The Viscount Whitelaw
Whitelaw in 1963
Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
De facto
4 May 1979 – 10 January 1988
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byRab Butler (de facto)
Succeeded byGeoffrey Howe
Lord President of the Council
In office
11 June 1983 – 10 January 1988
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJohn Biffen
Succeeded byJohn Wakeham
In office
20 June 1970 – 7 April 1972
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byFred Peart
Succeeded byRobert Carr
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
11 June 1983 – 10 January 1988
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byThe Baroness Young
Succeeded byThe Baron Belstead
Home Secretary
In office
4 May 1979 – 11 June 1983
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byMerlyn Rees
Succeeded byLeon Brittan
Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party
In office
12 February 1975 – 7 August 1991
LeaderMargaret Thatcher
John Major
Preceded byReginald Maudling (1972)
Succeeded byPeter Lilley (1998)
Secretary of State for Employment
In office
2 December 1973 – 4 March 1974
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byMaurice Macmillan
Succeeded byMichael Foot
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
In office
24 March 1972 – 2 December 1973
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byOffice created
Succeeded byFrancis Pym
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
20 June 1970 – 7 April 1972
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byFred Peart
Succeeded byRobert Carr
Party political offices
Chairman of the Conservative Party
In office
4 March 1974 – 11 February 1975
LeaderEdward Heath
Preceded byPeter Carington
Succeeded byPeter Thorneycroft
Chief Whip of the Conservative Party
In office
16 October 1964 – 20 June 1970
LeaderSir Alec Douglas-Home
Edward Heath
Preceded byMartin Redmayne
Succeeded byFrancis Pym
Junior ministerial offices
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour
In office
16 July 1962 – 16 October 1964
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterHarold Macmillan
Alec Douglas-Home
Preceded byAlan Green
Succeeded byOffice abolished
Lord Commissioner of the Treasury
In office
6 March 1961 – 16 July 1962
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterHarold Macmillan
Preceded byPaul Bryan
Succeeded byGordon Campbell
Shadow Home Secretary
In office
11 April 1976 – 4 May 1979
LeaderMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byIan Gilmour
Succeeded byMerlyn Rees
Parliamentary offices
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
16 June 1983 – 1 July 1999
Hereditary peerage
Preceded byPeerage created
Succeeded byPeerage extinct
Member of Parliament
for Penrith and The Border
In office
26 May 1955 – 11 June 1983
Preceded byDonald Scott
Succeeded byDavid Maclean
Personal details
William Stephen Ian Whitelaw

(1918-06-28)28 June 1918
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died1 July 1999(1999-07-01) (aged 81)
Blencow, England
Political partyConservative
(m. 1943)
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1939–1946
UnitScots Guards
Battles/warsWorld War II

William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, 1st Viscount Whitelaw, KT, CH, MC, PC, DL (28 June 1918 – 1 July 1999) was a British Conservative Party politician who served in a wide number of Cabinet positions, most notably as Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and as de facto Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1988.[1][2][3] He was Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1991.[4]

After the Conservative Party won an unexpected victory at the 1970 general election, Whitelaw was appointed as Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council by Prime Minister Edward Heath. After the suspension of the Stormont Parliament resulted in the imposition of direct rule, Whitelaw served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1972 to 1973. He also served under Heath as Secretary of State for Employment from 1973 to 1974 and as Chairman of the Conservative Party from 1974 to 1975.

Whitelaw served Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher throughout her leadership of the Conservative Party as deputy party leader. He served as de facto Deputy Prime Minister between 1979 and 1988 and as Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983. He stepped down as a Member of Parliament at the 1983 general election, and was appointed as a Member of the House of Lords. He served as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council from 1983 to 1988. He was a captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.[5]

Early life

Whitelaw was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and raised at the family home, "Monklands", on Thurlow Road in Nairn.[6] He never met his father, William Alexander Whitelaw, born 1892, a member of a Scottish family of the landed gentry,[7][8] who died in 1919 after service in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the First World War, when his son was still a baby. Whitelaw was brought up by his mother, Helen, a daughter of Major-General Francis Russell of Aden,[8] MP for Cheltenham and a military attaché, and his paternal grandfather, William Whitelaw (1868–1946), of Gartshore, Dunbartonshire, an Old Harrovian who had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge,[9] a landowner, briefly Conservative MP for Perth, 1892–1895, and chairman of the London and North-Eastern Railway Company.[10] One of his great-aunts by marriage, born Dorothy Sarah Disraeli, was the niece of former Prime Minister and author Benjamin Disraeli.[8][7]

Whitelaw 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 Jagdpanthers which were in Normandy.[11]

The battalion's second-in-command was killed when his tank was hit in front of Whitelaw's eyes; 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

Following early defeats as a candidate for the constituency of East Dunbartonshire in 1950 and 1951, Whitelaw was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Penrith and the Border at the 1955 general election and represented that constituency for 28 years.[12] He held his first government posts under Harold Macmillan as a Lord of the Treasury (government whip) between 1961 and 1962 and then under Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour between 1962 and 1964. After the Conservatives lost the 1964 election, Douglas-Home appointed Whitelaw as Opposition Chief Whip.[13] He was sworn of the Privy Council in January 1967.[14]

Heath government, 1970–1974

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.[15] Upon the imposition of direct rule in March 1972, he became the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, serving 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, meeting its Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stiofáin in July 1972. The talks ended in an agreement to change from a seven-day truce to an open-ended truce; however, this did not last long. As a briefing for prime minister Heath later noted, Whitelaw "found the experience of meeting and talking to Mr Mac Stíofáin very unpleasant". Mac Stiofáin in his memoir complimented Whitelaw, saying he was the only Englishman ever to pronounce his name in Irish correctly.[16]

In 1973, Whitelaw left Northern Ireland—shortly before the Sunningdale Agreement was reached—to become Secretary of State for Employment, and confronted the National Union of Mineworkers over its pay demands. This dispute was followed by the Conservative Party losing the February 1974 general election.[17] Also in 1974, Whitelaw became a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour.[18]

In opposition, 1974–1979

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. Following a second defeat in the October 1974 general election, during which Whitelaw had accused 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.[19]

Whitelaw managed to maintain his position as deputy leader until the 1979 general election, when he was appointed Home Secretary. In an unofficial capacity,[2] he also served as Deputy Prime Minister in Thatcher's new government.[3][20]

Home Secretary, 1979–1983

Thatcher admired Whitelaw 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".[21] Thatcher was rumoured to have said that "every Prime Minister needs a Willie" and Whitelaw was seen as Thatcher's de facto Deputy Prime Minister between 1979 and 1988 (though he never formally held the office), to the extent that the then Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, said that had Thatcher been killed in the Brighton hotel bombing, he thought he would have advised Queen Elizabeth II to send for Whitelaw.[22][23][24]

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.[citation needed] He was home secretary during the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in April–May 1980.

In March 1981, he approved Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough Council's 14-day ban on political marches in the borough in response to a planned National Front demonstration there.[25]

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, Birmingham and Leeds, and a spate of disturbances elsewhere. The Provisional IRA escalated its bombing campaign in England.

He contemplated resigning after an intruder broke into the Queen's bedroom in 1982 but was dissuaded from doing so. "We couldn't do without Willie," Margaret Thatcher reflected in later years. "He was a wonderful person."[26]

Leader of the House of Lords, 1983–1988

Two days following 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.[27] 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 her deputy and as Leader of the Lords, Thatcher relied on Whitelaw heavily; she famously announced that "every prime minister needs a Willie".[28] 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, in November 1980, who managed to dissuade Thatcher from going to Leeds to take charge of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation personally.[29]


Following a stroke in December 1987, he felt he had no choice but to resign. Nicholas Ridley 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.[citation needed] He resigned from the Cabinet on 10 January 1988.[30]

Retirement and death

The grave of William Whitelaw

During his retirement and until his death, Whitelaw was the chairman of the board of Governors at St Bees School, Cumbria. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle in 1990.[31] He formally resigned as Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party in 1991;[4] a farewell dinner was held in his honour on 7 August 1991.[32]

After several years of declining health, Whitelaw died from natural causes at Ennim, his home in Blencow, on 1 July 1999, shortly after his 81st birthday.[33][34] He had been married for 56 years to his wife, Celia, Viscountess Whitelaw, a philanthropist/charity worker and horticulturist who had been an ATS volunteer during the Second World War.[34] 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 eldest daughter Susan married Nicholas Cunliffe-Lister, 3rd Earl of Swinton. 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. Whitelaw was an active freemason.[35][36]

Coat of arms of William Whitelaw, 1st Viscount Whitelaw
A Bee erect proper
Sable a Chevron engrailed Or between three Boars' Heads couped Argent armed and langued Or
On either side a Charolais Bull in trian aspect proper each with a Garland about the shoulder of Roses Gules barbed and seeded slipped and leaved and Thistles stalked and leaved proper and interlaced in front with two Pairs of Golf Clubs fretted saltirewise Gold; the Compartment comprising three Mounts of Moorland proper growing from each of these to the fore two Roses and as many Thistles the Roses Gules barbed and seeded stalked and leaved proper and the Thistles stalked and leaved also proper
Solertia Ditat (Prudence enriches)


  1. ^ "Letter to Lord Whitelaw (resignation)". Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 10 January 1988. Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  2. ^ a b Hennessy, Peter (2001). "A Tigress Surrounded by Hamsters: Margaret Thatcher, 1979–90". The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-14-028393-8.
  3. ^ a b Aitken, Ian (2 July 1999). "Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 June 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Willie Whitelaw dies aged 81". The Guardian. Press Association. 1 July 1991. Retrieved 28 June 2017.
  5. ^ Daily Telegraph, Doug Sanders obituary, 20 April 2020
  6. ^ Cosgrave, Patrick (2 July 1999). "Obituary: Viscount Whitelaw". The Independent. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  7. ^ a b A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, 1898, volume 2, ed. Bernard Burke, p. 1585, 'Whitelaw of Gartshore'.
  8. ^ a b c "Gartshore and Woodhall Estates - Archives Hub".
  9. ^ The Railway Gazette, volume 37, 1922, p. 553.
  10. ^ Current Biography Yearbook 1975, H. W. Wilson & Co., 1976, p. 438.
  11. ^ Daglish, I. (2009). Operation Bluecoat. Pen & Sword. pp. 70–73. ISBN 978-0-85052-912-8.
  12. ^ "THE HOUSE OF COMMONS CONSTITUENCIES BEGINNING WITH "P"". 15 September 2018. Archived from the original on 3 October 2018. Retrieved 29 May 2021.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  13. ^ Eric Caines, Heath and Thatcher in Opposition (2017), p. 37
  14. ^ "No. 44210". The London Gazette. 30 December 1966. p. 1.
  15. ^ "No. 45134". The London Gazette. 23 June 1970. p. 6953.
  16. ^ MacStiofáin, Seán Revolutionary in Ireland, pp. 281–89.
  17. ^ "BBC Politics 97". Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  18. ^ "COMPANIONS OF HONOUR". 16 June 2008. Archived from the original on 26 September 2008. Retrieved 29 May 2021.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (2013) p. 427.
  21. ^ Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 27.
  22. ^ Norton, Philip (2017). "A temporary occupant of No.10? Prime Ministerial succession in the event of the death of the incumbent". Public Law: 26, 28.
  23. ^ Brazier, Rodney (2020). Choosing a Prime Minister: The Transfer of Power in Britain. Oxford University Press. pp. 80–81. ISBN 9780198859291.
  24. ^ Norton, Philip (2020). Governing Britain: Parliament, Ministers and Our Ambiguous Constitution. Manchester University Press. p. 143. ISBN 9-781526-145451.
  25. ^ "New Sunday Times - Google News Archive Search".
  26. ^ "Queen & Country pt3". YouTube.
  27. ^ "No. 49394". The London Gazette. 21 June 1983. p. 8199.
  28. ^ "Changes to Government Departments (Hansard, 18 June 2003)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 18 June 2003.
  29. ^ The Guardian: "The Killing Suit" – review of book Wicked Beyond Belief.
  30. ^ Lion, Ed (10 January 1988). "Thatcher's No. 2 Cabinet minister resigns". United Press International. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
  31. ^ "No. 52351". The London Gazette. 30 November 1990. p. 18550.
  32. ^ Sherrin, Ned (25 September 2008). Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. Oxford University Press. p. 268. ISBN 978-0-19-923716-6.
  33. ^ Donnelly, Rachel (2 July 1999). "Lord Whitelaw dies at 81 after long illness". The Irish Times. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  34. ^ a b "Obituary: Vicountess Whitelaw of Penrith, former ATS volunteer who, as wife of Tory MP, devoted herself to charity campaigns". The Scotsman. 15 December 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  35. ^ "Power of the Masons – Myth of Menace?". Sunday People. 13 July 1986.
  36. ^ "Just how much do the Masons really matter?". The Independent. 21 July 1995.

Further reading

Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byRobert Scott Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border 19551983 Succeeded byDavid Maclean Political offices Preceded byAlan Green Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour 1962–1964 Office abolished Preceded byFred Peart Leader of the House of Commons 1970–1972 Succeeded byRobert Carr Lord President of the Council 1970–1972 New office Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1972–1973 Succeeded byFrancis Pym Preceded byMaurice Macmillan Secretary of State for Employment 1973–1974 Succeeded byMichael Foot Preceded byMerlyn Rees Home Secretary 1979–1983 Succeeded byLeon Brittan Preceded byThe Baroness Young Leader of the House of Lords 1983–1988 Succeeded byThe Lord Belstead Preceded byJohn Biffen Lord President of the Council 1983–1988 Succeeded byJohn Wakeham Party political offices Preceded byThe Lord Carrington Chairman of the Conservative Party 1974–1975 Succeeded byThe Lord Thorneycroft VacantTitle last held byReginald Maudling Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party 1975–1991 VacantTitle next held byPeter Lilley Preceded byThe Baroness Young Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords 1983–1988 Succeeded byThe Lord Belstead