Sir Edward Heath
Yachtsman prime minister who steered Britain into Europe
Monday 18 July 2005
Ted Heath's relatively brief premiership (since the Second World War only Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home and James Callaghan have served for less than his three years eight months) was the stormiest in peacetime Britain. During 1972 he imposed direct rule in Northern Ireland, floated sterling, and in a spectacular U-turn imposed a statutory incomes policy. The days lost to strikes reached record levels and his government proclaimed five states of emergency. With rising inflation and unemployment, the oil embargo, a miners' strike and a three-day week, Britain in 1973 seemed almost ungovernable.
There are two myths about Ted Heath. One, from the political left, was that during his premiership he was set on breaking the post-war consensus, wanted to make Britain Thatcherite - before the term was invented - and sought confrontation with the trade unions. The other, from the free-market and anti-European wing of his own party, was that he lacked conviction and resolution, and betrayed Conservatism; hence the policy U-turns in his government.
Yet, as a co-founder in 1951 of the One Nation Group of Tory MPs, he believed that government had a duty to avoid a return to the mass unemployment of the 1930s and had to serve all social classes. The purpose of his programme of modernisation, including the reform of industrial relations, was to improve the efficiency of the economy and to strengthen much of the post-war settlement. Trade-union leaders readily admitted that no prime minister had worked harder to offer them partnership or had a greater concern for the national interest. He was consistent in his aims, flexible in his methods, but also given to bouts of stubbornness.
The tragedy was that the world was changing for the worse - for Heath, and for the Labour government after him. The sharp increase in oil prices and the successful resistance of the trade unions to reforms in their work practices meant that achieving economic growth and full employment by traditional Keynesian methods was no longer possible. By the end of 1973 Douglas Hurd, Heath's Political Secretary, was confiding to his diary that there must be "an end to promises" and that any future political leader would have to take radical and probably harsh measures to cope with the pressures from inflation and balance-of-payments crises. The loose monetary policy, designed to boost economic growth, fuelled inflation. Margaret Thatcher grasped this and she was the beneficiary.
Compared with some of his successors in No 10, Ted Heath was the most " unspun" of politicians. His dismissal of public-relations artifices easily declined into the neglect of communications. Yet given his own " tin ear" and his tendency to talk at, rather than to, people he desperately needed communications skills. The shrewd James Douglas, Director of the party's Research Department while Heath was Prime Minister, noted:
He always had a clear idea of what he wanted to say but somehow never knew how to say it. He expected his speechwriters to be able to communicate for him the thought that he was incapable of communicating.
Yet Ted Heath could provide brilliant tours d'horizon of world affairs, display wit as an after-dinner speaker and convey warmth and emotion at memorial- service addresses for friends. This was all done without notes. The trouble was that he never showed these abilities to the British public while Prime Minister.
Heath was a complex personality. He was shy, not given to intimacy or demonstrations of his feelings. But this was combined with dominance, drive and self-confidence. In meetings people had to guess what his long silences might signify. Hurd once wrote of his leader's "deadpan voice, the sardonic questions, the long quizzical silence". It is difficult to imagine a leading politician with his stiff manner, lack of empathy and clipped sentences thriving in politics today.
There was also the famous rudeness, cases of curmudgeonly or grumpy behaviour, and downright bad manners. He could show an amazing lack of awareness of people who had travelled large distances and at great inconvenience to help him. His manner added to the difficulties of his Chief Whip, Francis Pym, when he was Prime Minister. The lack of small talk, apparent indifference to the personal problems and parliamentary interests of backbenchers, and niggardliness in awarding political honours (let alone in comparison to the generosity of Thatcher and Tony Blair), did not soften the disappointment of those who had not gained preferment under him. This last quality was admirable in many respects (he disapproved of many political honours) but it was not politically expedient. He seemed to take the support of backbenchers for granted.
This might seem remarkable in a man who had been such a successful Chief Whip himself. As Harold Macmillan's Chief Whip he had seen the Prime Minister daily, yet as Prime Minister himself he saw Pym only weekly. He paid a price in the lack of votes he gained among backbenchers in the leadership contest of February 1975.
Ted Heath's father started his working life as a carpenter and later bettered himself to become a master builder. His mother, to whom he was close, had at one time worked as a lady's maid; she died when Heath was 33. Born in Broadstairs in 1916, he won a scholarship to Chatham House School, Ramsgate, and then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1935 to read PPE. Finding the fees for Oxford was a struggle for his hard-working parents. Significantly, Heath was also an organ scholar at Balliol. The love of music was developed at school and playing the piano remained his way of relaxing after a hard day. In later life he was invited to conduct famous orchestras on special occasions. Had he not chosen a political career, one as a professional musician was a distinct possibility. He also had a good eye for paintings and bought many good ones, including a Tissot.
Heath was an outstanding yachtsman. As a boy he would spend hours watching boats sailing in the Channel. He skippered his crew in Morning Cloud to victory in the Sydney-to-Hobart race in 1969, one of the toughest ocean races in the world, and as Prime Minister in 1971 led Britain to victory in the Admiral's Cup. Whatever Heath did he wanted to do well.
At Oxford he showed drive and ambition, becoming an anti-Fascist President of the Conservative Association in 1937, and a year later President of the Oxford Union. As a critic of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy in the famous Oxford City by-election in 1938, he supported an anti-appeasement candidate against the official Conservative, Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham). Heath was now set on a political career. Many of his political views had already been largely formed by his experiences in the 1930s.
Heath had a good war record in the Royal Artillery, being mentioned in despatches, and rising to lieutenant-colonel. After 1945 he tried various jobs, while seeking nomination as a Conservative candidate for Parliament. He worked in 1946 as a civil servant (having finished top in the civil service entrance exams) until he was adopted for Bexley, and then had spells as a news editor on the Church Times and in merchant banking.
He was one of a new breed of young post-war Conservative politicians, lacking any family tradition of political involvement, wealth, or background in an established profession, business or the land. He was a product of opportunity, as he once put it, and a professional politician. Without the post-war Maxwell Fyfe reforms of local Tory party nominations - notably forbidding candidates to make large cash payments to the local party - it is doubtful whether he would have been selected. He won Bexley from Labour in February 1950 and held the seat (never a safe one) until February 1974, when it was abolished by redistribution. He then sat for Sidcup until 1983, and then for Old Bexley and Sidcup.
Within a few months of his entry into Parliament he was appointed a whip, rising to be Chief Whip in 1955, a position he held until 1959. These early years of relative obscurity as a whip (not speaking in the Commons) and then a career on the front bench meant that it was not until 1975, and his loss of the party leadership, that he gained extensive experience as a backbencher. As Chief Whip he helped to keep the party together during the Suez Crisis in 1956, then when the ailing Eden was replaced by Macmillan as Prime Minister in 1957, and again when the Treasury team resigned in 1958. He was close to Macmillan, who took him to the Turf Club to celebrate over oysters and champagne the appointment as Prime Minister.
Heath's maiden speech was, significantly, a call for Britain to participate in early attempts to build a united Western Europe. When Macmillan announced in July 1961 that Britain would apply formally for membership of the Community, he made Heath Lord Privy Seal with the task of handling negotiations for Britain's entry. As "Mr Europe" he impressed colleagues with his mastery of the intricate and technical issues and his stamina in negotiations. But, when General Charles de Gaulle vetoed the application in January 1963, he seemed to lose heart and his career for the next few months marked time.
A new prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, appointed him Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development. Eager to make his mark, Heath seized on his department's scheme for the abolition of resale price maintenance. Once the Labour MP John Stonehouse finished high in the private members' ballot and promised to introduce such a measure, Heath had to act. His decision to introduce such controversial legislation in the last year of the parliament divided his own party and there was resistance in many constituency parties from small businessmen. In March 1963 21 Conservative MPs voted against the measure and 17 abstained; in a later division the majority fell to one. But Heath got his Bill through and his skill and resolution impressed his growing body of admirers.
With Harold Wilson installed as Labour prime minister in October 1964, Conservative MPs soon began to look for a more combative, younger man than Douglas-Home to take him on. Aware of the weakness of his position Douglas-Home resigned in 1965 and Tory MPs adopted a new system for electing leaders. The successful candidate had to have an absolute majority of MPs' votes and a lead of 15 per cent over the runner-up. The election came at a good time for Heath; he was chairman of the party's policy review committee and, as Shadow Chancellor, impressed MPs with his vigorous opposition in the Commons to the Government's Finance Bill.
In the leadership election in July 1965 he gained 150 votes to 133 for Reginald Maudling (Enoch Powell also stood and gained 15 votes). Maudling immediately stood down, so precluding the need for a run-off . Heath celebrated by visiting Glyndebourne.
Aged 49, Heath was the youngest Conservative leader for over a century and the first to be chosen in a competitive election. His immediate predecessors as Tory leader, Winston Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, were all born to the purple and educated at the prestigious public schools. Like Harold Wilson, Ted Heath was a grammar-school, Oxford-educated meritocrat, dedicated to modernising the British economy. He took personal control of his party's policy review. It promised a substantial programme of industrial-relations reform, tax cuts, government disengagement from industry, avoidance of incomes policies and a more selective approach to welfare. Such measures were designed to sharpen up British industry, so that it could benefit from anticipated entry to the EC. The full fruits of the review were revealed in his party's free-market platform for the 1970 election. In the meantime, however, Heath led the party to an expected defeat in the 1966 general election.
Heath took the view that Shadow spokesmen should concentrate on their departmental briefs. This was a cause of growing tension with Enoch Powell, the Shadow spokesman on Defence, who would not accept such a limitation. Heath sacked Powell after the latter's infamous "rivers of blood" speech in Birmingham in April 1968, warning about the consequences of continued New Commonwealth immigration. It was a risky decision, for Powell was henceforth a formidable adversary. But Heath correctly saw the speech as a challenge to his leadership and acted with the unanimous support of the Shadow Cabinet; he also regarded it as immoral.
For much of the 1966 parliament the Conservatives were the clear favourites to win the next general election. Although Heath was not impressive in the Commons and was often bested by Wilson at PMQs, his supporters claimed that his strengths would be more evident when he became Prime Minister. The opinion polls, however, turned in favour of the Labour government a few months before the 1970 general election. During the campaign the Conservatives trailed in the polls and Heath's chances were widely written off. Senior party figures had already begun preparations to ease him out of the leadership. In fact the Conservatives brought off a surprise victory, one that was widely regarded as very much Heath's.
His new government suffered a major blow at the outset with the death within a month of Iain Macleod, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A not enthusiastic Anthony Barber took his place. Heath now acted very much as his own Chancellor and was behind the shift to an expansionist economic policy in 1971. Rising unemployment and fears of the risk of economic and social breakdown in depressed areas forced the change.
The Government rescued the ailing Rolls-Royce in 1971 and the Upper Clyde Shipyard a year later, because of fears for the loss of jobs which closure would cause. The Industry Act of 1972 massively increased the funds and powers of the Department of Trade and Industry to intervene in industry. This switch in policy, from one of not bailing out lame-duck enterprises, introduced the term "U-turn" into British political vocabulary. The Government gave a boost to demand by switching to expansionist fiscal and monetary policies. All this soon led to balance-of-payments difficulties as well as adding to inflationary pressures.
Another difficult issue, with which Heath was closely concerned, was Northern Ireland. The province seemed to be on the brink of civil war and, faced with the threat of a collapse of law and order, the Government decided to suspend the Stormont Parliament and impose direct rule from Westminster.
The most traumatic experience, however, came over incomes policy and industrial relations. The Industrial Relations Act, which introduced a comprehensive legal framework and in which so much hope had been invested, was soon put to one side because of the refusal of the unions to co-operate. Inflationary pressures increased because of a sharp rise in commodity prices and wage rises. In 1972 the Government's attempts to reduce the going rate in public sector wage settlements were destroyed by a successful strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). After attempts to negotiate a voluntary wages policy with the TUC failed, the Heath government turned to a statutory policy. At first it worked well. But the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973 and the Opec countries' decision to quadruple oil prices put the miners in a powerful position.
The miners wanted a settlement well outside the limits of the new wages guidelines and began an overtime ban in November 1973. Ministers imposed a three-day working week to save energy and also to defend the wages policy. They were convinced that the party would not tolerate another humiliation at the hands of the miners.
Heath, still hoping for a settlement, resisted intense party pressure to call an election and exploit the unpopularity of the unions. But, when on 5 February it was announced that the miners finally voted for an all-out strike, Heath felt that the Government had no option but to call a general election for 28 February 1974, and seek a mandate for an incomes policy or, as critics claimed, to reach a settlement with the miners. It was dubbed the "Who Governs?" election, although Heath was careful to avoid any union-bashing.
The Conservatives won the most votes but Labour gained 301 seats to the Conservatives' 297. No party had a majority but Heath's gamble had failed. Many observers thought that had he called an election a few weeks earlier he would have won. The minority Labour government called another election in October 1974 and managed to gain a small majority. This time Heath campaigned for a government of national unity to deal with the economic crisis.
Heath had, as Prime Minister, a talented Private Office. For all but the first day he had Robert Armstrong (later the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service) as his Principal Private Secretary. Armstrong shared his love of music and had been Secretary of the Board of Covent Garden since 1968. His father, Sir Thomas Armstrong, had actually taught Heath as an organ scholar at Balliol. The two remained close friends and Armstrong helped with Ted Heath's memoirs 30 years later.
Heath also relied heavily on William Armstrong, Permanent Secretary of the Civil Service Department (and no relation to the other Armstrongs), particularly for his U-turns on incomes policy and intervention in industry. A trade-union leader labelled William Armstrong "Deputy Prime Minister", whilst Heath was regarded by many as a civil servant manqué. A cabinet minister, observing the two men together, commented that they would be more at ease if they swapped posts.
In spite of the great pressures he was under Heath remained determined to lead a balanced life, as far as he could. At the end of a hard day he unwound by playing the piano in the White Room on the first floor in Downing Street, or by listening to music on hi-fi, while doing his boxes. He also tried to find room for an early-evening swim and to keep weekends free for sailing at Cowes or time at Chequers.
The outstanding achievement of his government was entry into the European Community. Heath's support for European unity and integration was a constant theme in his political career. He signed the Treaty of Accession in January 1972 and Britain joined the Community 12 months later. He regarded entry as one of the great achievements of the 20th century. But, apart from this, he left few legacies. The succeeding Labour government and then Margaret Thatcher broke with many of his domestic policies. Indeed the lesson she took from the Heath record was that the Conservative Party had to move in a radically different direction.
Following the Conservative defeats in the February and October 1974 general elections, Heath's position was weak. He had led the party in four general elections and lost three of them. Although no alternative leader could have won in 1966 or October 1974, many backbenchers felt that the party simply could not win again under his leadership. Some of his allies urged him to step down at once or to offer himself for re-election and catch his opponents off guard. He did neither, fearing that a right-winger (probably Keith Joseph) would benefit. Eventually, he was persuaded to offer himself for re-election. New rules were drawn up: Tory MPs would hold an annual leadership election; to win, a candidate needed an overall majority of all MPs eligible to vote and a lead of 15 per cent over the runner-up. The new rules also allowed a fresh candidate to enter on the second ballot. A stalking-horse candidate could test the strength of Heath's support on the first ballot.
For various reasons MPs rallied to his chief challenger, Margaret Thatcher - some who voted for her simply wanted Heath out. On the first ballot on 4 February 1975 he lost to Thatcher by 130 votes to 119. "We got it wrong, " he said to an aide and resigned immediately. Thatcher went on to win on the second vote. The first Tory leader to be chosen in a competitive election, he was also the first to be defeated in one. He had miscalculated again; had he resigned earlier, an ally like William Whitelaw would have been better placed to succeed him and Thatcher might not even have been a candidate.
As Prime Minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher sounded him out about the ambassador's post in Washington or translation to the Lords. He reacted badly, regarding these as moves to deny him a platform. He had, incredibly, hoped for the post of Foreign Secretary in her government. The breach between him and Thatcher widened over the years. He was a vehement critic of government policies on the economy, schools, official secrecy, the poll tax and, of course, Europe. For a few years he thought that a looming economic crisis would lead to the formation of a national government and a prominent role for himself. He seemed to see himself as a prophet in the wilderness, like Churchill in the 1930s. Unlike previous prime ministers - but like Thatcher herself after 1990 - he did not retire gracefully. He was Mr Angry rather than a dignified elder statesman. He complained that there was an attempt to write him and his achievements out of history and he castigated Thatcherism as an aberration in the history of Conservatism.
In the years after Downing Street he was richly rewarded from his overseas lecture fees and his books on music, travel and sailing (Sailing: a course of my life, 1975; Music: a joy for life, 1976; and Travels: people and places in my life, 1977), which sold well. To his comfortable Mayfair residence he added a splendid Grade II-listed house in Salisbury Cathedral Close. As a young MP he befriended two City whiz-kids, Jim Slater and Peter Walker (later a cabinet colleague) and they had invested his money wisely.
He became fatter as he grew older and walked with difficulty, lumbering like an ailing panda. From 1992 until he left Parliament in 2001, he was Father of the House. He would often sit sphinx-like, staring straight ahead, on the first bench below the gangway. By now he was almost a crossbencher. In 1997, to John Major's dismay, he expressed support for Labour's policies on devolution and the minimum wage. His party had moved to the right and he disliked the Euroscepticism of the leadership. He was unloved in the party and knew it.
In 1998 Heath published his long-awaited autobiography, The Course of My Life. This was some 15 years after he had taken a six-figure advance from publishers. The bland title was typically accurate, but also a publisher's nightmare.
When he left the House of Commons, he had been a member for over 50 years and served as party leader for nearly 10. Cussed to the end, he refused to go to the Lords. He had been disappointed in 1987 in failing to be elected Chancellor of Oxford University. He and Robert Blake, the historian, had divided the Conservative support between them and Roy Jenkins won easily, but with a minority of the vote.
In his last years Heath, a confirmed bachelor, was sustained by his wide circle of friends, his interest in international affairs and, inevitably, music. He had always won the admiration and respect of most of those who worked closely with him. Some thought that he had the touches of greatness about him. He eloquently defended his vision for his country and for its place in a united Europe but there remained a sense that his immense talents and energies had been wasted after his abrupt removal from public office in 1974.
Could I make a small correction to your obituary by Professor Dennis Kavanagh of Sir Edward Heath? writes Dr Joanna Raeburn. You mention that he came top in the Civil Service entrance exams; in fact, he tied equal first with my father, Ashley Raeburn, his near contemporary and friend from Balliol. Both joined the Civil Service before going their separate ways career-wise (my father having a distinguished career in industry) but they remained friends and indeed my father, although a lifelong non-Conservative voter, supported Sir Edward in his bid for the Chancellorship of Oxford University in 1987 (in which he was beaten by another fellow Balliol man, Roy Jenkins).
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