Conservative politician and Foreign Office minister who had a distinguished career as a diplomat
Ray Whitney, who has died aged 81, was a member of the generation of Conservative politicians who chose to make the House of Commons a career because of a profound personal conviction about the need for change in British politics in the last quarter of the 20th century. Coming from a working-class background, he was a natural supporter of Margaret Thatcher, but he differed from many of her other enthusiastic parliamentary acolytes by exhibiting a free-thinking, independent-minded approach that inevitably inhibited his short-lived ministerial career.
His arrival at Westminster, as the victor of the Wycombe byelection in 1978 (caused by the death of his predecessor, Sir John Hall) on an increased majority, was a signal of the swing to the Conservatives which would sweep Thatcher into office the following year. He was seen as a hardline Tory rightwinger with strong views on such predictable subjects as the Soviet Union and the trade unions, but he was also true to the views he had reached during his earlier careers in the army and the Foreign Office. He was an enthusiastic European throughout his time in parliament, bemoaning the lack of coherence displayed by both the Thatcher and Major governments on this increasingly controversial issue.
Having been head of chancery at the British embassy in Argentina from 1969 to 1972, he also struck a highly individual line within the Conservative party over Britain’s decision to send a taskforce to recapture the Falkland Islands, in 1982, expressing considerable doubt about the move in the Commons’ emergency debate and angering the Tory right by urging negotiations for a diplomatic solution. “I have always been passionately committed to finding a longterm stable solution for the Falkland Islanders and for Anglo-Argentine relations,” he said. However, although the episode changed his standing in the party, Thatcher rated his honesty and reliability, and after her triumph in the 1983 post-Falklands war election she appointed him as the junior minister at the FCO with responsibility for relations with Buenos Aires.
He had taken the first step on the ladder of promotion when Nigel Lawson and Peter Rees chose him as their joint parliamentary private secretary at the Treasury in 1979. It was not a position that was conducive to Whitney, who was 47 when he entered the Commons, was of a similar age to his two bosses and disliked the constraints of being unable to speak his mind in the chamber. He had resigned as a diplomat in order to pursue his political beliefs and now found that the compensations of being an unpaid political bag-carrier were slight. He only lasted a few months in the post, but found far greater satisfaction as vice-chairman of the party’s employment committee and chairman of its foreign affairs committee until he joined the government in 1983.
Whitney was a much-liked man at Westminster. He had a practised diplomatic charm, but it was genuine and he was always courteous even with those whose politics were anathema to him. He was energetic, enthusiastic and fizzing with ideas for new ways of doing things, and on a number of issues was ahead of his time. He promoted an early attempt to make union strike ballots compulsory and an unsuccessful bill to reform Sunday trading. He started an organisation to encourage arms control, chaired the Mountbatten Community Trust, became chairman of the Positive European Group and was licensed as a lay minister in the Church of England.
He spoke French, Spanish and Mandarin fluently and enjoyed interpreting when required at international parliamentary functions. After a year at the FCO, he was moved sideways to the Department of Health and remained an enthusiastic campaigner for NHS reform for the remainder of his career. He was a minister only until 1986, when he was sacked – mainly because he appeared dispensable – but he nevertheless remained loyal to Thatcher. In 1988 he wrote a book promoting a radical introduction of a voucher system for healthcare. He was knighted in 1997.
Whitney was the son of George, a shoe-factory worker in Northampton, and his wife, Ethel. He went to Wellingborough school, Northamptonshire, and Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Northamptonshire Regiment in 1951. He served in Italy, Korea, Hong Kong and Germany and was seconded to the Australian army from 1960 until 1963, when he resigned to become a diplomat the following year. He took a degree at London University’s School of Asian and Oriental Studies and was first secretary in Peking from 1966 for two years.
In 1967 he was involved in three attacks by Red Guards on British diplomats, during the last of which the British embassy was blockaded and then attacked, ransacked and set on fire. During the blockade, Whitney and the other embassy staff played water polo and watched Ealing comedies – having first burned all the important paperwork. He then helped the staff escape, using his military expertise, and they found refuge in the Albanian embassy. The Chinese refused to allow Whitney an exit visa for a year. His other posts included deputy high commissioner in Bangladesh and heading the FCO’s counter-propaganda department.
In 1956 he married Sheila Prince, with whom he had two sons, Simon and Mark. They all survive him.
• Raymond William Whitney, politician, born 28 November 1930; died 15 August 2012