William Waldegrave: too nice ever to have been PM

In his memoir A Different Kind of Weather, the gifted Tory politician and man of letters William Waldegrave comes across as a noble soul full of misplaced self-reproach

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

A Different Kind of Weather William Waldegrave

Constable, pp.320, £20, ISBN: 9781472119759

‘Lobbying,’ writes William Waldegrave in this extraordinary memoir, ‘takes many forms.’ But he has surely reported a variant hitherto unrecorded in the annals of politics. The Cardinal Archbishop of Cardiff (‘splendidly robed and well supported by priests and other attendants’) had come to lobby him (then an education minister) against the closure of a Catholic teacher-training college. After discussion the archbishop suggested their respective entourages leave the room.

Face to face and alone with Waldegrave, the archbishop told him he had a distinguished 16th-century ancestor, who was a candidate for beatification. The unspoken implication was left hanging. ‘The Roman Catholic college duly closed,’ adds Waldegrave, ‘and I heard no more about my potentially saintly ancestor.’

A Different Kind of Weather is packed with stories and vignettes, by turns funny, weird or sad; and can be read with great interest and amusement for these alone. But I would be failing in my duty to a friend if I did not tell him, and you, that for all its finely crafted readability, for all its luminous intelligence, for all its insight, for all its honesty and for all its wisdom, this is a strange and mournful book. It will sometimes infuriate those of us who are fond of William. We think better of him than he seems to think of himself.

He understands this, of course. There’s nothing a reviewer can say that this most self-knowing of men will not already have anticipated, no criticism anyone could make that he would not readily concede. He knows he’s been incredibly lucky not only in his birth, education and family connections, but also in his great intellect. He knows his friends’ opinion: that he rose, without reproach, to what most of us would call commanding heights. He knows he has no right to consider himself a failure. He knows people will puzzle (or laugh) at his bitter regret that he was never prime minister. He is not asking for sympathy from others.

But the reader does sense that he feels a bit sorry for himself. He even adds to his self-reproach the reproach that he has no right to feel reproachful. Nor has he: yet still he seems bewilderingly, chronically, hauntingly disappointed about it all. The whole account — a high-arching story of achievement — is in a minor key. A perfectly lined-up life didn’t quite shoot through all the hoops, he thinks.

You will follow this life from its launch into the rural privileges of the middle-ranking aristocracy, through Eton, through the glitter of Oxford and Harvard, through the connections with (and patronage from) the Rothschild family, through the gravitational pull and ever-closer orbit around that sun we call power, through the ministerial ranks, through the Cabinet, through Thatcher, through Major, through the poll tax (which Waldegrave devised), through the arms-to-Iraq affair (for which he deservedly escaped censure, yet still feels wounded by) … with a growing sense of distance. It is so far from our own lives.

The autobiography is as spangled as the night sky with luminous names: its author seems to have known almost everybody who mattered. Yet before we mutter about it being not what you know but who you know, and despite the sometimes wearying recitation of famous names, we get a growing sense of Waldegrave’s huge native ability. We sense, too, his instinct for justice, and his consuming ideal of public service. He does not come over as — and is not — a man who only cares about people who matter.

The combination of family pride, elitism, pleasure in the company of movers and shakers, with a burning sense of fairness and duty — and all shot through with that nagging feeling of failure — may puzzle you as it did me, who thought I knew him. William and I entered the Commons together, so I picked up the book for a revealing account of a world we saw, viewed from a higher altitude; plus a few personal reflections.

But as I read on I found myself seeing my old colleague not as narrator, but as the central mystery. The events of the era fade into background. Waldegrave writes this —and it became for me a fulcrum to his story:

Enoch Powell said that a politician complaining about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. But perhaps it is allowable even for sailors to get seasick from time to time.

I think ‘the media’ stands here for the world of politics. Or perhaps just the world. A hint of seasickness pervades his whole account.

That old charmer Edward du Cann, to whom in the days after William and I had been elected in 1979 I once confided my feelings of hurt when criticised, put a hand on my wrist. ‘Dear boy,’ he said, ‘nice people are always hurt.’ We might offer our autobiographer the same advice, except that ‘nice’ hardly does him justice.

Nobility is not circumspect, and Waldegrave has written a book wholly lacking in circumspection. For all that he goes on too much about his noble ancestors, here is a soul noble in the better sense: the sense that requires no ancestors, beatified or otherwise.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • RS

    “the poll tax (which Waldegrave devised)”
    Enough said really. Eton, Oxford, Harvard et al and he dreams up the first per capita tax in Britain since 1698.

  • Frank

    The expression you are looking for is that WW is a complete drip.
    As for Edward du Cann, he was not “an old charmer” unless you are implying that he was yet another closet gay?

  • post_x_it