Skip to Content

Greasy Pole: Who needs a willie?

Greasy Pole

Margaret Thatcher did not make a name for herself through cracking memorable jokes so she probably did not know what she was saying, when she remarked that "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie". Indeed, part of the joke was that she wasn't aware of how her words were likely to be interpreted. Another part was the kind of person she was referring to—Willie Whitelaw who, among other jobs she piled onto his ever-willing shoulders was Deputy Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Northern Ireland Secretary. He died last month as Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith but will always be remembered as Willie.

His death unleashed floods of homage which we have come to expect whenever a prominent politician dies. The newspapers devoted pages to telling us how wonderful he was and how great was our loss. His fellow politicians were not slow to come forward with similar slush: "influence throughout his long career was immense...personified decency, compassion and tolerance . . . wise and honourable . . . generous and unselfish" There is no point in listing the authors of these remarks because they are all so similar, the kind of praise which is taken out and dusted down whenever the situation demands. But it is worth mentioning that one of Whitelaw's successors as Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said he was "an outstanding parliamentarian".

This is usually considered the highest praise among MPs. But what does it mean? Is a great parliamentarian someone who is good at speaking in debates in the House? Good at ranting about some current meaningless obsession? Good at emphasising some facts while doing their best to conceal others? Good at using what is known as parliamentary language, essential for anyone who wants to state an inconvenient truth about another Honourable Member without using plain words? Good at the back slapping mutual congratulations between the parties in parliament when they are not pretending to be bitterly divided?

Home Secretary
Perhaps Whitelaw was one of the great parliamentarians—whatever that means. Because he seemed to love everyone and everyone loved him. It must have helped him during his time as Chief Whip, when he was adept at twisting arms so skilfully that his victim thought he was just giving a friendly squeeze of the elbow. In spite of his closeness to Thatcher he kept her at arms length: "I wouldn't have wanted to stay with her socially " he said. On other levels, when he was visiting a prison as Home Secretary he asked a prisoner what he was in there for and when the man replied that it was murder Whitelaw responded "splendid, splendid" before wafting off to leave the man to get on with his sentence. When he was Northern Ireland Secretary, on a walkabout in Londonderry he was approached by a woman who obviously thought this was her chance to confront him with some home truths. "Now then, Mr. Whitelaw, "she said in a gritty accent, "Why don't you come down to the Creggan to see how things really are?" Whitelaw inclined his massive head, fixed his rheumy eyes on her upturned face and patted her arm. "My dear woman," he said as if he had just been invited to a week-end on the grouse moors, "I would love to come to see you in the Creggan". Unlike most politicians, he flourished in this role he set for himself, never to seem cleverer than he was and if anything to seem slightly less so.

This was probably rooted in his privileged background. His father died in 1919, from wounds received in the First World War when Whitelaw was one year old. Thereafter his upbringing was the concern of his grandfather, who was Chairman of the London and North Eastern Railway and had been a Conservative MP. Whitelaw was brought up in a large house in Scotland and went to Winchester public school where his ability was described as "unspoilt by premature intellectualism". At Cambridge he got a moderate degree but played a lot of golf. It was what would be expected of someone from a rich land-owning family, who need never be bothered by the need to work for a living. When the war started in 1939 Whitelaw was ready to be an Army officer; he had cast off the shyness and hesitancy of his childhood and developed into a man who expected to be obeyed.

During the war he commanded a tank squadron which in its first battle lost several tanks and many of the men he described as "a harmonious family". Predictably, the obituaries of Whitelaw said that such experiences had given him a hatred of war as a way of settling international difficulties. In fact there was no trace of such an attitude during the Falklands war when he was a member of an Inner Cabinet concerned with running the British war machine. When a decision had to be taken on whether to sink the General Belgrano, Whitelaw gave no thought to the fact that there would be a huge loss of life on the Argentinean ship, where the sailors might well have been another "harmonious family".

Loyalty
All Whitelaw's obituarists agreed that he was loyal—which could mean that he was willing to subvert whatever opinions he might have in the cause of keeping his party in power. Thus he could be a close friend and confidant of Ted Heath and then serve Heath's hated rival so assiduously that Thatcher could describe him as "quite simply, indispensable to me in Cabinet". This loyalty—if that is what it was—was strong enough to stand a number of stresses, such as the Tory conference in 1981, when Whitelaw was Home Secretary and getting the rough ride the hangers and floggers of the party ritually reserve for the minister responsible for what they regard as law and order. As Whitelaw resisted the calls for the restoration of hanging he was not amused or encouraged to see the Prime Minister he was so loyal to openly undermining him by applauding the speeches against him. Stifling his anger—for a while—Whitelaw resorted to a well tried defence—when in difficulties, make the most boring speech possible.

That was typical of the manner in which he survived, until the cruel workload brought him down. His failing powers were shown up when he had to give up shooting after he accidently peppered one of the beaters. A stroke in 1987 led to his retirement to his sumptuous home in Scotland, except that he played a part in the overthrow of Thatcher in 1990, when he advised her to drop out of the leadership contest after her too narrow victory in the first ballot. When the assembled media hacks asked him then whether he was one of the men in grey suits who were said to be plotting to bring her down Whitelaw's reply showed him acting at being stupid again: "I don't know what you mean; in any case I haven't got a grey suit".

The people who work the confidence trick through which capitalism is kept in existence come in all shapes and sizes and manners. Some of them are strident—like Thatcher—and some—like Whitelaw—are subtle. Read his memoirs and you will see that he cultivated blandness to the point of being evasive. And it worked—he played a large part in keeping his party in power, in convincing the working class for a long time that capitalism under the Tories was the best of all possible worlds. Prime Ministers may need people like him but we can do without them.

IVAN