It was a stunning and decisive by-election victory for the Conservatives in what had been regarded as a safe Labour seat. I refer, of course, to the result in Nelson and Colne in 1968 where the victorious Conservative candidate was a young man called David Waddington – who died yesterday.
Decades of public service were to follow – as the MP for Clitheroe and Ribble Valley, as Employment Minister, Home Office Minister, Chief Whip, Home Secretary, Leader of the House of Lords and Governor of Bermuda. This last appointment required him to wear a splendid plumed hat on official occasions but he was not a natural attention seeker. His self-deprecation – and relatively low profile – despite the high offices he held might lead some to underestimate the importance of his contribution to Government. He was a quiet loyalist to Margaret Thatcher – helping to sustain her when loyalty was a scarce commodity. It was a signal of Waddington’s persistence that he was prepared to fight three safe Labour seats before his by-election victory, and doggedly continue despite the defeats.
Theresa May has paid tribute to Waddington’s “long and distinguished career” adding that: “He combined the sharp intelligence of a Queen’s Counsel with the wit of a proud Lancastrian.”
As a lawyer he had an important role at the Department of Employment in assisting Norman Tebbit with reform of the trade unions.
Some thought he was the model for Francis Urquhart as Chief Whip. He “was certainly a principle source of background material” according to The Times obituary.
Waddington was certainly effective in the role – taking the trouble to personally thank MPs who stayed on for late votes.
When he served as Home Secretary he faced many of the challenges of disorder that often go with the post, but he also managed to cut red tape which had caused delays in the deportation of illegal immigrants.
In Bermuda there was a three to one vote to stay British in a referendum in 1995 – a strong vindication for him.
Even in later years Waddington was a tireless champion for Conservative causes – including the vital cause of freedom of speech. In 2008, when the Labour Government was introducing a ‘hate speech’ law, he warned that it threatened to criminalise criticism of homosexual acts. He secured the Waddington amendment to protect free speech to ensure that “discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices” were not covered by the new offence. The following year he spoke to The Christian Institute and stressed the importance of Christians standing up for free speech and religious liberty.
His own right to free speech had been challenged at Manchester University. The Daily Telegraph obituary of Waddington says:
In 1985 he was punched and spat on when he tried to speak at Manchester University. Subjected to chants of “Racist!” and “Deport Waddington!” he told the demonstrators: “As long as I’ve got breath in my body I will defend freedom of speech against people like you.” He told one: “You are scum”, and declared: “If I was a parent of any one of those children, I would put them across my knee and flog them.”
I found his memoirs, Despatches from Margaret Thatcher’s Last Home Secretary, published in 2012, made for very entertaining reading. He recalls speaking to Baroness Thatcher within hours of the Brighton bomb and writes:
“The Prime Minister turned to me and said: ‘Three bishops came to see me this morning wanting to pray for me, and they had me down on my knees.’ She then added crossly: ‘As if I had nothing better to do!’ “
The 1987 election campaign was a triumph for the Conservatives but it did not go without the odd mishap. Waddington writes:
“There was a misfortune suffered by Dr Alan (later Sir Alan) Glyn at Windsor. He asked a group of Young Conservatives to come to his hotel in the morning to go canvassing with him. They duly turned up but there was no Dr Glyn. Eventually a search party went up to his room. There was no immediate sign of him, but there was an old-fashioned wardrobe lying face down on the floor and the team set about restoring it to an upright position. Underneath it they discovered the good doctor. In the middle of the night he had set off to go to the lavatory but instead of going through the door in to the bathroom he had found his way in to the cupboard. The cupboard had fallen over trapping him inside and he had spent the rest of the night there.”
Usually Prime Ministers tour the Commons tea room to schmooze. But Waddington recounted in his memoirs that Thatcher would use the occasion to tell her MPs to smarten up.
“One night I was in the House of Commons dining room when the Prime Minister, who was at the next table, called over to me: ‘What”s that new member doing in the dining room without his jacket on? Go and have a word with him.’ And I got up and gave Tony Marlow appropriate advice.”
The then Prime Minister also “made it very plain that she did not like ministers on the front bench putting their feet up on the Table, even though it was an old custom of the House. ‘You would not treat the furniture in your own home like that.’ But tradition proved a lot stronger than her objections and this was one battle the PM lost.”
Waddington told the House magazine:
“I would like to be remembered as a decent local buffer who wasn’t all that clever, but in his own way tried to do his best.”
Many in the Conservative Party will remember him rather more generously.