Peregrine Worsthorne

Too much and too late

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Mark Garnett and Ian Aitken

Cape, pp. 386, £

By the criteria of the day before yesterday, the late William Whitelaw, a much loved Tory politician who served as Mrs Thatcher's deputy leader, must have seemed a good circulation bet for a successful biography. Most people, after all, would have heard of him, if only because of Mrs Thatcher's memorable remark that 'every prime minister needs a Willie'. In addition, however, to acting his most valuable role as a restraining influence on Prime Minister Thatcher, he was also a controversial Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a well-thought-of Home Secretary, Chief Whip and leader of the House of Lords, not to mention a second world war hero and a very perfect model of a public-spirited, land-owning Tory grandee of the calibre and character which used to provide the old ruling class with its ballast and 'bottom'. What is more, one of the two authors appointed by Lord Whitelaw to write his biography would have rightly seemed to promise the book a good run for the publisher's money. For having been for 30 years a highly regarded political writer for the Guardian and a veteran supporter of Old Labour, Aitken could be guaranteed not to produce a work of hagiographical piety. On all these counts, therefore, this book could have been expected to be something of a publishing event.

Unfortunately, I fear that it won't be, in spite of being elegantly written, admirably researched and full of original material. For even your reviewer, an erstwhile political journalist himself who also very much admired Willie Whitelaw, could scarcely refrain from yawning. And the reason is sad and simple. British politics are no longer at all interesting; even worse, they are positively a turn-off. Just as not many bother to read the political coverage in the daily newspapers, unless scandals are involved, so do even fewer want to pay £20 or so to be reminded years later of events which they did not find worth reading first time round. Bad enough to be expected to vote!

Nor should this be surprising since this fate has long since overtaken all but the top order of politicians in all the other European countries, unless they happen, like President Mitterrand of France, to have had exceptionally spicy lives, both public and personal. The idea that any Spanish publisher, say, could assume that enough readers would like to read a life of one of his own country's deputy prime ministers has long been difficult to imagine.

Readers are not fools. When Britain was a world power with a great empire to rule over, her politics and politicians mattered enormously and it made perfect sense for people to want to read about their every act and thought. But now that those days are over, and have been over for nearly half a century, even the most time-warped reader can hardly have failed to realise that a nearly 400-page tome like this one, chronicling the thoughts and acts of dear old Willie, is just a bit too much of a good thing. There are several whole pages, for example, chronicling the thoughts of Whitelaw after having been beaten by Mrs Thatcher in the Conservative Party leadership stakes, a small extract from which will be enough to prove my point:

After the second ballot Willie showed the value of his philosophy of never looking back. He seems to have convinced himself that he had not expected to win - indeed, that he had never really wanted to stand in the first place. At a lunch only two months later he talked very freely to a group of journalists. Alistair Hetherington [then editor of the Manchester Guardian] made a note of his remarks