Worsthorne was born in Chelsea, the younger son of General Alexander Lexy Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker who had served his country in World War I, and Priscilla Reyntiens, an English Roman Catholic and the granddaughter of the 12th Earl of Abingdon. The family name was anglicised following the birth of Worsthorne's older brother Simon Towneley, who from 1976 to 1996 was the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire. The two boys were baptized Roman Catholic, but did not attend Catholic denominational schools.
Worsthorne's mother divorced his father when he was five years old and she would soon marry Sir Montagu Norman, then the Governor of the Bank of England. As a consequence of the split, the family butler effectively raised the two brothers for several years. "Unhappy as some of my formative experiences were, all in all, it was pretty good soil for someone wanting to go into public life", he would later recall, commenting on the tradition of public duty and service so prevalent in his family and his family's social circle. Worsthorne's biological father reverted his name to Koch de Gooreynd in 1937 and lived in Rhodesia for several years; Worsthorne discovered in the early 1960s that a half-brother was born during this period.
He wrote that while at Stowe he was once seduced on the art room chaise-longue by George Melly, a fellow pupil who was later a jazz singer and writer, an accusation that Melly always denied. One other pupil, Colin Welch, did though become a lifelong friend. Welch also had a career in journalism, and persuaded Worsthorne to apply to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He began his studies at the college in 1942, having won an exhibition to read History. The master of Peterhouse at that time was the Conservative academic Herbert Butterfield. As was normal practice Worsthorne was called up for war service after three terms; he was rusticated during the last term. However, in army training with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, he injured his shoulder and after being admitted to a hospital in Oxford was able to persuade Magdalen College to admit him for a term.
After receiving his commission on 4 June 1943, Worsthorne saw active service in Phantom during the Italian campaign with the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and was part of the occupying force in Hamburg for three months in 1945. Worsthorne returned to Peterhouse and took his degree a year early, gaining a Second.
Worsthorne entered the newspaper industry as a sub-editor on The Glasgow Herald in 1946, on a two-year training program for Oxbridge graduates. He then worked for The Times from 1948 on the Foreign Desk, again as a sub-editor in his first year there. During this time he was called into the office of the newspaper's editor William Casey, who then told him: "Dear Boy, The Times is a stable of hacks and a thoroughbred like you will never be at home here".
He became a correspondent in Washington (1950–52), where his advocacy of Senator Joe McCarthy's pursuit of communist subversion in the United States government eventually led to a split with the more circumspect Times, and, in 1953, he joined The Daily Telegraph. Despite moving to a newspaper more suited to his politics, Worsthorne nevertheless left The Times with some regret, feeling that working for any other title in Fleet Street could only be anti-climactic, and that working conditions at The Telegraph were inferior to those at The Times, then based at Printing House Square. At this time he also contributed articles to the magazine Encounter (then covertly funded by the CIA).
In a November 1954 article discussing McCarthyism titled "America: Conscience or Shield?", he wrote that America's flaws were something the British would have to accept for their own benefit, because: "legend created an American god. The god has failed. But unlike the Communist god which, on closer examination, turned out to be a devil, the American god has just become human". More recently he favourably compared a post-war America which "put its faith in the [intellectual elites]" over a Britain dedicated to the "masses".
In 1961 Worsthorne was appointed as the first deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph; a job with fewer responsibilities than its title implies, and in his autobiography Worsthorne expresses some regret that he rejected an offer to become editor of The Yorkshire Post. In due course though, he became a leading columnist on his newspaper, taking a Conservative High Tory stance.
Worsthorne mourned the loss of the British Empire; he once argued that the public's acceptance of decolonisation was paralleled by their acquiescence to socialism. Of the Six-Day War in 1967 he wrote an article titled "Triumph of the Civilised":
last week a tiny Western community, surrounded by immensely superior numbers of the underdeveloped peoples, has shown itself able to impose its will on the Arabs today almost as effortlessly as the first whites were able to do on the Afro-Asian native in the imperial heyday".
The following year, after Enoch Powell's speech in April 1968 on the perceived threat of non-white immigration, he argued that voluntary repatriation was the "only honest course".
In common with his friend the journalist Paul Johnson, he has advocated the recolonisation of former colonies. In September 1991, he advocated "a new form of imperialism directed against the countries of the Third World" intended to create an "anti-barbarian alliance" to control the use of weapons by "primitive peoples." In his view nothing could be done about famines "without the advanced countries re-exerting political control – i.e., a return to colonialism." In 1965 he defended the declaration of UDI by the white minority government of Ian Smith. Worsthorne, in an article on the Sunday following the declaration, wrote:
Just as in the light of history Lord North has been judged wrong for refusing to give independence to the white slave owners in America, so will Mr Harold Wilson be for refusing to give it to the white supremacists of Southern Africa.
Worsthorne initially accepted Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (now the European Union). After the publication of the Heath Government's 1971 White Paper, he wrote in a Daily Telegraph column that the "Europeans" deserved to win in the battle over British entry. "The sceptics have failed to produce an alternative faith", he argued. By the time of the imminent Single European Act of 1992, however, he wrote in The Sunday Telegraph of 4 August 1992 that: "Twenty years ago, when the process began, […] there was no question of losing sovereignty. That was a lie, or at any rate, a dishonest obfuscation", in contradiction of the Treaty of Rome's commitment (1957) to an "ever closer union".
On the BBC's Nationwide programme in March 1973, he was the second person on the nation's television to say "fuck", when asked if the general public were concerned that a Conservative Government minister Lord Lambton (his future father-in-law) had shared a bed with two call girls. Worsthorne was preceded by Kenneth Tynan (in 1965) and followed by the Sex Pistols (in December 1976) in breaking this particular taboo. Worsthorne said in 2013: "There’s a possibility it wasn’t spontaneous. Apparently I took advice about it before in El Vino’s. I don’t remember. To the best of my knowledge, it was the mot juste."
The use of the swear word on television cost him the opportunity to edit The Daily Telegraph, as its then owner Lord Hartwell strongly objected to Worsthorne's comment and was persuaded to bar him from appearing on television for six months. Worsthorne was, nevertheless, promoted to associate editor in 1976.
Worsthorne argued in 1978 that the possible advance of "socialism" created an "urgent need ... for the state to regain control over 'the people', to re-exert its authority..." in the context of Britain "being allowed to spin into chaos". He was critical of Mrs Thatcher's connection of domestic socialism with the form in the Eastern bloc as he did not perceive this as being in line with the experiences of most of the population (the "untalented majority"). He saw "the needs and values of the strong" as something which "should obsess the popular imagination" of "all healthy societies". He defended the conduct of Pinochet's forces in the 1973 Chilean coup, and wrote that he hoped the British army would launch a coup in Britain if a radical minority socialist government should ever enter power.
In 1978 Worsthorne did not see the potential for elements of his views (the end of socialism as an alternative in Britain) to be reflected in the forthcoming change of government (in what the political scientist Andrew Gamble came to call "the free economy and the strong state"). In the year before Thatcher's election he wrote that her government "is not going to make all that much difference... Her proposals amount in effect to very little: a controlled experiment in using market methods to improve the workings of social democracy". "We put too much emphasis on Mrs Thatcher forming a government", Worsthorne said on the BBC's election night programme late on 3 May 1979 as the results were about to come in. "It will really be Conservative ideas and Conservative policies that have formed a government. I don't think that she's articulated it very well."
Worsthorne criticised the legacy of Margaret Thatcher's government; during the 1980s, his ambivalence to what he saw as her "bourgeois triumphalism" resulted in Worsthorne and the Telegraph being out of favour at 10 Downing Street for some time. In 2005 he argued that Thatcher's "utterly un-Tory ideological excesses left such a bad taste in the mouth of the English people as to make Conservatism henceforth unpalatable, except as a last resort in the absence of a less dire alternative". He added: "For many of our people, life in the late 20th and in the 21st Century will be repulsive, brutal, and short as well."
After Conrad Black's holding company gained 80% of the company stock in 1986, Worsthorne was finally able to become editor of The Sunday Telegraph, though in the end only for three years. In 1989 the Telegraph titles briefly became a seven-day operation under Max Hastings, with the bulk of The Sunday Telegraph edited by Trevor Grove. Worsthorne's responsibilities were reduced to the three comment pages by the editor-in-chief Andrew Knight, who sacked Worsthorne as editor over lunch in Claridge's. The lofty ethos of the comment pages, with contributors including Bruce Anderson, was captured in their nickname, 'Worsthorne College'. This arrangement continued until September 1991 when Worsthorne's commitments were reduced to his weekly column.
In January 1990, Worsthorne was the defendant in a libel case brought by Andrew Neil and The Sunday Times, over a March 1989 editorial "Playboys as Editors" in The Sunday Telegraph which claimed that as a result of Neil's involvement with Pamella Bordes, he (and The Observer's Donald Trelford, also involved with Bordes) should not editors of their titles. (The Independent on Sunday, the other British quality Sunday, did not begin publication until January 1990.) The Sunday Telegraph had accused Neil of knowing that Bordes was a prostitute, which according to Roy Greenslade, he certainly did not know, a fact which the Telegraph had accepted by the time of the court case, but still defended the two articles (one was not by Worsthorne) as fair comment. Neil won the defamation case, but with relatively derisory damages of £1,000, and his paper won its then cover price of 60p. Earlier, in March 1988, Worsthorne had said Neil was a "brilliant editor", according to an entry in the diary of his friend, Woodrow Wyatt.
"The job of journalism is not to be scholarly", Worsthorne commented in 1989. "The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position."
Worsthorne received a knighthood in the 1991 New Year Honours for services to journalism.
Despite his own experience at his public school, Worsthorne long criticised homosexual activity, castigating Roy Jenkins in particular in an 1982 editorial, for his tolerance of "queers". At the time of the debate over Section 28 in January 1988 he appeared on BBC Radio Three's Third Ear programme and persistently referred to gay men as "them", which caused the other interviewee, Ian McKellen to come out by saying, "I'm one of them myself". Worsthorne also said on the programme that not being gay was "a close-run thing" for some of his contemporaries.
He later accepted the possibility of same sex marriages, believing they allow gay people to form "stable relationships" and even argued that Conservatives should embrace political correctness as a form of modern courtesy. In a 2011 article for the London Evening Standard, Worsthorne said "I might well have been gay, but there was such pressure to be non-gay".
His weekly article in The Sunday Telegraph was discontinued in 1997 during the editorship of Dominic Lawson, who said that Worsthorne's column had run its "natural lifespan". From that point, Worsthorne became critical of Black's wife, Barbara Amiel, and Black himself for his newspapers' unsparing defence of Israel and the foreign policies of the United States.
In a speech at the Athenaeum Club on 19 June 2006 (published as "Liberalism failed to set us free. Indeed, it enslaved us") he asserted that: "The liberal argument for the importance of a free press was that it gave voters the necessary information on which they could vote intelligently. Of all British newspapers today, only The Guardian even tries to do that." The previous year Worsthorne complained that the Telegraph was becoming "a cloned new version of the Daily Mail which represents English conservatism at its very nastiest".
On the changing Britain, he has said that, "this is not a country I recognise or am particularly fond of any more", and that he no longer views himself as a nationalist. Worsthorne has embraced the Euro federalist option for Britain's future.
He has also changed his view of the acceptability of the nuclear deterrence: "would some historian emerging centuries later from the post-thermonuclear war Dark Ages have judged (pressing the button) morally justified, or so evil as to dwarf even the most monstrous inequities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao?... How could we have believed anything so preposterous?".
Although on the political right, Worsthorne regularly contributes book reviews to the New Statesman. In his 2005 In Defence of Aristocracy, he commented that, "a commitment to goodwill is what is missing today in all walks of life, public and private." He goes on to say that this commitment should take the place of aspirational objectives that may be excuses for mere greed, and that "there will be no revival of the Tory cause until once again it can be associated with noble ideals in all walks of life, high as well as low".
In his Athenaeum Club speech in 2006 he noted the emergence of David Cameron in a positive light, seeing in him "the return of the English gentleman." By December 2013, having met Cameron only once, he was more sceptical: "Cameron fits into that gentlemanly tradition but he’s very embarrassed and awkward about it." His criticism of modern liberalism mirrors some of the concerns of a younger generation of conservative journalists such as Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips, but his affinity for The Guardian and Cameron is not shared by them. Bruce Anderson observed of Worsthorne, "my dear friend and master", on his 90th birthday in December 2013: "Throughout his career, Perry defended conventions, while also defying them." Worsthorne told Jason Cowley of the New Statesman in a 2016 interview: “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England almost since the Norman Conquest."
Worsthorne married Claudie Bertrande Baynham (née de Colasse) in 1950, with whom he had a daughter (Dominique) and stepson (David Anthony Lloyd Baynham). Claudie died in 1990. In 1991 he married the architectural writer Lucinda Lambton. As of 2013, the couple live in Buckinghamshire. His daughter, Dominique, is married to the potter Jim Keeling and they have five children and two grandchildren. His stepson, David, is married to Patricia Woods Baynham and they have two children and two grandchildren.Mary Wilson (et al.) (1977) The Queen, Penguin [contributor]
Peregrine Worsthorne (1958) Dare democracy disengage?, Conservative Political Centre [pamphlet]
Peregrine Worsthorne (1971) The Socialist Myth, Cassell
Peregrine Worsthorne (1973) Edwina Sandys, Crane Kalman Gallery [exhibition catalogue introduction]
Peregrine Worsthorne (1980) Peregrinations: Selected pieces by Peregrine Worsthorne, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Peregrine Worsthorne (1987) By the Right, Brophy Educational [selections from his Sunday Telegraph columns]
Peregrine Worsthorne (1988) The politics of manners and the uses of inequality: Autumn address, Centre for Policy Studies [pamphlet]
Peregrine Worsthorne (2004) In Defence of Aristocracy Harper Collins [published in paperback as Democracy Needs Aristocracy Perennial 2005]