Edward Heath took Britain into the Common Market and the conservative Party has never been the same . A new book considers his legacyby Philip Collins / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
On the evening of 28th October 1971, the day on which the House of Commons had handsomely approved Britain’s proposed membership of the European Economic Community, Ted Heath went back to Downing Street and played, on the clavichord, for his father and his brother and some close friends, the first prelude in C major, from the first book of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. Heath said later that this moment “would always remain of supreme importance to me.” The European triumph and an ode to joy expressed in music. It is Ted Heath in an anecdote.
Heath is hardly an exemplar in Tory politics being, as they see it today, on the wrong side of the two big issues of the late 20th century: corporatism and Europe. When he rates a mention it is as a bogeyman, but he has mostly been scribbled out of history. That verdict is not entirely without warrant, but it is important to note that this book gives the reader a significant jolt.
It is easy to forget what an extraordinary man Heath was. To come from a humble background in Broadstairs on the Isle of Thanet, the son of a jobbing builder and a lady’s maid and to become Prime Minister is accomplishment enough. To win an organ scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford and in later life be good enough, albeit as a gifted amateur, to conduct symphony orchestras in London and Berlin is another. To then be only the second British man to have skippered a crew that won the Sydney to Hobart sailing race is quite stunning. Heath did all three of these things. By anyone’s reckoning he is a remarkable character.
So why does his party erase his record? This is partly about the character of the man, the soul hidden behind the clavichord, expressed in the cadences of Bach. Heath was, by all accounts, a difficult and troubled man. The main virtue of this book is the portrait of him that emerges like a bust coming out of marble. It is a hard book to categorise. It is not quite a biography although it proceeds chronologically, starting with birth and ending with death, all events viewed through the eyes of Heath. It is not quite a memoir either, even though the author worked for Heath in the latter’s dotage, between 1995 and 2000. It reads more like an extended radio script in which the transitions need a bit of smoothing. Often, Michael McManus abandons the authorial voice to say things like “and now Douglas Hurd takes up the story.”
The book is extremely light on dissenting voices. There are many people in the Tory Party whose verdict on Heath is a good deal less generous than the one on display here. John Campbell’s fine Edward Heath is still the definitive life so far. But the true subject matter of every biography is the essential unknowability of the subject. It is a property of the genre that the parade of events never quite explains the talent that made them worth relating. That is precisely the conundrum presented by Heath.
The first thing to get out of the way is sex, although McManus relegates most of his speculation to an extended coda. Heath has been the subject of some wild allegations recently which McManus, persuasively, gives short shrift. His verdict is that Heath was a repressed homosexual who never had sexual relations, although I could have done without the friend who thought Heath’s love of playing the organ amounted to evidence. There is an excruciating moment in a Michael Cockerell documentary in which Heath is asked why he kept a photograph of Kay Raven, a girlfriend from Broadstairs, by the side of his bed. It’s a heart-breaking episode. Heath becomes instantly mono- syllabic and looks away, close to tears. He probably loved her, just not in that way.
It is a mistake to suppose that those who cannot express emotion lack for feeling. They usually just lack for words. Heath’s memoirs, on which McManus ended up as the main scribe, are a case in point. A decade after they were due, Heath had not even started. When the memoir finally came out, it was a satisfactory odyssey through the politics of the era but an impersonal, emotionless book. The only exception, and one suspects that it runs very deep precisely because it is the only crack, is this: “my mother died in the early hours of 15th October 1951. It was a devastating blow for me, the first I had sustained in my family life and one that I hardly knew how to handle.” How he must have wished she had been there to hear him play the clavichord in Downing Street. Not for the only time in the book, you feel for him.
There is more to Heath than the titanic rudeness that became legendary. The author is explicit about not liking his subject much. Heath had a disconcerting habit of leaving long silences between sentences. One of his staff, Anthony Staddon, once timed a silence at six minutes. These days, Heath might well have been diagnosed with a psychological condition.
Yet there is a nice man, even a lovely one, within the shell. He could be very funny and, in his later years on the celebrity circuit, his distinctive shoulder-heaving laugh was a national treasure. The eloquent testimony of Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins at his 80th-birthday celebrations show that he had friends and admirers. His staff generally adored him and the book is full of stories about Heath’s personal kindness. The most touching is the solicitousness he showed to Mary Wilson, Harold’s widow. Heath loathed Wilson, who bested him at PMQs, regarding him as a fraud. Yet his kindness to Mary Wilson after her husband’s death moved her to tears on more than one occasion. It is impossible not to wonder where it had gone wrong for him, personally.
The answer must lie, in part, in social mobility. This is a class story and Heath is the parvenu. You see the insecurity at his moment of greatest triumph. In the car, on the day of the 1970 general election, Heath heard the radio announcement that he would be the next Prime Minister. His team congratulated him but Heath slapped his hand on the side of the front seat and shouted “bugger them, bugger the lot of them.” He seems happiest during his distinguished war service, in the classless ethos of the army. Heath was a decisive and fair leader, who kept friends for life from the army. The same ability to meld into a team with a defined purpose is evident with his sailing crew, who still speak of “the skipper” with great affection. He was one of the boys, which makes his lack of political charm only the more mysterious.
He just couldn’t turn on the charm in the tea room. Peter Walker agreed to run Heath’s leadership campaign in 1965 on the condition that his advice was listened to. Heath reluctantly assented with a characteristic rider: “So long as I agree with it.” In 1965, he became the first Conservative leader to be elected to the position and remains the only person to have gone from Chief Whip (for Anthony Eden) to Prime Minister. (This is also the path of Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs’s novel House of Cards, adapted by both the BBC and Netflix). Heath, indeed, was credited with holding the party together in 1956 during the Suez crisis although he later came to regard his loyalty to a Prime Minister who had misled the House of Commons as dishonourable.
“Politics since Heath can be seen as a series of footnotes to his decision to take Britain into the Common Market”
Heath already had achievements, something of a rarity for a junior minister. As industry minister under Harold Macmillan, Heath took resale price maintenance, an agreement between a manufacturer and a wholesaler or retailer not to sell a product below a specified price, through the House of Commons, which was a bruising affair. No government has sought to repeal it. But it was his time as Lord Privy Seal in the Foreign Office that began the process which would become the story of his life. It was in this ministerial job that, in January 1963, Heath negotiated the terms of British entry into the Common Market, which were then rejected by General de Gaulle.
Apart from the strikingly pro-European attitudes of most Tory MPs, the arguments echo today. Heath places his negotiation squarely in the context of the war and of effecting a durable rapprochement between France and Germany. His European convictions were historically minted and deeply held. As a young man in September 1937, he had seen the Nuremberg rallies, where he was introduced to several members of the Nazi hierarchy. The following summer he had visited the Republican side during the Spanish civil war. Heath returned to Germany shortly before war broke out and hitchhiked home just in time. His maiden speech in Parliament was on the Schuman Plan. A Europe-wide union seemed obviously an improvement to the alternative. With greater historical distance from the conflict, the Remain bloc found it impossible to conjure this fear in 2016.
Yet the debate is also stuck. Heath’s words to the Conservative Party conference of 1961 might have been uttered during the June campaign: “I am not one who has an inferiority complex about our ability to influence the Community when we play our full part in it… In every international organisation to which we belong we have given up a degree of sovereignty.” The concerns about the federal super-state is there too. Heath is often portrayed as an evangelist for Europe and as his career’s only monument came under attack, so he was. But his early case was made without illusions.
The whole of British politics since Heath can be seen as a series of footnotes to his decision to take Britain into the Common Market. It may have been either a blessing or a curse, but nobody has ignored what he did. Heath released something into the bloodstream of Tory politics that has been coursing there ever since. His party has emphatically turned against his legacy. Heath’s birthplace, the Isle of Thanet, is so hostile to the European Union that Nigel Farage thought he could take the seat for Ukip in 2015. Unless the Conservative Party can make its peace with Europe, it cannot cling to Ted Heath as one of its own.
Even if it ever does, there is another charge sheet against Heath in the demonology of Tory politics. Heath won the 1970 election, to everyone’s surprise except his, on a manifesto that was as Thatcherite as anything that later took that name. It charted a course towards smaller government, lower taxation, stronger competition, less intervention in industry and trade union reform. That wasn’t how the government turned out. Soon Heath was intervening with a counter-inflation policy. His belief in the reasonableness of the trade union leaders did not survive contact with them. A state of emergency followed hard on the three-day week. McManus’s judgment, which sounds right, is that Heath was too scarred by the memory of the 1930s to stand by. His domestic legacy, as a result, is terrible industrial relations and high inflation coupled with fatal political lassitude. When it was confronted by the striking miners, Heath’s government capitulated. An Alan Bennett joke is apt: “My father was a miner and so was his father before him. Generations of my family have been miners. So although I became a writer I like to think I am a miner writer.” The miners made Heath a minor Prime Minister.
That is fair but not complete. There was a little more to Heath than that, politically. He dealt summarily and correctly with Enoch Powell. When Powell gave his famous speech on race in 1968, Heath was unable to reach him because Powell did not own a telephone. When he finally got through, Heath sacked him and never spoke to him again. Heath also brought in the Ugandan Asians who were fleeing Idi Amin. McManus tells the story of how Heath was dining at a restaurant in Southall in the mid-1990s. He was approached by a man who said that, upstairs, a group of local Ugandan Asians were holding a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their arrival in England. They would be honoured if Mr Heath would address them, which he duly did.
Heath expected to win the 1974 election and was broken when he lost office, although he won more votes. He stopped thinking and started sulking. He never forgave Margaret Thatcher for challenging him for the party leadership in 1975 and defeating him, although it is hard to say with hindsight that she had no right to do so. His verdict, which again shows some class insecurity, was that the Tory high command had let him down, a verdict that was unfair on faithful lieutenants such as Lord Carrington, Douglas Hurd and William Whitelaw.
The last section of the book has a Pooterish air. We learn that Heath spoke without notes at an Arthur Andersen event, how many books he signed, that he opened a golf course in Spain and that he quite enjoyed a Rod Stewart concert. He dies 40 pages before the end and we get a long litany of reminiscences. It’s an odd book but a strangely enjoyable one because of its maddening, mysterious subject. With Britain out of the EU, Heath has left little behind. But in the critique of big business the Tory leadership candidates are now parroting, we can hear the vestige of the one memorable phrase that Ted Heath put into the language. Heath was both short-sighted and too vain to wear glasses. Commenting on the Lonhro scandal in the House of Commons in 1973, he misread the word “facet” as “face” in his script, describing it as “the unacceptable face of capitalism” instead.