BOOK REVIEW / A goose that failed to lay: Edward Heath: A Biography by John Campbell, Cape pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
THERE has probably never been an occupant of Number 10 Downing Street quite so lamentably unsuccessful as Edward Heath. John Major, of course, offers hot competition. But even he has not yet equalled Heath's unique record. Do we need an 876-page biography of such a man? It is a mark of John Campbell's achievement study that by the end of his book the reader is deeply engaged in the purposes and ideals of this unlovable, unlucky yet perversely admirable man.

What makes Heath of special interest, regardless of what he did, is his background: apart from Bonar Law (briefly premier in the 1920s) he was the first modern Tory leader not of conventional upper-class or aristocratic birth. His progress was that of an inter-war species that no longer exists: the scholarship boy who, through talent, grit, parental encouragement or inspired teaching, cuts a path into the Establishment. The cost, in those days, was a social and psychic isolation which in Heath's case took a particularly acute form. He was not unclubbable (allegedly in private he has a 'sense of fun'), but many people found him unapproachable, and he was apt 'to give the impression of regarding women as by definition frivolous'. Attempting to get through the rhinoceros hide that surrounds Heath's emotions, John Campbell admits defeat. 'It is not impossible that he is a latent or repressed homosexual,' he suggests with legal- minded prudence. 'The alternatives are that he is a repressed heterosexual or that he is simply asexual.'

A model (but lonely) sixth former, a model Balliol undergraduate, and a model officer in the war, Heath had all the qualifications to become a model Permanent Secretary. In fact, he was set on politics as a career, and by careful planning projected himself into a solid Tory seat in 1950, at the age of 34. In Parliament, he was part of a remarkable generation of non-top drawer Tories that included Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell, none of whom, however, he much resembled. He was the tortoise of the group, whose steady ascent was nonetheless assured.

As a teenager, according to the author, Heath 'thought that breaking a school rule amounted to disloyalty'. The same ethic infused his term as an 'implacable and unforgiving' whip, a passage contemporaries did not forget: habits of obedience and fear, as well as of resentment, were not easily shed. Meanwhile, Heath's policy attitudes - consistently paternalistic, pro-postwar consensus and pro-intervention - were closely in tune with those of Harold Macmillan, whose devoted lieutenant he became.

The Macmillan era of tinsel prosperity was his launchpad, and he was shifted from one high profile economic portfolio to another. Yet, until the debacle of Alec Douglas-Home's premiership, he was not seen as a potential Leader. It was Harold Wilson who effectively acted as kingmaker, convincing the Conservative elders that if Labour's secret weapon was a clever grammar-school boy they needed one too. Yet in Parliament, Heath was easy prey: time and again Wilson was able to make merciless sport of an Opposition Leader who seemed ploddingly incapable of humour.

If Heath had lost for a second time in 1970, he would have been replaced by somebody more glamorous. Having won unexpectedly, he was given an exceptional opportunity - far greater than that of either Wilson in 1964 or Mrs Thatcher in 1979, both of whom took over at times of crisis. In 1970, the economy was in surplus, and offered a rare chance for and imaginative reform. Heath, moreover, had a strong team, including men who respected his abilities and admired his attitudes. Yet somehow he managed to trap himself between his own economic beliefs (which differed little from those of the outgoing government) and the 'Selsdon Man' rhetoric which he had uneasily, and uncharacteristically, employed some time before the election. The outcome was a few half-hearted gestures in a rightward direction, swiftly abandoned in a series of 'U-turns' quite as spectacular as any of Wilson's.

Campbell fairly gives Heath credit, for the successful conclusion of the Common Market negotiations, leading to formal entry in 1973 (though it is virtually certain that Wilson would have done the same). Otherwise, it was a case of tossing away advantages and making rods for his own back. It was a singular feat for a former minister of labour, whom many trade union leaders continued to like and trust more than they ever did Wilson, both to antagonise the unions with an unenforceable Industrial Relations Act and to twice take on the miners (who were more moderate, as well as stronger, than they later became) and lose. As a result, the abiding memory of the Heath premiership is, as Campbell says, 'a conflated recollection of power cuts and flickering candlelight, and the hoarding of candles and the rediscovery of oil lamps'.

'Who Governs Britain?' was Heath's question in the February 1974 election. But by holding the unnecessary poll at all, he was giving one kind of answer: he had shown that he could no longer do so. Campbell gives a vivid if terrifying account of Downing Street life at this moment of national near-collapse. The picture is nicely rounded off with a description of Heath glumly swallowing oysters from Prunier's ('his favourite') as the election results came through.

Tory leaders are supposed to win elections: uniquely, Heath lost three out of the four he fought. In the circumstances his sense of betrayal when Mrs Thatcher took the crown seems misplaced. Such feelings, however, are seldom rational, and for the past 18 years the enmity between the two superficially similar former leaders has been one of the best-known feuds in politics. When Mrs Thatcher's own nemesis came, Mr Heath apparently 'made no secret of his delight'. In the present Parliament, his former usurper blissfully absent, he has flowered like a dehydrated cactus serendipitously rescued by an unexpected shower of rain.

During the Thatcher era, Heath gained a reputation, as Campbell says, as 'a political Cassandra - very largely right but not believed'. Today he is always worth listening to, and often more left-

wing than the Labour leadership. He is seen as brave, principled, austere, a true Roman senator, in a party increasingly composed of time-serving plebs. He is probably regarded with more affection than at any previous time in his career. Yet after reading this judicious, generous and finely written book, one is still left with the question (to adapt a remark Attlee made about Stafford Cripps): what made him such a political goose?

(Photograph omitted)