By Lord Peter Hennessy

05 Aug 2015

A connoisseur of the Whitehall machine and an expert on the British prime ministers he has known, William Waldegrave has had a remarkable political career. Peter Hennessy meets him

Not long after the 1979 general election, my then boss, William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, asked me who would lead the two main political parties in my generation. “William Waldegrave and Jack Straw,” I replied. One of the multiple fascinations of the recently published Waldegrave memoirs, A Different Kind of Weather (Constable, £20), is that William from schooldays at Eton (where he is now provost) had set himself the target of the premiership or, failing that, the foreign secretaryship. Candidly – sometimes painfully so (especially in his treatment of his involvement in the Arms to Iraq Affair) – he explains why he sat in the Thatcher and Major Cabinets but without the foreign secretary’s brief in front of him and why he never made it to No. 10.

Why had I picked him out so young? As a journalist I knew him slightly but was seriously impressed by this aspiring politician/scholar (he was – and remains – a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford), partly because by the late 1970s he was already such a connoisseur of the Whitehall machine and those who peopled it. For after Oxford and Harvard, he joined Ted Heath’s Central Policy Review Staff, the fabled “think tank” led by the extraordinary Lord Rothschild, before becoming Heath’s political secretary in No. 10 not long before the first of the two 1974 general elections which saw Heath’s demise. 

William Waldegrave adored Victor Rothschild. He confessed to a pre-Rothschild weakness for the generation of outsiders who had done the embattled state real service during the Second World War (Rothschild had been MI5’s bomb disposal expert). Did this give him a certain image of Whitehall?

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“Yes. It was a romantic idea, I think, drawn from half knowledge of the great men of Whitehall during the war, many of whom were the other half of my heroes…because they were scholars; people like John Redcliffe-Maud and Oliver Franks” [both university men who became wartime permanent secretaries at a young age].

What was so special about this scion of the great European banking family, Lord Rothschild?

“He arrived, he told me, at the bank on the day of the Great Crash and decided that was his contribution to banking. So he went back to science…and was a very good scientist and had been every Boy’s Own hero – a first class cricketer, George Medal for bomb disposal, taught to play jazz by Teddy Wilson…A Renaissance Man. And he was a tremendous believer in what, at its worst, can become a sort of scientism – that there is a scientific explanation for everything…I am more pessimistic than that myself. But it was great fun to be part of it…The thing he taught me…is the absolute commitment to the application of intelligence to the solution of problems.”

Rothschild was also a tremendous operator with a singularly liquid approach to melting the traditional caution and reticence of permanent secretaries.

“Victor used to give lunches on Wednesday after the permanent secretaries’ meeting with sandwiches from the Mirabelle and what was called cider cup made by his butler Rifleman Sweeney, which was mostly brandy and the purpose of which was to get the permanent secretaries drunk.”

With the exception of Burke Trend, cabinet secretary, who would never touch the cider cup, it tended to work.

How did this intimate yet unorthodox apprenticeship prepare him for the ministries in which he served in the 1980s and 1990s?

“It was a huge advantage having seen the civil service from the other side. And I never for a moment accepted the idea that civil servants were obstructive. It is the definition of a feeble minister if he starts to blame the civil service for not getting his way or not delivering his policies. Their job is to test and argue and make sure you know what you are doing and then try and do it.”

The Poll Tax, says Lord Waldegrave, who was in the Department of the Environment fashioning it, “is an absolute classic example”. The officials had doubts and told him so, but they set about making it work as well as they could.

“Did you have nagging doubts?”

“Oh yes. But then I had nagging doubts about a lot of things, you see.”

The Waldegrave candour swings in here. Watching Margaret Thatcher in operation in the 1980s made him doubt he had what it takes to be prime minister.

“I came to the conclusion…that there was something I didn’t have and I judged that if I got to very high office it would be by luck and not by merit. I began to doubt my own capacity, and, therefore, by doubting, I showed that I didn’t have what was needed. Macmillan was tortured by doubts. Even Churchill had his black dog. But I don’t think they ever doubted that they could do the top job.”

He thinks it’s a “zest for the job” that links Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill, Blair – and plainly Mrs Thatcher too.

Lord Waldegrave got on well with Mrs Thatcher which is perhaps surprising given his being the son of an earl (who was a minister in the Macmillan government), Eton, All Souls. Toffdom incarnate.

“Oh, I don’t think she minded grandeedom as long as people didn’t patronise her. She respected education. She wasn’t systematically biased against toffs at all I don’t think.” It was a witty intervention from the backbenches during a Commons debate when a Labour frontbencher had cited Ulysses that drew her attention to him – “She looked up at me…I got a job shortly afterwards and I have always thought that was part of it.”

Lord Waldegrave is a connoisseur of the prime ministers he has known. Shortly after losing his seat at the 1997 general election he gave a seminar paper on them at the Institute of Historical Research – an evening long remembered by those who were present – and there were suggestions he write a book about them (including Harold Macmillan, whom he came to know and who fascinates him). He is especially intriguing on Ted Heath and what he calls his “tragedy”.

“I think I understand it. Coming from right outside the centre of the British Establishment, he made himself indispensable to it; believed that he was family with it, and found that when he didn’t deliver victory they didn’t feel that he was family at all and was then left feeling embittered in a deeply more personal sense than just because he had been beaten.”

Health felt, too, says Lord Waldegrave, that he had been entrusted with the post-war “liberal Conservative” tradition of Churchill, Rab Butler and Macmillan and that “under his watch it had been lost”.

Though the ultimate glittering prize was not to be his, William Waldegrave has plainly thought about how he would have tackled the perpetual problem of how to organise No. 10 and the Cabinet Office.

“I would have always had a couple of scientists. You want a theoretical physicist or mathematician but you would also want a life scientist, they are very different kinds of people. I would have wanted a dissident – a young Matt Ridley [Viscount Ridley; science writer and member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee]. And I would have had one or two carefully selected people out of industry, perhaps out of the military as Churchill did.”

His emphasis on scientists is interesting – not just a reflection, I suspect, of his time with Rothschild but of his spell as John Major’s minister of science in the Cabinet Office (which he relished – and so did his officials who remember him being very funny about “Professor Grant Swinger” the composite scientific operator skilled at winning public funds).

Lord Waldegrave’s last Cabinet job was as chief secretary to the Treasury overseeing public spending. He left a note for his Labour successor, Alistair Darling (whom he admires). “You have got to look after science and the intelligence services for the same reason that you never quite know when you will need them and you can’t start them up again if you have stopped them.”

Will he write the book on prime ministers that lurks within him?

“I am not sure I am capable of the scholarship because I so respect proper scholarship.”

“You are a fellow of All Souls. You’ve got a licence to operate.”

“I know but I wasted my life being in public affairs and not being a proper fellow of All Souls. But you are right. And one of the things that I feel I haven’t done properly in my life is write something that a scholar would accept as a book.”

There’s still time. If I were a publisher I’d get on the phone to the Lord Waldegrave of North Hill.

Note: This interview was carried out in June 2015

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