A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir, William Waldegrave, Constable & Robinson, 2015, 320pp, £20 (hardback)

The political memoir is a dubious genre. The worst of them are self-serving accounts of forgotten events, while most of the rest are only of interest to political obsessives. But there are exceptions. This is one of them. William Waldegrave was not only a Conservative cabinet minister. He is one of the most interesting conservative intellectuals of our time. In fewer than 300 lucid pages, he moves well beyond politics. Part Education Sentimentale, part Bildungsroman, the book is trying to make sense of political developments, social and cultural changes, Britain’s place in the world – and of its author.
The latter aspect is by no means the least interesting. Self-revelation does not come naturally to Lord Waldegrave and the effort to overcome reticence adds subtlety and depth. He comes from a distinguished lineage. The Waldegraves have been around since at least the later Middle Ages. One, Sir Richard, saw many battlefields and was a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. Could he have been the model for the very parfit gentle Knight? Chaucer does dress his son in Waldegrave colours. Throughout long centuries, from Agincourt to Waterloo, from the third Speaker of the House of Commons to the Waldegrave asked by George II to form a government, the family was never far from great events, yet never at the pinnacle. They descend from Walpole, but in the female line. George II’s Lord Waldegrave was unable to form a Ministry. There was scope for gifted descendants to win still greater glory.
This was William Waldegrave’s ambition, from an early age. There was an incentive and an asset. He was the youngest of seven children, five of them sisters in a family which believed in educating its daughters: not then a custom universal among the aristocracy. In such a household, a small boy would run the risk of being alternately petted and patronised. He did over- hear various sisters dissecting suitors’ bêtises. His determination to avoid a similar fate led him into precocious tastes, in books and in paintings. It quickly became clear – not that our author makes this point – that these ef- forts were not wasted. He had a powerful intellect.
This flourished at Eton. In those days, according to one of William Walde- grave’s contemporaries, there were two types of Eton education. Far too many youths were allowed to drift through their lessons because it was assumed that, comfortably circumstanced and well-connected, they would not be dependent on exam grades. But if a boy was diagnosed as academi- cally outstanding, the school’s considerable intellectual resources would be deployed to add additional stimulus and encourage a commitment to scholarship. In those circumstances, young William thrived.
By ‘scholarship,’ he, his schoolmasters and his Oxford dons meant exactly what they would have done a hundred years earlier. Rigorous training and wide reading in Greek and Latin, so that the schoolboy would be equipped for the intellectual mountaineering demanded by Oxford of its classicists as they progressed from Mods to Greats, the finest and most exacting of all university courses.
As late as the 1960s, that view was widely held. Since then, although Greats maintains its glories, classical studies have been marginalised: a matter of elegiac regret to our author. In the 1960s, that was one of the roots of his conservatism.
The other was his family. Although ancient and enobled, the Waldegraves were never magnates. But when William was growing up, his father still employed a fair proportion of the inhabitants of Chewton, the local vil- lage, in an ethos of noblesse oblige. ‘The insolence of riches doth creep out’ wrote Dr. Johnson. That was never the Waldegrave way. They earned respect by offering a gentle and traditional form of leadership. ‘It was a celebration of family, of community, of hierarchy, of the social contract’ our author comments. ‘We had a name and a place.’ When he first went to prep school, aged eight, the locomotive which pulled the train was called – ‘The Earl Waldegrave.’

At Eton and Oxford, William matured into a growing harmony. The heroes of the ancient world provided the fugues and the cadenzas: the age-old stability of the Somerset countryside and the Waldegrave way of life sup- plied the gentler melodies. As he won a succession of academic prizes, our author also thought hard about Britain, about Toryism and about his own career. He decided that he would aim for the Premiership, with the Foreign Secretaryship on the way.
Then came action. Before he was twenty-five, he had been recognised as one of the cleverest young men there had ever been. This drew him to the attention of powerful patrons. The first was Victor, Lord Rothschild, ‘one of the most complex and difficult men of the age.’ Head of the English branch of his extraordinary family, Victor Rothschild had many qualities, including courage. During the war, he had worked in bomb disposal. In the red haze of the battlefield, men can find the psychological support which enables them to defy death. In the loneliness of bomb disposal, the practi- tioner can only draw on cold-eyed stoicism. Lord Rothschild did, and won the George Medal, an immense honour, wholly merited. He had every at- tribute, except judgment.
In the early 1970s, Victor Rothschild was running the Central Policy Review Staff – nicknamed the Think Tank – which had been established by Ted Heath with the aim of promoting joined-up government. The Tank’s achievements never matched its reputation. Given the sheer cleverness of its members, one can only conclude that it was less than the sum of its parts. But it was an ideal vantage point for an aspirant young politician.

It also drew William Waldegrave to the attention of the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, who recruited him as his political secretary: another superb vantage point. It is always useful for young politicians, buoyed up by the confidence of youth, to observe failure and thus realise that success is not inevitable. William was there for the crashing fall of the Heath government.
He also realised its significance. In many ways, post-War Conservatives had believed that Britain should be run as a larger version of the Walde- grave estate. The big house could survive, but only if it recognised its obligations to the little cottages. Governments had a duty to promote full employment and social welfare.

Then came the 1970s, and a double attack on the post-war settlement. Free- market Tories believed that it held back national prosperity and condemned Britain to economic decline. Increasingly left-wing trade unionists were not interested in a social contract with benign capitalism; they wanted to sweep capitalism away. The removal of Heath ended any hope of a middle- ground compromise. It also weakened the Tory party’s commitment to integration with Europe.

Young William Waldegrave realised that the world had changed. Many of his political friends, such as Ian Gilmour, Chris Patten or the Liberal Jo Grimond, thought that Heathism could be reconstituted. He did not believe that this was possible, or indeed desirable. He did not believe in a united Europe and he found himself attracted to the free market ideas of the In- stitute of Economic Affairs (IEA), then widely dismissed as a group of marginal eccentrics. He realised that they were on to something.

So he was never tempted to be disloyal to Margaret Thatcher, and once he became an MP he was rapidly promoted to her government. He served her for nine years, arriving at the Cabinet just before her fall; she was never reluctant to promote clever young toffs. He especially enjoyed his time as a Foreign Office minister, when he participated in great events: the free- ing of Nelson Mandela, the arguments over the European exchange rate mechanism and above all, the crumbling of the Soviet Union. Although he felt admiration and affection for her, he is justifiably critical of her attempts to block German reunification. That was not only much the worst mistake she ever made. It was much the silliest and it was doomed to fail. He was also involved in Middle Eastern matters and his observations about Israel and Palestine are all the more powerful for being coolly argued. In view of Israeli intransigence, he finds it hard to see how a settlement is possible, so he sees no grounds for optimism about Israel’s long-term survival.

At that stage, it was clear to most observers – though not, one suspects, to William himself – that he would never become Prime Minister. There was not enough roughage in his make-up. But it did seem possible that he might be Foreign Secretary and he would have been a good one.

Then came a dishonest colleague, a silly judge, a wholly unjustified out- break of public indignation, and a torpedo in the hold of his political hopes. The arms for Iraq scandal has passed into mythology, even though there were no arms: William Waldegrave helped to make sure that any arms ex- ports were blocked. Alan Clark, mischievous and irresponsible, had en- couraged one firm to break the embargo. He then denied doing so, which led to the firm being prosecuted. William Waldegrave, though wholly in- nocent, got the blame. It is impossible to read William’s account without sympathy, and anger. That was not an episode which enhances one’s faith in the governing process.

William Waldegrave never reached the highest summit. But he had a fas- cinating time; there is nothing in this book which should put anyone off a career in politics. Our author quotes Frank Kermode as saying that the autobiographer must describe ‘the private weather.’ He may also have being thinking of Churchill on Joe Chamberlain: ‘he made the weather.’ William never did that; few do. But his ‘different kind of weather’ is a gripping and fascinating account of a fulfilled life.

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