HarperPress, £25, 654p. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Edward Heath: The Authorised Biography, By Philip Ziegler

Ted Heath is remarkable among 20th-century prime ministers in that he held office for less than four years (1970-1974), during which practically everything he tried to do failed dismally. Yet by the single act of taking Britain into the European Community, he left a more decisive legacy than many PMs who enjoyed far longer terms.

That is just one paradox among many that surround this baffling man. Politically, Heath saw himself as a modernising healer, yet he was reviled by Labour as the most reactionary prime minister since Lord Liverpool (at least until Mrs Thatcher came along), and simultaneously by much of his own party as a flabby semi-socialist. Personally, with his near-professional musicianship and his international achievements as an ocean racer, he was the most multi-talented politician of his day; yet he came across as a wooden, one-dimensional automaton chronically unable to communicate with either his colleagues or the public. The mystery is how such a deeply introverted man ever managed to become PM in the first place.

So Heath sets a special challenge to the biographer: 17 years ago - already nearly 25 years after he left office – I dared to write, without his approval or papers, a full, unauthorised but not unfriendly account of his life and government. He claimed not to have read it, but Philip Ziegler reveals that his copy is covered with furious comments scrawled in the margins.

I genuinely hoped that his memoirs would tell me what I had got wrong; but apart from some fresh glimpses of his childhood, there was disappointingly little self-revelation. Now Ziegler, an immensely experienced biographer who has written the official life of Harold Wilson, has given us the official Ted, based on his enormous archive as well as relevant Cabinet papers. His book is characteristically scrupulous, elegantly composed and impeccably judicious. Sadly, however, the mass of material has yielded extraordinarily little by way of new information or insights. Heath remains as impenetrable on paper as he was in life.

He did keep fragments of a diary when young, which reveal a telling mixture of self-confidence and uncertain direction. "I often have the feeling," he wrote in 1940 (aged 24), "that I've a lot of energy, power, ambition and so on, and yet nothing to which to harness it. Is this, I wonder, because I've got so many things I haven't thought out and that, when I've done that, I shall see the way to go." During the war: "I have a desire ... to get 'hard' like other men; to take the knocks they can take, to go wining and whoring with them. Yet whenever I meet them I feel repelled by their lack of intelligence and concern only with things like pay, leave and food. Perhaps my nature's different." Perhaps it was, though there is still absolutely no evidence that he was gay (the one question everybody used to ask when I was writing about him). He was simply asexual. But this youthful introspection dries up once his career gets going.

Ziegler has some touching letters from Kay Raven – the Broadstairs girl-next-door who would have married "Darling Teddy" if he had given her the least encouragement. "You know I'm rather a loving kind of girl and must have been a horrid bore for you," she wrote apologetically when she finally gave up and decided to marry someone else. Typically, Heath regarded her apostasy as a betrayal and made her memory an alibi for never looking at another woman.

The Cabinet papers, littered with impatient marginalia ("Rubbish", "The usual nonsense", "I want action, not cotton wool!") flesh out the received picture of his style of government, confirming how completely he was blown off his intended course. "Do we believe in free enterprise or not?" he demanded, shortly before the famous U-turn in which he poured millions into rescuing industrial lame ducks. He was of course immensely unlucky, having to wrestle simultaneously with soaring unemployment, militant trade unions, the explosion of Northern Ireland and the quadrupling of oil prices – a combination of horrors that might have sunk any government.

But the record vividly conveys the mixture of stubbornness and self-delusion by which the prime minister believed he could fix anything by private meetings with the head of the civil service and a few favoured union bosses. At the same time the Cabinet – including Margaret Thatcher – spinelessly allowed itself to be by-passed without a murmur.

During the long years of his "great sulk", Heath's graceless refusal to grant any merit to his successor commanded a certain respect for his uncompromising integrity. What is surprising is that Ziegler has been unable to paint a more attractive picture of the private man. He still sailed his boats, conducted orchestras and worked hard for the Third World. Yet he emerges as even more selfish, mean, rude and insufferable than ever. Trying to be fair, Ziegler repeatedly insists that he could be a generous friend, good to his staff and an excellent host: but all his anecdotes illustrate the opposite. By the end, ironically, I felt that Heath might have enjoyed his authorised biography even less than he did mine.

With all his faults, Heath changed the course of British history. The tragedy is that even that unquestionable achievement, which no one but the wildest UKIP fanatics seriously wishes to reverse, was soured by his inability to communicate his vision. So that while by sheer determination he succeeded in dragging Britain into Europe, he was never able to persuade either the electorate or his successors fully to embrace it. Instead, much of his own unpopularity transferred itself to the Community, and 40 years later we are still living with that fatal ambivalence.

John Campbell's 'Pistols at Dawn: Two hundred years of political rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown' will be published by Vintage in September

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone