HL Deb 01 July 1999 vol 603 cc421-6
The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, as Leader of your Lordships' House, it is a sad duty but nonetheless a great privilege to pay tribute on behalf of the whole House to the late Lord Whitelaw, who died this morning at the age of 81. Many noble Lords, and indeed many Members of another place, were personal friends of Lord Whitelaw over very many years and many more were political colleagues and sparring partners. I am sure that the whole House will agree that the noble Viscount held a particularly significant place in the affections of both Houses of Parliament.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, Lord Whitelaw, known to many here and away from Westminster simply as "Willie" Whitelaw, had an extremely distinguished career in politics. There is no need for me to remind your Lordships in detail of his achievements.

Suffice it for me to say that after distinguished service in the Forces, decorated with the Military Cross, Willie Whitelaw won a seat in the House of Commons where he represented Cumbria, Penrith and the Border division from 1955 to 1983. During that time he served in a number of senior government posts, including as Lord President of the Council; Leader of the House of Commons; as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; as Secretary of State for Employment; and as Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Lord Whitelaw joined this House in 1983 and took continuing office as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House. His combined service on the Front Benches of the two Houses ran for more than 25 years. But it will be as Leader of your Lordships' House that many here today will remember him. Lord Whitelaw was Leader of the House at an extremely busy period. Many major government Bills were going through Parliament at a time when the House needed very careful handling. I am sure that noble Lords who were here during that period will agree that it was a great tribute to Lord Whitelaw's consummate skill and special combination of gravitas and charm that such good order was maintained in the House while the government's programme was being successfully delivered.

Lord Whitelaw made a particular contribution to the government in which he served as Deputy Prime Minister, overseeing the work of key Cabinet committees. Those of your Lordships who had personal experience of his chairmanship of the so-called "Star Chamber" will recall the fairness and strength with which he brought his own special skill to delivering the public expenditure rounds at the time.

Perhaps a less formidable skill, but nonetheless one of enormous value, which Lord Whitelaw always exhibited was his sense of humour and his ability to see the funny side in any situation. I am sure that other noble Lords who will speak today will want to share with the House their experience of Lord Whitelaw returning from his weekly Monday meeting with the Prime Minister and colleagues, full of news of the day and anecdotes about the politics of the time.

It is of course very difficult to sum up a tribute to a man who commanded such wide respect for so many reasons on so many fronts and who so well combined a sense of service with a sense of humour. There can be no doubt that as a Leader of your Lordships' House, Lord Whitelaw was that invaluable phenomenon, a safe pair of hands.

Perhaps I may add a personal note. My only political encounters with Lord Whitelaw were during the Patter years of his life, but he was always charmingly courteous to a newcomer to this House, even one sitting on the Opposition Benches. But beyond the courtesies, he usually had an intriguing comment to pass on the events of the day when I met him in the corridors; a comment often enlivened by a certain degree of barbed wit. I am sure that many noble Lords who have joined the House in the past decade will, like me, be grateful that we have personal memories of a splendidly engaging personality and a very significant parliamentarian.

On behalf of the whole House, I hope that everyone will join with me in expressing our condolences to Lady Whitelaw and to the family. Our thoughts are with them and will be in the future.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to Lord Whitelaw, known by so many as Willie. I thank the noble Baroness for her words.

Though he had not been well for a while, it is still a great blow to lose such an extraordinary man as my noble friend. He was a fine example of service and duty to the people of this country, most particularly to Parliament. He had a great war record and an extraordinary political one. He was a Chief Whip to Ted Heath; Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, in the Department of Employment and in the Home Office; and subsequently he came here as Leader of your Lordships' House. He came as one of the very last hereditary Peers ever appointed.

In this House, we have seen many former Members of another place make the transition from that House to this. Your Lordships will know that it is not an easy one to make. But for Willie it was as easy as crossing the road. He immediately made himself at home. He was comfortable not just with his surroundings, but with people who were here and he remained remarkably effective almost until the very end.

He was a Scot, although living in Penrith, and a countryman. Both Cumbria and Scotland will be the poorer for his passing. He also carried with him a tremendous sense of humour and a great understanding of human nature. He always recognised when someone was talking rubbish and behind his bluff exterior was a finely honed and cunning political mind. He was a great help to me as a Minister in this House, but he really came into his own when I became Chief Whip. From time to time, he would steal into my room and give me a word of advice. Invariably he was right. Whenever I did not take his advice I came to regret it almost immediately.

I, too, join the noble Baroness in saying that our thoughts at this time are for his family and in particular Lady Whitelaw. Undoubtedly, the whole House will miss Willie Whitelaw, but for the Tory Party he is irreplaceable.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity on behalf of these Benches to join in the tribute to the man who we all remember simply as Willie Whitelaw. Public life has lost a distinctive, wise and, as the Leader of the House said, very engaging figure. I did not experience him as Leader of the House; that was before my time here. But I know that with great skill he performed the difficult twin-track role of being the authoritative voice for the government in this House and also—and as important—a persuasive voice in Cabinet on behalf of your Lordships.

We all have our personal memories. Mine is of serving on a committee with him on the Contracts of Employment Bill 1963 in another place. I was new, young, partisan and even, perhaps, brash. He was a parliamentary secretary in charge of the Bill. At first I thought of him as a slightly laughable, Bertie Wooster figure. However, I quickly discovered that behind that slightly muddling style there was a great deal of substance. He was a man of considered opinions, bravely held, but prepared to listen, persuade or be persuaded.

I have a particularly fond memory of flying to Heathrow from Teeside Airport in a very small plane, together with my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, during the referendum campaign. He tirelessly advocated Britain's place in Europe and continued during our flight to London. He said later that it was the campaign he most enjoyed in all his life.

He will be remembered with affection across party and will remain a source of well-told anecdotes for many years to come. We shall all miss him but we shall also all remember him.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I had the privilege of being with the late Lord Whitelaw in both Houses and was interested in similar subjects. He had an agricultural background. He asked me Questions when I was Minister of Agriculture. The Questions were sensible and generous, just what I liked. As my noble friend said, he held a number of Ministries including Ireland, Employment and the Home Office, which he organised with effective common sense (not always available there). Finally, he came to this House and became Leader when I was his opposition. It was a pleasure I shall not forget.

Willie was always ready to discuss problems and seek solutions. Beyond that, he had a ready humour and a good nature. We were fortunate to know Willie and shall miss him. We send our thoughts of Willie to Lady Whitelaw today.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I was not in your Lordships' House when Willie Whitelaw was the leader here but I rise to pay tribute to him on behalf of the Cross-Benches and also in a personal sense. I had been in the other place for only 18 months when, to my astonishment, I was summoned by him and invited to join the Whips' Office. I was put in to represent the new boys, suburbia and trade. These were vintage days. I always remember two dictums which Willie Whitelaw drilled into us as Whips: first, we should never take credit ourselves but always give it to the troops; and secondly, that arrangements brokered through the usual channels must always be kept, even though we had to fight for our own party.

As a result, he was trusted, respected and held in great affection. He was a role model for me throughout my time in the other place and for many other Members of Parliament also. He had that most desirable of all parliamentary reputations; that is, the respect of the House. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him and held him in such high regard and affection.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

My Lords, I learnt only a short time ago of the sad death of Lord Whitelaw. However, I gladly associate the Bench of Bishops with these tributes.

I understand from my noble friend the Lord Bishop of Carlisle that the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, was an active member of his local church in the parish of Dacre in Cumbria. He undoubtedly lived his life always as a deeply-committed Christian. He was a good man, a good churchman, and we thank God today for his life and example. We gladly remember in our prayers today his bereaved wife and family.

Lord Denham

My Lords, one of my most endearing memories of Willie was his flashes of extreme anger, which lasted approximately a minute and a half, and were followed by a totally unnecessary, abject apology. He was one of that very small number of immaculate politicians who are supreme in the skills of their profession and at the same time are incapable of doing a mean or dishonourable thing. Even among that select company, Willie stood out for his universal kindness and, above all, his approachability. The legacy of his benign influence will remain in your Lordships' House for a long time.

Lord Blease

My Lords, perhaps I may add a word on this occasion to the memory of Willie Whitelaw in Northern Ireland. In 1962 there was a high rise in unemployment, particularly among young people. He was then Minister of Labour in the United Kingdom Government. He came to Northern Ireland and tried to promote some interest in the affairs of young people. He left a long-lasting impression there.

I first met him through my trade union background. I found him extremely helpful and earnest in his approach. Latterly, he became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Again, with my background of trade unions, not politics, and seeking to represent the broad spectrum of life in Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw was a gentleman in many, many ways. He listened attentively. He did not preach or lecture but talked with you. He will always be remembered for the way in which he handled affairs in Northern Ireland in those dark days.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, it may be appropriate if I say a few words, particularly today when there is so much trouble in Northern Ireland over the setting up of an executive. Willie Whitelaw was the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the dark days of 1972 when nearly 500 people were killed. I said today in Northern Ireland that of all the Secretaries of State that we have had since then, he will be remembered by thousands of people from both communities with great affection.

Within a few short months he was able to talk to the majority Unionist party and my own party, the SDLP. He had a great personality. He almost put his arms round the different factions. He brought us into a room on a few occasions and, within a very short time, we had the first executive in Northern Ireland. It was a very real tragedy that Willie had to leave Northern Ireland before the Sunningdale executive was formed. I have no doubt that many people have been saying over this past week, in view of events in Northern Ireland, that if that executive had survived and if Willie had remained there, Northern Ireland would not be going through such trauma today.

Willie Whitelaw was the first and by far the most courageous and far-seeing Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He will be sadly missed in Northern Ireland. He will be sadly missed by all those who knew and loved him throughout his lifetime in this country.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I believe that there have been almost a score of Leaders of the House since the war. We are a mixed bag. Some people find us agreeable; others not so. However, I think that one matter on which all parties will agree, as will the present House, is that Willie Whitelaw was the most lovable Leader of the House that anyone can remember.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as one of the family—Willie Whitelaw's eldest daughter is my sister-in-law—I should like to thank the House for the very good tributes paid to him.

Baroness Young

My Lords, on behalf of the Association of Conservative Peers, I should like to say that we have lost a great friend and a great man; someone who was respected for his integrity, honour, sense of duty and sense of service. He was an example to us all. We shall greatly miss him.

Back to