Book review: A Different Kind of Weather by William Waldegrave
This is a thoughtful, self-deprecating political memoir by a former Conservative Cabinet Minister who had honest ambitions but was to experience the roller-coaster of life. This is not a narrative memoir with the usual “I was born at an early age” and a list of tedious political meetings and minor backbench and then ministerial successes.
William Waldegrave is very conscious of family and roots, and throughout this memoir there are frequent references to family history – back to James II and Robert Walpole – and friends and acquaintances. His elder brother inherited the family title, house and the estate, but there is no antagonism and as the youngest child he grew up in a loving family. Like a character in an Anthony Powell novel, Waldgrave seems to have been present as a witness if not a participant at crucial moments in Conservative Party history, having worked for Heath, Thatcher and Major.
His political career and ambitions nearly ended when by a whisker the Major government survived a vote on the Scott Inquiry into arms for Iraq by one vote. As a foreign office minister Waldegrave, although innocent of any wrong doing apart from minor negligence, was the political fall guy for Sir Richard Scott and the opposition and media. Both Scott and the louche and unreliable Tory politician and diarist Alan Clark are the hate figures in this memoir. Waldegrave’s political career continued, and indeed he served in the Cabinet at Health as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Agriculture and finally Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But one suspects a downward drift.
In an engaging way Waldegrave recounts how, at the age of fifteen, a schoolmaster at Eton told his class to write out their life’s ambitions. His included being foreign secretary in Macleod’s government, becoming Prime Minister, revising the then propoal to demolish Trafalgar Square and in retirement to produce a definitive translation of Thucydides.
This memoir reveals a time-warp and a certain kind of Tory MP, who at one point in the 1990’s was thought to be an endangered species – Eton, Oxford, One Nation Tory and a member of Blue Chips. Waldegrave had a number of advantages to help him up the greasy pole, not least a personable nature and an ability to be inquisitive and to think.
A Different Kind of Weather is chronological, more or less and manages to combine the personal with the political – the former includes family, attractive girl friends and the patronage of powerful and influential people. In the early 1970s he joined Rothschild’s Central Policy Review Staff at No 10 in the Heath government where he learnt to admire Heath and make contacts and friends with a generation of the ablest young civil servants who would rise to power and influence from which he benefitted.
One of his political patrons was Douglas Hurd, and there are similarities of background, personality and approach to politics. The Eton connection runs like a thread through the book as it is so formative for his teenage years and provides him with friends and contacts and a measure to judge people and ideas.
It is noticeable that in a fascinating chapter on Parliament and the Press and the ability of every generation to produce MPs who are articulate and use wit to express ideas, the two he singles out in the Cameron generation are both Old Etonians – Rory Stewart and Jacob Rees-Mogg. And after losing his seat in 1997 and entering the House of Lords Waldegrave retired to his old alma mater as Provost of Eton College.
Waldegrave did much good in politics and wanted to be a good political public servant. His legacy was mixed and he was conscious that he was tasked with finding an alternative to local government finance and produced what became eventually the Poll Tax, although it fell to others to implement it.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland.