British Conservative Politician and Author
Born 1926 Died 2007

Ian Gilmour was a baronet and later a life peer as the Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar who is chiefly remembered for his career as an aristocratic liberal Conservative who served in Margaret Thatcher's first Cabinet until dismissed in 1981, and then became one of the leading critics of Thatcherism and renowned as the 'wettest of the wets'.

Early Life

Born on the 8th July 1926, Ian Hedworth John Little Gilmour of Liberton and Craigmillar (to give him his full and formal name (1)) was the elder son of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Little Gilmour, 2nd Baronet and Laura Cadogan a granddaughter of the 5th Earl Cadogan. Since he inherited the sum of some £500,000 at the age of two (apparently part of the Meux brewery fortune).

He was educated at Eton College, although he apparently showed more interest in cricket than academic matters, and later served as a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards between 1944 and 1947. After leaving the Grenadiers he resumed his education at Balliol College, Oxford where he read Law, being later called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1952, when he joined the chambers of the Viscount Hailsham.

Thanks to his wealth and aristocratic connections he became a member of Princess Margaret's social set after the war, which is how he met his wife Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, a daughter of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch. (Her brother and later the 9th Duke was active in the same set, and was once regarded as a potential husband for Princess Margaret herself.) The couple were subsequently married at Westminster Abbey on the 10th July 1951 in a ceremony that was attended by members of the Royal Family.

The Spectator

After spending three years as a barrister Gilmour decided to abandon his legal career since, as he later explained "I don't know whether I would have been very good at it". Rather he decided on a career in the media and became editor of The Spectator, a position easily achieved in his case by the simple expedient of buying the magazine. Although he had no previous experience whatsoever of journalism, Gilmour proved rather successful at reinvigorating what was then regarded as something of a moribund journal, bringing in Brian Inglis as his deputy editor and introducing new writers such as Bernard Levin, Katharine Whitehorn, Henry Fairlie and George Gale. Under Gilmour's direction the Spectator adopted a general pro-reform stance on such issues as the death penalty, abortion and homosexuality and became particularly critical of the government over Suez, going so far as to call prime minister Anthony Eden "a liar" in October 1956.

The Spectator also fought a celebrated libel case in February 1957, when the magazine was sued by Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips who all objected to the insinuation that they had been drunk at a socialist conference in Venice. According to Gilmour, "We merely said they drank a lot, but Bevan wanted the money", and the money is what Bevan duly received.

In 1959 Gilmour decided to take a step back and promoted Brian Inglis to the post of editor. Under Inglis's guidance the magazine's circulation rose to 50,000, although in doing so it became more critical of the government. This eventually gave rise to a certain amount of friction between editor and proprietor, since by now Gilmour had political ambitions of his own, and was uncomfortable with the idea that 'his' journal was becoming so critical of the Conservative Party. Inglis eventually resigned (and went into television) and was replaced by Iain Hamilton, although the latter only remained until 1963 when Gilmour decided to offer the job to Ian Macleod, who had resigned from government rather than serve under Alec Douglas-Home. Unfortunately before Gilmour got around to informing Hamilton that he was being replaced, MacLeod had told William Deedes, who leaked the story to the press, and Hamilton read the news of his dismissal in the Evening Standard much to the embarassment of all concerned.

Although Gilmour continued to be active in the business of managing the Spectator (he gave Roy Hattersley his first job as a journalist in 1964) he facing increasing criticism that the Spectator was being required to follow a line consitent with his own political ambitions and eventually sold the magazine in 1967.


According to Gilmour himself, he went into politics because Ian Macleod told him to "Stop criticising us – do something!". He was however unsuccessful in his initial attempts to be adopted as the Conservative candidate at both Pontefract and Lincoln, but was eventually chosen to fight a by-election at Norfolk Central in 1962, were he campaigned as a 'Macmillan Man' and scraped home by 220 votes. In the Conservative Party leadership contest of 1963 he supported the Viscount Hailsham who then became plain Quintin Hogg and a member of the House of Commons, and later became his Principal Private Secretary in December 1963.

The Conservatives lost the General Election of October 1964, and Gilmour spent the next six years in opposition, during which time he sat on the Party's committees on broadcasting, and on agriculture, fisheries and food, whilst he demonstrated his liberal credentials as one of only two Conservatives who consistently supported the liberal line of the questions of capital punishment, homosexuality, abortion and divorce. In 1969 he published a book, The Body Politic, which outlined his political philosophy and was generally well received, and served to establish his credentials as a Conservative intellectual.

When the Conservative Party returned to government in 1970, the new Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed him as Under-Secretary of State for Defence with responsibility for the army. It was at defence that Gilmour first established what was to prove to be a long-standing working relationship with the Lord Carrington. After a year as Under-Secretary he was promoted to Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and in November 1972 was promoted to Minister of State for Defence and and Carrington's number two in the department. Although Gilmour eventually joined the Cabinet when was appointed as Secretary of State for Defence in January 1974, he only lasted a few weeks in office, as the result of the General Election of February 1974 soon obliged Heath to resign in March 1974. (2)

Following the election defeat he continued as the opposition defence spokesman until June 1974 when Heath moved him across to take on the job of spokesman on Northern Ireland and appointed him chairman of the Conservative Research Department. In the latter case it was intended that he would supervise the business of marshaling the intellectual case for Heath's brand of Conservatism, and both he and Chris Patten shared the task of writing the Party manifesto for the October 1974 election. As it turned out this wasn't entirely successful as the Conservatives experienced their second electoral defeat within the same year. Gilmour then advised Heath that he should resign, in order to allow William Whitelaw to succeed. Heath of course, refused to do so, being eventually forced out of office and replaced by Margaret Thatcher as party leader.

Under Thatcher, Gilmour continued to act as Shadow Home Secretary until 1976 when he became the Shadow Defence Secretary, a position that he retained until the 1979 election.

In Government 1979-1981

Gilmour was never comfortable with the policies that Thatcher was intending to pursue, as he made clear in his book Inside Right in 1977, were he defended the notion of consensus politics (as it was then understood) and claimed that any shift to the right by the Conservatives might cost them the next election. He was of course proved wrong as the General Election of 1979 proved to be a decisive victory for the Conservative Party.

By this time the argument within the Party had polarised between the so-called 'wets' and the 'dries', and Gilmour was certainly one of the more prominent wets; or as one colleague put it at the time "Ian is so wet you could shoot snipe off him". Nevertheless Thatcher appointed him to the Cabinet as the Lord Privy Seal, effectively the deputy Foreign Secretary who answered for the Foreign Office in the Commons while Carrington the Foreign Secretary sat in the House of Lords.

Gilmoour regarded himself as being "very lucky" to be reunited with his old boss, and as the number two in the Foreign Office was prominent in the Lancaster House talks established to resolve the question of Rhodesia, where he promoted the cause of African self-government, having apparently been impressed by Robert Mugabe. It was also Gilmour who struck the deal with the German deputy finance minister, Klaus Von Dohnanyi, which reduced the British contribution to the European Economic Community, and was eventually accepted by the Prime Minister, although only after she had subjected him to a two-hour verbal assault, without it was claimed the benefit of even a cup of tea.

Gilmour frequently dropped hints that he was not comfortable with the intellectual thrust of the government and warned Thatcher against going "too far too fast". He was increasingly seen as the leader of the 'Wets' and there was even talk of him as a future party leader, since it was the prevailing view amongst the 'Wets' at the time that the whole Thatcherite experiment would end in tears, after which they would naturally assume control of the party. His opposition became manifest in March 1980 when he gave a lecture at Cambridge and offered the opinion that "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 insult to the patron saint of Thatcherism led to a public rebuke from the Prime Minister, a clear indication that his card had been marked. Apparently Thatcher wanted to get rid of him in January 1981, only to be persuaded otherwise by Carrington. The crunch however came with the deflationary budget of March 1981, which was presented to the Cabinet as a fait accompli, and duly accepted with little protest from any of the Cabinet wets.

The lack of any effective opposition at this juncture gave Margaret Thatcher the confidence to dispense with the services of those ministers regarded as suspect and it was perfectly clear to everyone that it was only a matter of time before Gilmour was duly dispensed with. This gave Gilmour time to compose his 'resignation letter' before being eventually sacked in September 1981, in which he famously declared 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."

After Government

Although he remained a member of the Conservative Party, he spent much of his time arguing against the government's programme whether it was the introduction of the Community Charge and rate-capping, the abolition of the Greater London Council, or indeed almost every annual budget proposed by whatever Conservative Chancellor was around at the time. He was subsequently a prominent supporter of Anthony Meyer's leadership challenge in 1989 and later appears to have supported Michael Heseltine in 1990.

Although he did attempt to spearhead a campaign for proportional representation within the Conservative Party, this failed to achieve any kind of support, and he later became largely preoccupied with the question of unemployment, and published Britain Can Work in 1983 in defence of the notion of Keynsian demand management. This was either "the most devastating attack on Conservative policy from any senior member of that party since Enoch Powell's outbursts of the early seventies", or simply demonstrated that he had learnt nothing from recent history.

An increasingly marginal figure within the Conservative Party as he himself admitted that he would not now go into politics as a Conservative since "I wouldn't get selected. I wouldn't have a chance." He later decided to stand down from the House of Commons and accepted a life peerage from John Major, becoming the Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar, although he was never particularly active in the House of Lords, and appears to have accepted his peerage largely in order to avail himself of the free car parking facilities at the House. In 1995 he publicly declared himself "very impressed" by Tony Blair, but was privately rather disapointed and critical of Tony Blair for accepting so much of the 'Thatcherite settlement' that he had so strenuously opposed.

Freed from the demands of active politics he turned to writing and was the author of Riot, Risings and Revolution: governance and violence in 18th century England (1992) and Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism (1992). Together with Mark Garnett he also wrote Whatever Happened to the Tories (1997) being an account of the history of the Conservative Party since 1945. He also displayed an interest in the work of the romantic poets, wrote The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time (2002) and became the chairman of the Byron Society in 2003.

Ian Gilmour, who was a convinced anti-Zionist for much of his life, was a founding member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding in 1967 and also became President of Medical Aid for Palestinians. He died on the 21st September 2007, at the age of eighty-one for no particular cause other than old age, it appears. He was survived by a daughter and four sons, the eldest of whom, David succeeded to the baronetcy.


(1) His great-grandfather Robert Gordon Wolrige simply married a Gilmour heiress and adopted the name of Wolrige-Gilmour and later that of Gilmour of Liberton and Craigmillar on inheriting the estates of Hallhead and Esslemont from his great-uncle Walter Gilmour, being later created a baronet on the 29th July 1926. Whereas Gilmour is a good Scottish surname (from the Gaelic 'Gille Mhoire', for the servant of Mary), Wolrige is a perfectly acceptable English surname being derived from the Old English Wulfric.
(2) At the same time boundary changes led to the disappearance of his old seat of Norfolk Central, although he was succesfully adopted for the new seat of Chesham and Amersham.


  • Rhiannon Edward, 'Wettest of the wets' Lord Gilmour dies at 81, The Scotsman, 21-Sep-07
  • The entry for GILMOUR from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition

Obituaries of the Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar

  • From The Daily Telegraph 24/09/2007
  • From The Times September 24, 2007
  • From The Guardian by Edward Pearce September 24, 2007,,2175738,00.html
  • From The Independent by Dennis Kavanagh, 24 September 2007

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