William Whitelaw, 1st Viscount Whitelaw

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"William Whitelaw" redirects here. For the 1890s MP, see William Whitelaw.
The Right Honourable
The Viscount Whitelaw
William Whitelaw.jpg
Deputy Prime Minister of United Kingdom
In office
4 May 1979 – 10 January 1988
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Rab Butler[a]
Succeeded by Sir Geoffrey Howe[b]
Leader of the House of Lords
Lord President of the Council
In office
11 June 1983 – 10 January 1988
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Baroness Young
Succeeded by Lord Belstead
Home Secretary
In office
4 May 1979 – 11 June 1983
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Merlyn Rees
Succeeded by Leon Brittan
Shadow Home Secretary
In office
11 April 1976 – 4 May 1979
Leader Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Ian Gilmour
Succeeded by Merlyn Rees
Chairman of the Conservative Party
In office
4 March 1974 – 11 February 1975
Leader Edward Heath
Preceded by Peter Carington
Succeeded by Peter Thorneycroft
Secretary of State for Employment
In office
2 December 1973 – 4 March 1974
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Preceded by Maurice Macmillan
Succeeded by Michael Foot
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
In office
24 March 1972 – 2 December 1973
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Francis Pym
Leader of the House of Commons
Lord President of the Council
In office
20 June 1970 – 7 April 1972
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Preceded by Fred Peart
Succeeded by Robert Carr
Chief Whip of the Conservative Party
In office
16 October 1964 – 20 June 1970
Leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Edward Heath
Preceded by Martin Redmayne
Succeeded by Francis Pym
Member of Parliament
for Penrith and The Border
In office
26 May 1955 – 11 June 1983
Preceded by Robert Scott
Succeeded by David Maclean
Personal details
Born William Stephen Ian Whitelaw
(1918-06-28)28 June 1918
Nairn, Scotland
Died 1 July 1999(1999-07-01) (aged 81)
Penrith, England
Political party Conservative
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Religion Church of Scotland
a. ^ Office vacant from 18 October 1963 to 4 May 1979. b. ^ Office vacant from 10 January 1988 to 24 July 1989.

William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, 1st Viscount Whitelaw KT, CH, MC, PC, DL (28 June 1918 – 1 July 1999), often known as Willie Whitelaw, was a British Conservative Party politician who served in a wide number of Cabinet positions, most notably as Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister.

Early life[edit]

Whitelaw was born in Nairn, in northeast Scotland. He never knew his father, who was killed in the First World War when he was a baby. He was educated first at Wixenford School, Wokingham, before passing the entrance exam to Winchester College. From there he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won a blue for golf and joined the Officer Training Corps. By chance he was in a summer camp in 1939 on the outbreak of the Second World War and was granted a regular, not wartime, commission in the British Army, in the Scots Guards, later serving in the 6th Guards Tank Brigade, a separate unit from the Guards Armoured Division. He commanded Churchill tanks in Normandy during the Second World War and during Operation Bluecoat in late July 1944. His was the first Allied unit to encounter German Jagdpanther tank destroyers, being attacked by three out of the twelve of these vehicles which were in Normandy.[1]

The battalion's second-in-command was killed when his tank was hit in front of Whitelaw's eyes, and Whitelaw succeeded to this position, holding it, with the rank of Major, throughout the advance through the Netherlands into Germany and until the end of the war. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Caumont; a photograph of Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery pinning the medal to his chest appears in his memoirs. After the end of the war in Europe, Whitelaw's unit was to have taken part in the invasion of Japan, but the Pacific War ended before this. Instead he was posted to Palestine, before leaving the army in 1946 to take care of the family estates of Gartshore and Woodhall in Lanarkshire, which he inherited on the death of his grandfather.

Political career[edit]

After early defeats as a candidate for the constituency of East Dunbartonshire, he became Member of Parliament (MP) for Penrith and the Border at the 1955 general election, and represented that constituency for 28 years.[2] He held his first government posts under Harold Macmillan as a Lord of the Treasury (government whip) between 1961 and 1962 and under Macmillan and then Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour between 1962 and 1964. In 1964 Douglas-Home appointed him as Opposition Chief Whip.[citation needed] He was sworn of the Privy Council in January 1967.[3]

Heath Government, 1970–1974[edit]

When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970 under Edward Heath, Whitelaw was made Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, with a seat in the cabinet.[4] He became the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after the imposition of direct rule in March 1972 and he served in that capacity until November 1973. During his time, in Northern Ireland he introduced Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners. He attempted to negotiate with the Provisional Irish Republican Army with the then PIRA Chief of Staff Seán MacStiofáin in July 1972. The talks ended in an agreement to change from a seven-day truce, to an open-ended truce, which did not last long. As a briefing for prime minister Edward Heath later noted, Whitelaw "found the experience of meeting and talking to Mr MacStíofáin very unpleasant". MacStiofáin in his memoir, complimented Whitelaw, saying he was the only Englishman ever to pronounce his name in Irish correctly.[5]

He left Northern Ireland in 1973 to become Secretary of State for Employment shortly before the Sunningdale Agreement was reached, to confront the National Union of Mineworkers over pay demands. The dispute was followed by the Conservative party losing the February 1974 general election.[citation needed] Also in 1974, Whitelaw became a Companion of Honour.[6]

In opposition, 1974–1979[edit]

Soon after Harold Wilson's Labour Party returned to government, Heath appointed Whitelaw as Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Chairman of the Conservative Party. After a second defeat in the October 1974 general election – during which Whitelaw had accused Harold Wilson of going "round and round the country stirring up apathy", Heath was forced to call a leadership election in 1975. Whitelaw loyally refused to run against Heath; however, and to widespread surprise, Margaret Thatcher narrowly defeated Heath in the first round. Whitelaw stood in his place and lost convincingly, against Thatcher in the second round. The vote polarised along right-left lines, with in addition the region, experience and education of the MP having their effects.[7]

Whitelaw managed to maintain his position as Deputy Leader until the 1979 general election, when he was appointed Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister in Thatcher's new government.[8]

Home Secretary, 1979–1983[edit]

Thatcher was a firm fan of Whitelaw's, and appointed him Home Secretary in her first Cabinet, later writing of him "Willie is a big man in character as well as physically. 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".[9]

As Home Secretary, Whitelaw adopted a hard-line approach to law and order. He improved police pay and embarked upon a programme of extensive prison building. His four-year tenure in office, however, was generally perceived as a troubled one. His much vaunted "short, sharp shock" policy, whereby convicted young offenders were detained in secure units and subjected to quasi-military discipline won approval from the public but proved expensive to implement and largely ineffectual in stemming burgeoning crime rates.[citation needed] He was the British Home Secretary during the 6-day long Iranian Embassy siege in London, 30 April 1980 – 5 May 1980.

In March 1981, he approved Wolverhampton council's 14-day ban on political marches in the borough in response to a planned National Front demonstration there.[10]

Inner city decay, unemployment and what was perceived at the time as heavy-handed policing of ethnic minorities (notably the application of what some called the "notorious" sus law) sparked major riots in London, Liverpool, Bristol and a spate of disturbances elsewhere. The Provisional IRA escalated its bombing campaign on England.

Leader of the House of Lords, 1983–1988[edit]

Two days after the 1983 general election, Whitelaw received a hereditary peerage (the first created for 18 years) as Viscount Whitelaw, of Penrith in the County of Cumbria.[11] Thatcher appointed him Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords. Lord Whitelaw faced many challenges in attempting to manage the House of Lords, facing a major defeat over abolition of the Greater London Council within a year of taking over. However, his patrician and moderate style appealed to Conservative peers and his tenure is considered a success.[citation needed]

During his period as Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Lords, Margaret Thatcher relied on Whitelaw heavily, famously announcing that "every Prime Minister needs a Willie".[12] He chaired the "star chamber" committee that settled the annual disputes between the limited resources made available by Treasury and the spending demands of other government departments. It was Whitelaw who managed to dissuade Thatcher in November 1980 from going to Leeds to take charge of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation personally.[citation needed]


After a stroke in December 1987, he was forced to resign. Some people, Nicholas Ridley, among them, argued that Whitelaw's retirement marked the beginning of the end of the Thatcher premiership, as he was no longer around as often to give sensible advice and to moderate her stance on issues, or to maintain a consensus of support in her own Cabinet and Parliamentary Party.

Retirement and death[edit]

The grave of William Whitelaw

During his retirement and up until his death Lord Whitelaw was the chairman of the board of Governors at St Bees School, Cumbria. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle in 1990.[13]

He died of natural causes, aged 81, in 1999, survived by his wife of 56 years, Celia, Viscountess Whitelaw (1 January 1917 – 5 December 2011), a World War II ATS, volunteer, philanthropist/charity worker and horticulturist. The couple had four daughters. Although Whitelaw was given a hereditary peerage, the title became extinct on his death as his daughters were unable to inherit. His home for many years was the mansion of Ennim just outside the village of Great Blencow near Penrith, Cumbria. He was buried at St. Andrew's Parish Church, Dacre, Cumbria.

Styles of address[edit]

  • 1918-1944: Mr William Stephen Ian Whitelaw
  • 1944-1952: Mr William Stephen Ian Whitelaw MC
  • 1952-1955: Mr William Stephen Ian Whitelaw MC DL
  • 1955-1967: Mr William Stephen Ian Whitelaw MC MP DL
  • 1967-1974: The Right Honourable William Stephen Ian Whitelaw MC MP DL
  • 1974-1983: The Right Honourable William Stephen Ian Whitelaw CH MC MP DL
  • 1983-1990: The Right Honourable The Viscount Whitelaw CH MC PC DL
  • 1990-1999: The Right Honourable The Viscount Whitelaw KT CH MC PC DL

In popular culture[edit]

  • The folk album, England's Vietnam - Irish Songs of Resistance, by the Men of No Property (Folkways Records, 1977), contains a track called Tuten Carson's Tomb. The song portrays a tour guide supposedly guiding visitors through the St Anne's Cathedral tomb of Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson and pointing out artifacts. Referring to Whitelaw's period as the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it contains the line, "A flak vest made of solid jade/A gift that Whitelaw made."


  1. ^ Daglish, I. (2009). Operation Bluecoat. Pen & Sword. pp. 70–73. ISBN 0-85052-912-3. 
  2. ^ leighrayment.com House of Commons: Paddington to Platting
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 44210. p. 1. 30 December 1966.
  4. ^ The London Gazette: no. 45134. p. 6953. 23 June 1970.
  5. ^ MacStiofáin, Seán Revolutionary in Ireland, pp. 281–89
  6. ^ leighrayment.com Companions of Honour
  7. ^ Philip Cowley and Matthew Bailey, "Peasants' Uprising or Religious War? Re-Examining the 1975 Conservative Leadership Contest," British Journal of Political Science (2000) 30#4 pp. 599–629 in JSTOR
  8. ^ Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (2013) p 427
  9. ^ Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 27.
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^ The London Gazette: no. 49394. p. 8199. 21 June 1983.
  12. ^ Template:Http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/2003/jun/18/changes-to-government-departments
  13. ^ The London Gazette: no. 52351. p. 18550. 30 November 1990.

Further reading[edit]

  • Moore, Charles. Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (2013)
  • Whitelaw, William. The Whitelaw Memoirs (1989), a primary source

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Robert Scott
Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border
Succeeded by
David Maclean
Political offices
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Alan Green
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour
Office abolished
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Fred Peart
Leader of the House of Commons
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Robert Carr
Lord President of the Council
New office Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
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Secretary of State for Employment
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Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Whitelaw