Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Heath [Edward] (1916-2005) [Prime Minister 1970-74]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 18 July 2005
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 3,765
Themes: Executive, Conservatism, Conservative Party (history), European Union (general), Leadership, Conservative (leadership elections)

Edition 2 WCMON
18 JUL 2005, Page 42

Sir Edward Heath: Obituary

The Register

Sir Edward Heath, Prime Minister 1970-74, was born on July 9, 1916. He died on July 17, 2005, aged 89.

Unshakably idealistic statesman whose term as Prime Minister was bedevilled by strikes and economic turmoil Edward Heath did not move around other people, they moved around him - and in too many cases after his fall from office, they moved away from him.

In any event he stood where he was: sometimes gracelessly, even sullenly, but with great strength and remarkable consistency of purpose. Throughout the long years of his dedication to the higher purposes of politics, his basic beliefs varied remarkably little. There may have been a slight wobble to the right just before and at the beginning of his premiership, but for the rest he was consistently faithful to the ideals of interventionist Conservatism and generous internationalism which he had embraced as a young man, and which he continued to advocate in his eighties.

He came from a humbler family, though not educational, background than any previous leader of the Conservative Party, but this in no way inhibited the strength or the direction of his ambition. He was determined to go straight to the top of politics, and he did so with speed and honour. He did not stoop, but he certainly conquered. He was a Member of Parliament at 34 -not particularly early -but five years after that he was Chief Whip, and ten years on he was Leader of the Opposition. He then had to wait another five before beginning his relatively brief three and three quarter years as Prime Minister.

His major achievement in Downing Street was to take Britain into the European Community. His other goals proved more elusive. At least over this crucial period of his life he had more force than charm, although he could command intense loyalty from intimates.

His life was not bounded by politics. He had disparate talents, but he was not exactly a rounded personality. He could make himself excel at ocean racing and (by amateur standards) at conducting an orchestra. But these stood out like great headlands of achievement rather than forming part of a continuous coastline of easy and urbane accomplishment. In the words of one of his most faithful friends, Lord Aldington, he was a "great oak".

Edward Richard George Heath was born at Broadstairs in Kent on July 9, 1916. His father was a carpenter who later became a self-employed builder. His mother had been a lady's maid before her marriage. At 10, Edward (always called Teddy as a boy and a young man) won a scholarship to Chatham House, Ramsgate, a local grammar school. His attainments then were as much artistic as intellectual.

He had become an accomplished pianist, and he conducted the school orchestra and a local choir. His devotion to music, a lifelong attachment, had begun when he received his first piano lesson at the age of 8. While at school he also learnt to play the organ. But he had a marked and sometimes precocious interest in politics and public affairs (mainly displayed in the school debating society) and a certain maturity, even gravity, of manner, which set him somewhat apart.

Some of the characteristics which were to be noted in the man of affairs were already apparent in the schoolboy. In October 1935, Heath went to Oxford. He arrived as a commoner of Balliol supported by the sacrifice of his parents, his own determination, and Pounds 90 a year from the Kent Education Committee, but quickly gained an organ scholarship which eased the position.

Balliol was then alone among the men's colleges of Oxford in having competitive entry for commoners. It was also highly political (Heath, elected president of the junior common room for 1938-39, was succeeded in that office within two years by both Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins) and a fairly open and mixed society. Although it was one of only four or five colleges with a substantial Etonian entry, nearly half of its undergraduates were of grammar school provenance. In his reserved way Heath was very much at home there.

A contemporary retains a vivid memory of Heath leaning each morning against the club fender of the JCR, wearing his scholar's gown after his regular organ performance at early chapel, and reading the political news in The Times with grave attention. When the admissions tutor asked him what he was going to do in life, he replied that he wanted to be a professional politician. A Balliol don, Charles (later Lord) Morris, thought he had never heard any other schoolboy answer in such terms, and added that "he was not academically brilliant by Balliol standards, but he knew what he wanted to get out of Oxford".

Heath read philosophy, politics and economics, and got a second-class degree. He was good enough to be disappointed at not getting a first, but he had done a lot of other things, partly musical. He trained the Balliol Choral Society, he conducted the Oxford Orchestra, he was secretary of the Music Society, and he arranged scores for the university dramatic society and the Balliol Players.

Nevertheless the centre of his Oxford life was undergraduate politics. As he later recalled: "I started to be a politician at school. At Oxford I came to regard myself as a Tory." But unlike Margaret Thatcher eight years later, he was never a conforming Conservative. Although president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, chairman of the Federation of University Conservative Associations, and president of the Union, he achieved these offices without embracing the prevailing orthodoxy of the Chamberlain Government.

He was driven by a fierce contempt for the European dictatorships. He had been to Germany, and he saw something of the civil war in Spain as one of a student delegation invited by the Republican Government, an experience that left a deep impression. His bitter hostility towards Hitler and Mussolini, and his conviction that their policies made war inevitable, placed him firmly alongside Churchill and against the ruling appeasement doctrine. When the Munich agreement was signed in September 1938, Heath denounced it, and a month later, in the famous Oxford by-election, he aligned himself not with the government candidate, Quintin Hogg, but with his unsuccessful opponent, A. D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, who fought under an Independent Progressive banner.

Heath joined the Army immediately after the outbreak of war and served in the Royal Artillery from 1940 until 1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was mentioned in dispatches and appointed MBE (military), and was a capable and brave officer. He liked the Army sufficiently to remain as a Territorial for several years, becoming the commanding officer of the 2nd Regiment of the Honourable Artillery Company and Master Gunner within the Tower of London. Some of his fellow officers liked him very much, but on others his shyness left an impression of insensitivity and even rudeness. He was, however, respected as a fine soldier.

In 1946 he was adopted as Conservative candidate for Bexley, then held by Labour.

He won this marginal seat in February 1950, and entered Parliament on the same day as Ian Macleod, Reginald Maudling, Enoch Powell and Robert Carr. With them, he became a founder member of the One Nation Group. He made his maiden speech in June 1950, in support of the European Coal and Steel Community.

After less than a year on the back benches, Heath was appointed an assistant whip.

His progress was rapid, but for nearly nine years all within the whips' office. In those days he appeared to get on well with all Conservative prime ministers.

He became joint deputy chief whip under Churchill and then at the age of only 39 was made government chief whip by Anthony Eden. He later became close to Macmillan and served successfully under Sir Alec Douglas-Home at the Foreign Office. His qualities were put to test in the roughest possible political weather of the Suez crisis in the autumn of 1956. By his service to the Government (and to the Conservative Party) at that juncture Heath established himself as a figure of major party importance.

By general consent, the survival of the government was due in good measure to Heath. He played a notable part in holding together, with some semblance of unity, an acutely unhappy parliamentary party that was in part extravagantly warlike, in part frightened and in part opposed to its leader. In an atmosphere of confusion, recrimination, tumult and intrigue he gave an impression of calmness and commonsense. His sensitivity and understanding towards those Conservative MPs who were deeply troubled by the Suez policy were especially noted and appreciated, and were a revelation to those who did not know him.

He well understood the feelings of the rebels. He thought it his duty to do everything possible to sustain the Prime Minister, but he was, in fact, very critical of the Government's policy, as he intimated many years later to his first biographer, George Hutchinson. After Eden's resignation Heath found Macmillan's emergence as Prime Minister "highly acceptable to a substantial majority in the House, a majority to which I myself belonged". Many were surprised by this subsequent avowal, for he had been thought of as a supporter of R. A. Butler. They had forgotten that Macmillan had been an anti-Chamberlain rebel in the 1930s, while Butler had been a spokesman of appeasement at the Foreign Office. Heath, although an admirer of Butler after 1945, had no doubt that Macmillan had greater strengths for a government in acute crisis.

In the new administration Heath worked closely with Macmillan for the gradual and remarkable restoration of the party's electoral fortunes. After the general election of 1959 Macmillan promoted Heath to the Cabinet as Minister of Labour. He held that office for only nine months in a period of relative tranquillity with no great troubles on the industrial front beyond the threat of a railway strike, which was averted.

After nine years of enforced parliamentary silence, Heath's first appearances at the Dispatch box were somewhat wooden. Even so, he commended himself to the TUC as a minister who was, in Vic Feather's words, both "moderate and constructive... he never adopted any attitude of political partisanship. He was more like an administrator or civil servant, really. He understood the need for conciliation."

In July 1960, Macmillan moved Heath to the Foreign Office as Lord Privy Seal. He was second minister there, under Douglas Home, but he was in the Cabinet and he had an unusually distinct yet central field of activity. The Government was moving towards applying for full membership of the European Economic Community. Heath was put into position to conduct the negotiations.

It was a task for which he was well qualified. His commitment was complete. His grasp of the detail was formidable. These qualities more than outweighed his monolingualism. The enterprise ended in failure in January 1963, when President de Gaulle contemptuously threw the work that had been done out of the window.

This was a grave blow to the future of the Macmillan Government and to Heath personally. But the issue had made his reputation as a national politician, just as Suez had made it as a party politician. And it did so deservedly, for the negotiations had been excellently conducted, and nothing in the handling of them could have overcome the strategic decision of the French President.

When the Douglas Home Government was formed in October, 1963, Heath went to the traditional office of President of the Board of Trade, although he was also given the new and inflated title of Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development. The issue with which he primarily concerned himself there was, however, plumb within the traditional responsibilities. He decided to abolish resale price maintenance. This provoked a lot of opposition within both the Cabinet and the Conservative parliamentary party. The majority came down to one in a key committee stage division, and even that was only achieved with the help of some Labour abstention. It was thought to be a great loser of small shopkeepers' votes, but was carried through with an unyielding determination by Heath. When the 1964 election was duly lost (although by a smaller majority than had been expected, in spite of the shopkeepers), Heath, hitherto very much a ministerial politician in style and experience, took to opposition with surprising gusto.

As Shadow Chancellor he led a spirited and sustained attack on the 1965 Finance Bill. This was an important factor in his favour when Douglas Home unexpectedly threw in his hand as leader at the end of July. The first Conservative leadership election then took place. Maudling was Heath's main rival, and the favourite. But the result of the ballot was Heath 150, Maudling 133 and Enoch Powell 15.

Heath was not a good or natural leader of the opposition. Hardly anyone is, certainly not before they have been Prime Minister -Harold Wilson in 1963-64 was a very rare exception. The flair and zest which had got him the job seemed to desert him once he had attained it. He survived the almost inevitable defeat in the March 1966 general election with dignity and without much criticism, but his performance did not get much better in the longer Parliament which then began. He gave the impression of trying too hard, and was edgy and ungenerous in the House of Commons. He maintained a certain rugged integrity and was outraged when Powell's Birmingham speech whipped up racist feeling. But he compensated for this by making exaggerated and mostly ineffective fusses against the Government on little issues. He dealt with Wilson still less effectively than Hugh Gaitskell had dealt with Macmillan. But there were two great contradictory differences. First, Gaitskell made up for his occasional flat-footedness in the Commons by making a major impact on the country, particularly after 1960, whereas Heath trailed his party. Secondly, Heath had luck whereas Gaitskell did not. He won the 1970 election, certainly against the odds and probably against the deserts (just as he undeservedly lost in 1974), and became the 47th Prime Minister of Britain.

He took office on June 19, 1970, and declared from the pavement outside 10 Downing Street that "to govern is to serve". Partly by ill-chance it was not a government of strong ministers. Iain Macleod died after a month, and left a gap which not only muted the administration's persuasiveness but also deprived it of effective macro-economic control. Macleod's successor as Chancellor, Anthony Barber, always seemed more interested in the details of taxation reform than in the direction of the economy. Maudling as Home Secretary had personal troubles, which prevented his authority being as great as his political sagacity, and had eventually to resign from office in July 1972. Douglas-Home as Foreign Secretary was widely liked and respected, but was perhaps a little representative of the past.

The great harbinger of the future within the Government was kept very much in her place as a junior member of the Cabinet, and was nearly dismissed as Education Secretary at the end of 1972. Heath rather contemptuously spared the axe at the last moment. It was perhaps not the best basis for their future relationship.

The Government, therefore, depended very heavily upon the Prime Minister. Heath was eager to supply both the energy and the authority, and he achieved at last one triumph which, at least to some, makes him rank with Pitt, Peel, Asquith and Attlee as prime ministers who have set the nation's course for a generation and more. He succeeded where Macmillan and Wilson had failed and got Britain into Europe. Partly by establishing an effective relationship with Pompidou (the only one between a British prime minister and a French president since the Fifth Republic began), Heath brought the negotiations to a successful conclusion and then won the crucial House of Commons vote by a majority of 112 in October 1971. This victory was aided by the votes of 69 Labour MPs, who defied a three-line whip, the Labour Party having shown more regard for factious opposition than for consistency.

On January 22, 1972, Heath signed the treaty of accession in Brussels. It must have been one of the most satisfactory days of his life, even though he was doused in ink.

Domestically there was less satisfaction. The Heath Government began in what now appears as a surprisingly Thatcherite direction. A necessary Industrial Relations Bill (which indeed owed a good deal to Barbara Castle's abortive foray in 1969) was quickly introduced but produced some nonsenses in implementation. The Commonwealth was thrown into uproar by a decision to sell arms to South Africa, and a policy of letting "lame duck" companies collapse was proclaimed. Some of the interventionist institutions created by the Wilson Government, such as the Prices and Incomes Board and the Consumer Council, were ritually slaughtered.

The contrast with the 1979 Government was that, whether through weakness or through wisdom, these policies were mostly not persisted with when unfortunate consequences began to show. Public money was pumped into Rolls-Royce as well as into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Prices and Incomes Board resurfaced at the beginning of 1973 in the form of the Pay Board and the Prices Commission, the Consumer Council had a still more glorious resurrection in the shape of a full-scale Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and when unemployment went above a million in 1972 a policy of almost headlong reflation was launched. Northern Ireland affairs occupied a good deal of the Prime Minister's time.

Terrorism escalated and devolved government was in near-collapse. In March 1972, Heath suspended Stormont and appointed William Whitelaw as the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a viceroy with full powers. This led to a sustained effort to bring Protestants and Catholics together in a power-sharing arrangement for the province. This was finally achieved in the Sunningdale agreement of December 1973, which was brave but short-lived.

The month of March 1972 was only the beginning of Whitelaw's role as the firefighter of the Government. When agreement was achieved in Northern Ireland he was brought back to the Secretary of State for Employment to endeavour to deal with the miners in what proved to be the last drama of that administration. It was prefaced and made immensely more difficult by the shock of the first oil price increase. Against this unfavourable background he and Heath failed, and they and the nation were plunged into the gloom of the three-day week.

The challenge of the miners was regarded as sufficiently serious to provoke an early general election on the question of "who governs Britain". But Heath did not make up his mind to have it early enough, wavered through January, eventually called it for February 28, and failed to keep the mind of the electorate on the single issue for this length of time.

The result was not exactly a defeat -the Conservatives polled 1 per cent more votes than Labour -but a signal failure to secure a victory. Heath, with four seats fewer than Wilson, hung on over the weekend that followed polling day. He tried to make a coalition with the Liberals, who were not easily patronisable partners -they had done exceptionally well for votes (19 per cent) and been rewarded with only 2 per cent of the seats.

It was a reasonable but slightly inept attempt, for it ended both in putting Wilson back into office and giving him a complete command over the date of the second 1974 election, which almost inevitably followed from the hung Parliament.

This second election in October was the last which Heath was allowed to fight as leader, an outcome which followed to some extent from its course and result.

Heath fought highly respectably on a platform of national unity in the face of national danger, and did quite well to limit Wilson to a barely working majority, but it meant that he had lost three out of four general elections and many Conservative candidates (by no means all of the Right) claimed to find him unpopular on the doorsteps. A contest for the leadership became inevitable. First it was Keith Joseph who looked the most likely challenger. Then Margaret Thatcher emerged with stronger nerves. The ballot took place on February 4, 1975, and was a devastating blow to Heath. She had 130 votes. He had 119. Hugh Fraser had 16. Heath immediately withdrew and left her to win an overall majority on a second ballot over Whitelaw, Howe, Prior and Peyton.

Heath never fully got over this defeat. As a result there was a strong element of sadness in his last three decades, but such were his innate qualities that there were elements of splendour too. He remained an MP until 2001, but he never held office again. The only one he was offered was the ambassadorship of Washington, which he declined with disdain in 1979. He remained very bitter towards Thatcher, and alienated many half friends with the frankness with which he expressed this - his appointment in 1992 by the Queen to be a Knight of the Garter came safely after her fall from power. Heath's tactless curmudgeonliness probably cost him the chancellorship of Oxford University, a post by which he set much store, vacated in 1987 when Macmillan died.

On the other hand, Heath fought the European referendum campaign of 1975 (in the early aftermath of his defeat) with passion and persuasiveness; he was one of the key members of the Brandt Commission into North/South problems (1977-80), and for several years thereafter was one of the Third World's most moving advocates. He retained from China to America a reputation as a world statesman superior to that of any contemporary British ex-prime minister -only briefly put at hazard by his attempt to intercede with Saddam Hussein in October 1990.

He could always command attention, if not support, in the House of Commons and the media. As Father of the House he presided over the election of Betty Boothroyd as Speaker in April 1992 and the success of the candidate he had privately backed against the Tory whips' own official nominee gave him considerable satisfaction - as did his confounding of the cynics in getting his memoirs finally written (and to a favourable critical reception) in 1998.

He was a great lighthouse, indifferent to the waves of criticism, casting out strong and steady beams which flickered neither for convenience nor popularity.