Heath: A modern thinker who knew the price of apples

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So the seven long hours it took to elect the Speaker under his chairmanship on Monday turns out to be the last - and therefore the most poignant - of the many intensely difficult parliamentary occasions in which Sir Edward Heath has played a central role in a Commons career of exactly half a century.

So the seven long hours it took to elect the Speaker under his chairmanship on Monday turns out to be the last - and therefore the most poignant - of the many intensely difficult parliamentary occasions in which Sir Edward Heath has played a central role in a Commons career of exactly half a century.

He is the first ex-prime minister for more than a generation to remain an MP into his eighties rather than take the peerage which could have been his for the asking at any time in the past 25 years. The first, in fact, since his under graduate hero Winston Churchill, who he heard speak to the Oxford Conservative Association in 1936. Despite the fact that he is virtually the last link with that era of pre-war political ferment, Heath is such a Commons fixture that it is still to hard to imagine that he won't be there in perhaps six months' time.

And indeed the Second World War is as good a starting point as any to understand the Heath career. For he is part of that dwindling generation of politicians whose deepest convictions were either formed or indelibly reinforced by the carnage and devastation they saw across Europe between 1939 and 1945. It was not simply that Major Heath had a "good" war, being mentioned in dispatches. It was much more that the twin effects of the liberation of France and the low countries and the occupation of a defeated Germany had the profoundest effect on his generation of politically minded soldiers.

After witnessing the Nuremberg trials, he wrote much later: "I knew that those evil things had been beaten back... but at what a cost. Europe had once more destroyed itself. This must never be allowed to happen again."

It was that certainty which was the mainspring of the single historic achievement which can never taken away from him: the entry of Britain into what has now become the European Union in 1972. Having lost decisively to Harold Wilson in his first election as Tory leader in 1966, he was not expected to win the 1970 election. His premiership was short and - though he was the first leader to cast himself as a "moderniser" - beset with problems.

He came, tantalisingly, closer than at any time until the present to securing a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland. But in the end it foundered. And his attempt to reform industrial relations collapsed as it had for Harold Wilson. He was forced into a humiliating U-turn on economic policy by the workers' battle to save Upper Clyde shipbuilders. It ended with what hindsight has judged an unwise decision to take on the miners in a "Who Rules Britain" election in 1974.

But British entry into Europe is his greatest and most lasting success. It was, as well, ample compensation for the failure of the negotiations, which he had pursued with equal single-mindedness, in the early Sixties on behalf of Harold Macmillan, earning at one point in intensive talks over the price of apples, the sobriquet from Private Eye of "The Grocer".

Whether or not there was an unconscious snobbery in the nickname, it was true that he was, with Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, one of that select trio of bright, Oxford-educated players, from relatively humble backgrounds, who dominated British political life between the mid-Sixties and 1990. In Heath's case this was more remarkable - and therefore more socially transforming - than in Wilson's. For he was the first Tory of his era to lead the party from outside the "magic circle" which his first Chancellor Iain Macleod had so bitterly derided and which had delivered Heath's three predecessors. In this he had been greatly helped by his close friendship with a man very different from him, Harold Macmillan. It was sealed when Heath, who had already made his reputation as a tough and brilliant chief whip, was famously spotted consuming oysters and champagne in the Turf Club to celebrate Macmillan's accession to the premiership. "I do not suppose," Lady Dorothy Macmillan would write several years later, "anyone realises the overwhelming regard and affection my husband has for Mr Heath."

But despite the differences in upbringing between the patrician Macmillan and the carpenter's son from Broadstairs, the friendship was appropriate. For both were essentially one-nation Tories. In probably his finest act as leader of the Opposition, one which went a long way to start civilising Britain in its approach to race, he summarily sacked Enoch Powell from the shadow cabinet after his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech. Years later, he defended this act by simply saying the speech had been "racist".

It was also part - though only part - of what brought him into his famous enmity - the so-called "longest sulk" - between him and Margaret Thatcher, whose career he had promoted as party leader, but whom he continually criticised once she was in office. It was not until around his 80th birthday that Heath finally announced: "The sulk is over."

Some of his attitudes have been puzzling, to say the least - like his resolute refusal to join those, including Margaret Thatcher, who stood up to China and demanded democracy in Hong Kong, and what some criticised as a relatively appeasing attitude to Saddam Hussein. But for the most part he has grown old with dignity and a joie de vivre untempered by lifelong celibacy. While guests to Sunday lunch at his beloved Salisbury home might be surprised to be treated to, say, a highly detailed analysis of the internal politics of the cathedral chapter, few have turned down the invitation for the chance of high-grade gossip and lavish hospitality. Not to mention the famous shaking shoulders when he laughs.

The old man has teased his constituency party many times in the past by dismissing any idea of standing down. But now the tease is over and he will at last bow out. When he and Tony Benn leave the Commons the class of 1950 will be gone. And the cliché that an era will have ended will, for once, be true.