Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar
Liberal-minded Conservative Cabinet Minister who opposed Thatcherism and wrote elegantly on British political theory
Ian Gilmour was one of the tiny number of practising Conservative politicians who were brave enough to try to define what is the nature of Conservatism. He made a distinguished contribution, elegantly written, to British political theory.
In the end, his practical contribution to political history was smaller. He was a leading critic of Thatcherism during the 1970s and 1980s, but his effectiveness was compromised because he lacked the quality, essential at the top in Westminster, of being able to “put the knife in”. He was a nice, as well as a clever and civilised, man.
No one disputed that intellectually he towered above most Conservatives. Nor, in spite of the languorous manner of a dilettante, did he lack that other essential quality at the top, to be able to work round the clock.
But too often he was seen to symbolise an outmoded aristocratic tradition. That tradition in Conservatism – in which the elite of society sets civilised, liberal standards – had probably been dying out while Gilmour was still quite a young man. Perhaps, indeed, it had always lived stronger in the imagination than in fact.
During the Thatcher years, grand parties at the Gilmour home by the Thames were jocularly compared to Jacobite assemblies in Hanoverian times. But, as with the Jacobites, the romantic overtones could not conceal that the cause had been lost.
The heir to a baronetcy from his schooldays, Ian Hedworth John Little Gilmour belonged to a rich Scottish family, and these connections became even grander when he married Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, a daughter of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch. Their wedding in 1951 was attended by many members of the Royal Family, including the aged Queen Mary.
The aristocratic pattern in Ian Gilmour’s make-up had already been established by education at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and a spell as a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards at the end of the war. In his youth there was a touch of the playboy in him, but his intellectual calibre had been evident at Balliol.
He was called to the Bar (serving his pupillage in Lord Hailsham’s chambers) but did not pursue the law. He decided to make his mark through journalism. With the aid of an inheritance (which also brought him the ownership of Temple Bar) he bought, and for five years edited, The Spectator. Under him the magazine attracted some of the sharpest pens of the day (including that of the young Bernard Levin). In pursuing the paper’s traditional rivalry with the socialist New Statesman he proved that lively journalism was not the prerogative of the Left.
But the Conservatism of The Spectator under Gilmour was of a distinctly liberal tone, and he was among those Tories disturbed by Anthony Eden’s attempt during the Suez crisis of 1956 to defeat Arab nationalism. Later he was to be accused of overzealousness in his Arab sympathies. Menachim Begin, with characteristic belligerence, once said of him that “he is not only an anti-Zionist – he has negative feelings which go much deeper“. This was deeply unfair. Gilmour, in company with a fellow Conservative MP, Sir Dennis Walters, and others, had been invited to see conditions on the defeated Arab side after the Six-Day War of 1967. The two subsequently wrote an article in The Times which stated “there is a great deal of talk about peace, but none about justice“, adding, in a characteristically pithy style, that conditions in Arab makeshift camps “vary only from the appalling to the impossible“. This brought the wrath of the Zionist lobby upon them. But having seen at first hand the treatment of the Palestinians, Gilmour made theirs a lifelong cause.
In 1962, with the active encouragement of the party chairman, Iain Macleod, he became Conservative MP for Norfolk Central. Years later Gilmour recalled: “I went into politics because Macleod said, ‘Stop criticising us – do something!’ ” He was to specialise in foreign affairs and defence matters but he was also noted for support of equal rights for women and for racial minorities. Indeed, one political commentator observed that he was one of only two Conservatives “to vote for all the libertarian or humanitarian changes – over hanging, homosexuality, abortion and divorce – of the 1964-70 Parliaments“.
If Gilmour’s inclinations were on the liberal side, however, he happened to have entered the House at a time when reaction was building up inside the Tory party against what was seen to be the leftist trend under Harold Macmillan and his deputy, R. A. Butler. This was dramatised when, on Macmillan’s resignation in 1963, the party unexpectedly chose Lord Home, in preference to Butler, as its leader. Among the dissidents was Gilmour’s original mentor, Macleod, who refused to serve in Alec Douglas-Home’s Government. Although Gilmour had backed Hailsham in the contest, he surprised the world of Westminster by offering the unemployed Macleod the editorship of The Spectator.
There was a twist to this episode. He had already relinquished the editorship himself (although he was to reflect, years later, that it was probably a mistake to cease being Editor of The Spectator while still owning it), and in 1963 the editorial chair was occupied, by Iain Hamilton. When he decided to bring in Macleod, his intention was to break the news to Hamilton over a drink at White’s on Thursday evening, October 31, 1963, and announce it in the Sunday papers. Unfortunately Macleod told Bill Deedes (obituary, August 18), the Telegraph journalist who was then responsible for the Conservative Government’s public relations, who leaked it. Hours before Gilmour and Hamilton were due to meet, Hamilton read the news of his dismissal in the London Evening Standard. Alan Watkins, the paper’s political correspondent, recalled: “Attitudes were struck by contributors, angry letters written and lawyers called in, but the fuss soon died, and Hamilton and Gilmour ended on good terms. Gilmour was unjustly attacked over this episode, which came about through bad luck – or, precisely, through Macleod’s indiscretion.“ Hamilton refused to serve under Macleod as deputy editor.
In 1970 the Tories returned to power under Edward Heath. Gilmour was given junior office at the Ministry of Defence, and he was briefly Defence Secretary before Heath lost office in the bitter election of February 1974. It was in this latter election – his old seat of Norfolk Central having disappeared – that he first won Chesham & Amersham, the constituency he was to represent until his retirement from the Commons in 1992.
A disillusioned Conservative Party was now plunged into a period of soul-searching, which was resolved, but only partially, when Heath was replaced as leader by Margaret Thatcher. In the confused months while Heath was still fighting to retain the leadership he appointed Gilmour as chairman of the Conservative Research Department. His reputation as a political theorist had been established with the publication of his book The Body Politic in 1969. (This was a major book on the British constitution. Gilmour was not a man to boast, but later in life could not resist pointing out to friends that in this book he had advocated the subsequently fashionable move towards elected mayors.)
Thatcher took him into her Shadow Cabinet, but nobody was in any doubt that Gilmour was unsympathetic to the way she was guiding the party, and to the zealots around her who attached top priority to monetarism – dubbed by Gilmour as “the uncontrollable in pursuit of the indefinable“. While in the Shadow Cabinet he published another important work, Inside Right: a Study in Conservatism,a powerful attack on ideology in politics.
The party’s leaders were polarising into the “wets“ and the “dries“, but for the moment they seemed to coexist. Gilmour took the relaxed view that, if Thatcherism were given enough rope, it would hang itself, and the “wet“ cause was to pay dearly for his seemingly patronising attitude to the “dries“. Partly it was a matter of personalties. The advisers surrounding Thatcher included some people very different from the traditional type of Conservative.
Gilmour assumed that the party would, so to speak, come to its senses in due course. When she became Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher was not confident enough to form a Cabinet composed wholly of “dries“ but simply excluded the “wets“ from her inner councils. Gilmour joined the Cabinet with the grand title of Lord Privy Seal, with a brief which made him deputy Foreign Secretary. That kept him away from general economic policies but put him at the centre of the drama of granting independence to Zimbabwe. It also made him – a committed if pragmatic European – an unhappy adjutant in Thatcher’s confrontation with the EEC. It was Gilmour and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, who provided Thatcher with the solution to the problem of Britain’s contribution the EEC budget. In Dancing with Dogma, a pungent critique of Thatcherism, he included an account of how the Prime Minister at first refused to accept a settlement that was ultimately regarded as her triumph.
Part of the problem of the division at the top of the party was that “wetness“ was not a single policy. On trade union matters, for instance, Gilmour took a tougher line than some of his colleagues.It was the style, as much as the content, of Thatcherism that the “wets“ deplored – in private. Watching with dismay as unemployment rose under the monetarist regime, “wet“ Ministers were obliged, by constitutional convention, to hold their tongues or resign.
Gilmour, a constitutional expert, found an arguably devious way around the rules. Invited to deliver a quasi-academic lecture at Cambridge, he took the theme that economic dogma could blind a government to more important considerations. “In the Conservative view,“ he said, “economic liberalism, à la Professor Hayek, because of its starkness and its failure to create a sense of community, is not a safeguard of political freedom but a threat to it.“
This reference to the classical-liberal economist who was regarded by the Thatcherites as almost a saint, added insult to the injury which he was inflicting on the principle of Cabinet unanimity.
Still in the Cabinet, he had now in effect dissociated himself from much of its policy. In his defence it can be argued that he was not the only one straining the conventions of loyalty: the Prime Minister herself was much given at this time to making remarks disparaging of her colleagues.
Things came to a head with the 1981 Budget, which took £3.5 billion out of the public-sector borrowing requirement. The Cabinet “wets“ – given only 24 hours’ notice - were outraged, and in retrospect Gilmour said he should have resigned. But he did not, and his impotence was now manifest. Six months later he was sacked, having been saved once by the intervention of Lord Carrington.
He went in style, laconically telling waiting reporters in Downing Street that “it does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard, but it does not do much good if you are steering full speed ahead for the rocks.“
The economy eventually turned the corner but, ironically, only because of a loosening of monetary policy and the effective abandonment of the monetarism against which the “wets“ had fought. Yet unemployment went on rising until 1986.
Gilmour kept up the intellectual barrage after his dismissal. Britain Can Work (1983) was followed by Dancing with Dogma (1992). From the back benches he pursued causes as various as the improvement of child benefit, proportional representation and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. He was also a stern critic of Thatcher’s local government policy – the policy which, via the poll tax, eventually led to her political fall. He was generous towards her successes with privatisation and the unions but a relentless critic of the way in which the poor suffered under Thatcherism, and of the dramatic shift in the distribution of income and wealth in favour of the rich.
He and his colleagues did respond to Thatcher’s question “What is the alternative?“ Indeed, they won the intellecual argument against monetarism, which was quietly abandoned as a guide to economic policy. But the victory was not fully evident until almost all the “wets“ had been moved on.
In his final work on Conservatism, Whatever Happened to the Tories: A History of the Party since 1945 (1997), written with Mark Garnett in 1997, Gilmour pointed out that, although the party had been “uniquely successful“ electorally from 1979 to 1992, both Labour’s lurch to the left and the brief rise of the SDP had helped to disguise how widely the Thatcher Government’s policies were resented. He warned that his former One Nation Conservative colleagues looked set to embark on their wilderness years.
Gilmour had himself been courted by the SDP but resolutely refused to join it. So far as he was concerned, he had not left the Conservative Party; under Thatcher the Conservative Party had left him. And he never tired of reminding people that until the Falklands war she had been “the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began“.
In 1992, the year which brought the publication not only of Dancing with Dogma but also of a very well-received historical work, Riots, Risings, Revolution: Governance and Violence in 18th-Century England, Gilmour accepted a life peerage from John Major, becoming Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar (he had inherited his father’s baronetcy in 1977). He was not especially active in – or enthusiastic about – the Lords, prefacing the news to friends of his enrolment there with the wry announcement: “I have solved my parking problem“ – the Lords has its own free car park.
Although Gilmour was sad about the direction the country had taken during the Thatcher era – and privately critical of Tony Blair for accepting so much of the “Thatcherite settlement“ – he was not at all embittered. The wit and elegance remained there in his writings till the end, and he kept up a generous standard of entertaining to his many friends – whether at his home at Isleworth or at the Gilmours’ summer villa near Lucca.
However, with advancing years the Gilmours sold their Italian property, access to which Douglas Hurd described in his memoirs as “rocky“ and “tortuous“. Guests, he said – who might include the Jenkinses, the Bonham-Carters, Moira Shearer and Ludovic Kennedy – would enjoy “crafty and competitive tennis, followed by hours of badinage over dinner“, but those not staying the night faced “a terrifying, almost vertical descent in the dark“.
“What a ridiculous exaggeration,“ Gilmour commented.
Gilmour’s last few years were deeply saddened by the loss of his devoted wife Lady Caroline in 2004. He remained at Isleworth, wisely resisting pressure to move into Central London, and derived some solace from his friendly cocker spaniel named Lucca.
He had struck up a friendship with Michael Foot, with whom he had been at loggerheads over a celebrated libel case in February 1957, when Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips successfully sued Gilmour’s Spectator over suggestions of heavy drinking by the three Labour figures at a socialist conference in Venice. Foot, a disciple and biographer of Bevan’s, attacked Gilmour at the time, but the two were drawn together many years later through their membership of the Byron Society.
It no doubt helped that Foot described Gilmour’s last published work, The Making of the Poets – Byron and Shelley in Their Time (2002) – as “a masterly piece of historical writing“ in The Observer. But Gilmour never forgot the libel action, which was over a relatively innocuous passage by a contributor – “We merely said they drank a lot, but Bevan wanted the money,“ he recalled.
Gilmour is survived by four sons and one daughter. The eldest of his son, David, inherits the baronetcy.
Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, PC, author and former Conservative MP and Cabinet minister, was born on July 8, 1926. He died on September 21, 2007, aged 81