitted by the court of appeal and released, in 1992, the original prosecuting lawyer was Lord Chief Justice: Lord Taylor of Gosforth (one of our most distinguished Old Novos).

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Waddington married the daughter of a Conservative MP, and entered the Commons in a 1968 by-election. Ironically, his Nelson and Colne seat had been held by Sydney Silverman, the man responsible for the private member’s bill that led to the abolition of capital punishment. Waddington held on to the seat until the general election of October 1974. In March 1979, he won a safe seat, again in his native Lancashire.

After Margaret Thatcher won in May 1979, he was sent to the whips’ office. In the 1981 purge of the Wets, the Heathite old guard, the irredeemably wet Jim Prior was replaced in the Department of Employment by Norman Tebbit, whose brief was to curb the power of the trade unions once and for all. As a right wing lawyer, Waddington was ideally suited to being the junior minister charged with helping ensure that the legislation made its way through the Commons as intended.

In 1983, he went to the Home Office, in charge of immigration: famously the most dysfunctional department in an infamously dysfunctional Home Office. Waddington took a robustly hostile approach, notably to Tamil asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka’s bitter civil conflict. They were, he declared, ‘mostly bogus’. One such asylum seeker, Viraj Mendis, resisted deportation by taking refuge in a Manchester church. When local students protested in support of him, disrupting a speech by Waddington, he averred that their parents should give them a good flogging.

He also deported an illegal Romanian immigrant into the tender arms of the eastern bloc’s most brutal dictatorship. In contrast, when the Daily Mail ran a campaign to give the white South African middle distance runner Zola Budd UK citizenship, Waddington did so immediately. For many on the backbenches, let alone the wider party and, one suspects, the resident of number ten, this was good, proper Tory stuff.

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After the 1987 election, Waddington became chief whip. Thatcher was now in her pomp. As chief whip, it was Waddington’s task to tell her about the extent of backbench unease, notably over the poll tax. He was also accused of deliberately misleading Sir Geoffrey Howe, by implying that the coming reshuffle would not affect his position as foreign secretary, thus preventing Howe from trying to forestall the possibility by mobilising support. Howe never forgave him. Waddington would go on to blame himself for not warning her about her waning support in stronger terms; he was, thus, partly to blame for her downfall. For her part, Thatcher regretted moving him from the whips’ office. He was one of the last ministers to see her on that famous night. He promised to support her, but also told her he believed that she wouldn’t win.

By then, though, he had been at the Home Office just over a year. It was an unexpected promotion, as unexpected to Waddington as much as anyone else. Shortly after, he found himself responding to a poll tax riot in London and a three-week rooftop protest in Manchester’s Strangeways prison. He took over Douglas Hurd’s Criminal Justice Bill, toughening up the Hurd’s parole arrangements, but keeping its aim of reducing the number of minor offenders in prison, by creating community service orders. He opened up broadcasting to satellite TV. His War Crimes Bill facilitated the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in British courts. He wanted to liberalise the Sunday trading laws.

Waddington had long opposed calls for three notorious miscarriages of justice cases to be reopened. In 1974, the IRA had bombed two pubs in Guilford, killing five and injuring over sixty. The following month, they bombed two pubs in Birmingham (a third device failed to detonate). In what was, until 2005, the worst terrorist atrocity in mainland Britain, 21 were killed and 182 injured. The pressure on the police to secure convictions was immense. In securing them, they carried out some of the worst miscarriages of justice in our history.

A week before Waddington became home secretary, the men accused of carrying out the Guilford bombing had been released. After the case had been reopened in 1987, it became clear that Surrey police had lied through their teeth and comprehensively fiddled the evidence. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, ruled all the police evidence in the case was wholly unreliable, and the convictions were quashed. The Maguire Seven were also convicted in 1974, for handling explosives. In the aftermath of the Guilford verdict, Waddington initiated an inquiry, which criticised the original trial judge and found the scientific evidence to be unreliable. The court of appeal quashed the convictions in 1991. In 1988, the Birmingham Six had lost an appeal, after Douglas Hurd had referred the case back to the court of appeal. By 1991, the weight of evidence showing that, once again, the scientific evidence was wholly unreliable was overwhelming. Waddington return the case to the court of appeal once again: this time, the government did not contest the appeal. Even if very reluctantly, Waddington had done the right thing in the end. It was one of British justice’s darkest hours.

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When Thatcher went, as a Thatcherite true believer, Waddington voted for John Major. Major, in the modern parlance, was looking to detoxify the Tory brand: Waddington was eased out of the Home Office. Major offered him the leadership of the House of Commons, and the chair of a number of cabinet committees. Instead, he went to be leader of the House of Lords. His bluff Tory demeanour did not go down well with their Lordships, and Major made little use of him in cabinet. It was to general relief all round that he was given the governorship of Bermuda, in 1992.

‘A decent local buffer who wasn’t all that clever, but in his own way tried to do his best.’ So said Waddington of himself. A surprise and short-lived home secretary for sure, who perhaps turned out to be a rather more subtle figure than his self-created image allowed.

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