Tuesday Book: Brave, but sadly self-justifying

THE COURSE OF MY LIFE: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY EDWARD HEATH HODDER AND STOUGHTON, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
I SUPPOSE I have written more vitriolic words about Edward Heath than any other British journalist - certainly than any of a Tory disposition. Still, I approached this long-awaited memoir with a certain amount of trepidation. Heath has been out of power, and virtually without influence, for a very long time, and it might be better to let bygones be bygones.

On the other hand, there are some aspects of his life - notably his real distinction as a sailor and as a musician - about which I never found the opportunity to comment, and for which I, and my colleagues on the old Spectator, could find little space during our bitter conflict with him on some of the major political issues of the Seventies. So, the smoke having vanished from our battlefield, the time seems right to attempt to make a cooler assessment of his personality and achievements.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is, despite being the product of a markedly angular personality, oddly touching. His prose - and he does not have any natural gifts as a writer - is fractured. In a curious way, this gives added poignancy to his account of a straitened youth and early manhood. It also lends weight to his description of his genuinely agonised reaction to the steady rise of unemployment during the years after his general election victory of 1970.

True, his depiction of such events is wooden, particularly when he strives to elevate it to a higher note in describing great events. But there are splits in the wood, and through them one can espy a soul capable of deep feeling, all the more noticeable for his incapacity fully to express it.

Even Heath's enemies have always been willing to award him an accolade for his support of Sandy Lindsay, the Minister of Balliol College, as an independent anti-appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election of October 1938. He was, after all, a poor grammar-school boy who aspired to advancement in the Conservative Party. It did not seem prudent to oppose the official Tory candidate, Quintin Hogg, but it was brave. Though Heath was not on the winning side, he deserves great credit.

Like, I suppose, most other students of his career, I had always assumed that Heath's anti-appeasement stance stemmed from his pre-war visits to Nazi Germany. These visits, as he now makes clear, were not without influence on him. But now I know that the influence was effective merely in strengthening views formed as a schoolboy, when he won the day in a school debate to reverse the infamous Oxford Union vote "in no circumstances" to fight for King and Country.

It was from his pre-war and wartime experiences that he derived his determination to make the United Kingdom part of a united, and eternally peaceable, Europe. This led, ultimately, to the Treaty of Brussels in 1972 which, in the most singular act of peacetime policy in Britain this century, signalled our accession to the European Economic Community.

That accession caused bitter divisions in British society, which persist to this day. However, most of us who were stoutly opposed to it did not - contrary to the account given by Heath - attack him personally, for he had always worn his European heart on his sleeve. Indeed, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1971 (reprinted in The Independent on Saturday), which certainly swayed the vote, he courageously laid his career on the line in support of his beliefs.

The battle between Heath and his critics became openly personal only in 1972, when he deliberately and cravenly reversed the domestic policies on which he had been elected in 1970. It excites the reader's incredulity that, in this book, he seeks to minimise and justify the 1972 reversal, which led to two general election defeats and his own overthrow by Margaret Thatcher in 1975.

His resentment at this overthrow, and his steadily increasing animosity towards Margaret Thatcher as she went on to win three spectacular general election victories, seems to grow from a deep desire for self-justification which lies far down in his character.

Asked the other day whether he had said: "Rejoice, Rejoice" when he heard of her own resignation, he replied: "I said it three times". He huffs, puffs and complains about her refusal to make him Foreign Secretary in 1979, and compares it to his own supposedly magnanimous offer of the Foreign Office to Alec Douglas-Home in 1970. While there were no serious differences of policy between himself and Home, there were serious differences between himself and Margaret Thatcher in the two areas - foreign and economic - where a Cabinet job suitable to his seniority was available.

It is sad that his self-justifying nature makes his book tiresome to read.

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