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William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, 1st Viscount Whitelaw KT CH MC PC DL (28 June, 1918 – 1 July, 1999), commonly known as Willie Whitelaw, was a British Conservative politician.

Early life

Whitelaw was born in Nairnmarker, in northeast Scotlandmarker. He never knew his father, who was killed in the First World War when he was a baby. He was educated at Winchester Collegemarker and Trinity Collegemarker, Cambridgemarker, where he won a blue for golf and joined the Officer Training Corps.

By chance he was in a summer camp on the outbreak of war and was granted a regular, not wartime, commission in the British Army, in the Scots Guards, later serving in the Guards Tank Brigade, a separate unit from the Guards Armoured Division. He commanded Churchill tanks in Normandy during the Second World War and in the Battle of Caumont (late July 1944) his was the first Allied unit to encounter Germanmarker Jagdpanther tank destroyers, being attacked by three out of the twelve of these vehicles which were in Normandy. The battalion 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 Netherlandsmarker into Germanymarker 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 Japanmarker, but the Pacific War ended before this could happen. Instead he was posted to Palestine, before leaving the army in 1946 to take care of the family estates which he had inherited on the death of his great uncle.

Member of Parliament

After early defeats as a candidate for the constituency of East Dunbartonshiremarker, he became Member of Parliament (MP) for Penrith and the Bordermarker at the 1955 general election, and represented that constituency for 28 years. After stints as a junior whip and as a parliamentary secretary, Alec Douglas-Home appointed him as Opposition Chief Whip in 1964, and Ted Heath promoted him to Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons in 1970. He was also appointed to the Privy Council during this time.

In government

Edward Heath appointed him as 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 also attempted to negotiate with the Provisional Irish Republican Army with the then IRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin in July 1972. The talks ended in failure, and as a briefing for prime minister Edward Heath later noted, Whitelaw "found the experience of meeting and talking to Mr Mac Stíofáin very unpleasant". Mac Stíofáin said that Whitelaw put up his bluff exterior at first, but after a couple of minutes let it drop and showed himself to be a shrewd political operator; he also noted that Whitelaw was one of the few Englishmen to pronounce his name correctly. He left Northern Ireland 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's losing the February 1974 general election. Also in 1974, Whitelaw became a Companion of Honour.

Tory deputy leader

Soon after Harold Wilson's Labour Party returned to government, Heath appointed Whitelaw as Deputy Leader of the Opposition. 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 knocked Heath out of the contest in the first round. Despite standing, and losing convincingly, against Thatcher in the second round, 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.

Home Secretary and Peer

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 years 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. Inner City decay, unemployment and the heavy-handed policing of ethnic minorities (notably the use of the notorious sus law) sparked major riots in Londonmarker, Liverpoolmarker, Bristolmarker and a spate of copy-cat disturbances elsewhere. IRA terrorist outrages on the British mainland escalated, and Whitelaw was personally embarrassed by the Michael Fagan incident, when a mentally ill man breached security at Buckingham Palacemarker and gained access to the Queen's bed chamber.

Two days after the 1983 general election, Whitelaw received a hereditary peerage (the first created for 18 years) in order to become Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords. In the resulting Penrith and The Border by-election, the Conservative candidate David Maclean narrowly held the seat against a strong challenge from the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

Leader of the House of Lords

Whitelaw faced many challenges in attempting to manage the House of Lordsmarker, 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.

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". 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 Leedsmarker to take charge of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry personally.

Whitelaw was usually portrayed on the satirical TV show Spitting Image wearing his dressing gown and pyjamas to cabinet meetings.


After a stroke in December 1987, he was forced to resign. Some have argued that Thatcher's dependence on him could have caused his stroke at the end of 1987, as he was taking on five jobs at the same time. Some people have said, including Nicholas Ridley, that Whitelaw's retirement was the beginning of the end of the Thatcher premiership, as he was no longer around as often to give sensible advice. After listening to him, Thatcher may have moderated her stance on several issues. Instead, having tamed the Trade Unions and the Coal Miners, Thatcher began to look for enemies where there weren't any, such as attacking the EU and introducing the poll tax. She was forced to resign in November 1990.

Retirement and death

The grave of William Whitelaw
During his retirement and up until his death he was the Chairman of the Board of Governors at St Bees Schoolmarker, Cumberlandmarker. He was created a Knight of the Thistle in 1990, and died of natural causes at the age of 81 in 1999, survived by Cecilia, his wife of 56 years, and four daughters.

Although Whitelaw was given a hereditary peerage, the title became extinct on his death as his daughters were unable to inherit. However, his eldest daughter married and divorced the heir presumptive to the Earl of Swinton, and her two sons by that marriage are in line to inherit that title, so a special remainder to the Viscounty would have seen it submerged in the earldom in any event.

His home for many years was the mansion of Ennimmarker just outside the village of Great Blencowmarker near Penrithmarker, Cumberlandmarker. On his death, he was buried at St. Andrew's Parish Church, Dacremarker.

In popular culture

Whitelaw was portrayed by John Standing in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's controversial The Falklands Play.

The character of Whitelaw also appeared in a smaller role in Margaret, where he was portrayed as a moderating influence on Thatcher and Heseltine in Cabinet. Willie was played by Robert Hardy.


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