William Stephen Ian Whitelaw

(1918—1999) politician

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(b. Edinburgh, 28 June 1918; d. Penrith, 1 July 1999) British; deputy leader of the Conservative Party 1975 –91, Home Secretary 1979 –93; Viscount 1983 Whitelaw's father was killed in action shortly after he was born. Educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge, he saw action in the Scots Guards in the Second World War, and was awarded the Military Cross in 1944. A farmer and dedicated golfer, he initially showed little interest in politics, but after contesting East Dumbartonshire as the Conservative candidate in 1950, acquired a taste for political life. He was elected as Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border in 1955. He served briefly as a whip before being given junior ministerial office. In Opposition in 1964, he was appointed chief whip. In 1970 he was appointed to Cabinet as Lord President of the Council and leader of the House of Commons and then, following the suspension of the Northern Ireland government in 1972, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. A natural conciliator, he was a popular chief whip and leader of the House and sought to use his skills to achieve a political settlement in Northern Ireland. He held all-party talks in order to achieve agreement on the creation of a new Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. In 1973 he was appointed Energy Secretary, but the crucial negotiations with the miners during the industrial dispute at the time were handled by the Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

In Opposition, Whitelaw served as a senior member of the shadow Cabinet. In 1975, after Heath withdrew from the party leadership contest, he contested the second ballot, but came second to Margaret Thatcher. He was appointed deputy leader of the party and became both a loyal supporter and trusted adviser to the party leader. She relied on his judgement and support, especially on party and parliamentary matters. In office, she once declared, ‘Every Prime Minister needs a Willie’. Whitelaw served as Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983, relying on his usually emollient disposition (though he was given to occasional bursts of temper) rather than an acute grasp of detail to see him through. During his tenure, he had to deal with a siege at the Iranian embassy, authorizing SAS action to bring it to an end, and riots in different parts of the country. He had to fend off calls for his resignation after an intruder managed to breach security at Buckingham Palace and enter the Queen's bedroom. In 1983, he was elevated to the Lords with a hereditary peerage. He continued as the elder statesman of government, holding office as Lord President of the Council and leader of the House of Lords. In 1988, he suddenly felt unwell during a church service, and a stroke was diagnosed. He retired from government, and three years later stood down as deputy leader of the Conservative Party.

Highly popular, Whitelaw was a High Tory who recognized that there were important pursuits other than politics (not least, for him, family and golf) and who placed stress on loyalty and integrity. A fairly shrewd judge of what would prove acceptable to the party, he proved indispensable to Margaret Thatcher during her period of leadership, his enforced departure from government denying her his counsel when she possibly needed it most. There was no other heavyweight figure in the party who enjoyed her confidence to the same degree.

From A Dictionary of Political Biography in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Politics.

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