By Paul Goodman
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ConservativeHome doesn't run full-scale obituaries (yet). But it does offer a means of publishing a brief appreciation of a former Conservative Parliamentarian who has died. So it is in the case of my predecessor as MP for Wycombe, Sir Ray Whitney.
Margaret Thatcher's army had generals, such as Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit. It also had footsoldiers – such as many of the readers of this article. But it would not have succeeded without those in between: its officers, the men and women who both made up her Ministers and backed her when times were tough.
If I had to make a single point about Ray Whitney it would be that he was one of those officers, and had qualities that once helped to make the Tories the natural party of government. The military metaphor is appropriate, since he began his career as a professional soldier. He was the son of a shoe factory worker. I wonder how easy it would be to make a similar journey to the Conservative benches today.
He later turned diplomat before turning again into an MP (and, post-retirement, into a lay Minister in the Church of England: several career changes, but consistent public service). When he entered the Commons in 1978, supporters of Margaret Thatcher's beliefs were not in a majority among Tory MPs – especially among those associated with the Foreign Office, where he had previously worked.
Sir Ray was an exception. He believed that Britain needed turning round, the trade unions should be stood up to, and the Soviet Union should be tackled. The Tory backbenches weren't short of men with similar views, but few if any were Foreign Office men with combative and informed anti-Soviet, pro-American and pro-Israel views: he was a former head of the Department's counter-propaganda department.
He had earlier experienced Mao's Cultural Revolution at first hand (see the Daily Telegraph's excellent obituary), and it had not endeared communism to him. Characteristically, his doubts about the Falklands War – publicly aired in the Commons – were shaped by hostility to communism: he was concerned that the Soviets would exploit any regime change among anti-communist Latin American governments.
Sharp, forceful and loyal, he was once reputed to have walked out of a dinner party over which a senior Tory was presiding and at which Mrs Thatcher was being mocked. He served her as a junior Minister at the Foreign Office and, later, at Health & Social Security (which left him with a taste for radical NHS reform). His return to the Foreign Office as a Minister can be seen as the apex of his political career.
He voted for Mrs Thatcher in the 1990 leadership election, having previously been asked by her to leave the Government. I think this reflects extremely well on him, especially since they had taken different paths on the E.U (although he was not part of the Foreign Office's club of former Euro-diplomats). His vote is a ghostly reminder of the times in which loyalty was the party's secret weapon – before seven leadership elections in some 16 years.
Age may help to explain why, given his abilities and outlook, he didn't rise further: he was almost as old when he entered the Commons as I was when I left it. The backing that men like him gave Mrs Thatcher during her contested early years in office was invaluable, and is perhaps his most fitting epitaph. He had two sons and a wife, Sheila, who survives him and to whom he was devoted.