BOOK REVIEW / A professional in his intellectual vacuum: Edward Heath: A biography - John Campbell: Jonathan Cape, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
AT ONE end of this massive, semi-official biography, John Campbell writes of 'a nearly great man brought down by his flaws'. At the other, he writes that Sir Edward Heath's reputation 'is beginning to be restored'. The problem with the intervening 800 pages is that he does not really make the case for either statement.

Greatness, or even near greatness, may, of course, be a form of illusion, no more than a matter of historical luck. Heath was not lucky. His career has been dogged by catastrophe. Campbell, for example, adequately, establishes that as Chief Whip he was one of the few leading Tories to have a good Suez, but it was still Suez. Equally, his negotiation of our first application to join the EC was commonly agreed to be masterful. But the episode ended with de Gaulle's humiliating veto. Finally, his reign as prime minister is overshadowed by the inevitable perception that he was defeated by the miners. If Heath has greatness, it does not lie in an ability to be in the right place at the right time.

But higher than the greatness of historical contingency is real greatness - greatness of character or vision. Here Heath might be said to have a sounder claim in that he has endured. He remains a large national character: cantankerous, humourless, impatient, but still overpoweringly there. The values attached to this endurance are, however, vague. Certainly he is vigorously pro- European and anti-Thatcher. But beyond that, the image becomes indistinct: one-nation Tory, leftish, interventionist, moderniser. Yet what do these things mean?

The answer, as is repeatedly made clear in this book, is: very little. Heath's central principle is that, somehow, things can be worked out.

There is a goal - European union, affluence, whatever - towards which you dodge and weave, but whose exact nature and value remains unquestioned. Day-to-day policy is thus judged, with fatal imprecision, as moving towards goals that are themselves imprecise. So Heath, in opposition in the Sixties, may conceive of a goal of sensibly managed affluence on the basis of rather Thatcherite policies, but, in government in the Seventies, he is easily persuaded by events that the policies can be reversed so long as the goal, merely by then a rhetorical figure, is kept in view. What he cannot grasp is that political virtue is a virtue of process, not progress.

But then, Heath is a progressive. In becoming Tory leader at all he symbolised the transfer of power from the landed grandees to the aspiring middle-class meritocrats - the first Tory leader to have wall-to-wall carpets. He was always a moderniser, identified, strange as it may now seem, with Kennedy, and with the simple-minded belief that all Britain needs is a good kick into the 21st century.

He may often have been right about this, but it is instructive to note the view he was opposing. He pushed through the Bill to abolish resale price maintenance against fears from old Tories that it would destroy the fabric of the nation by bankrupting small shops. Those fears may now seem quaint - RPM was an absurdity. But the instinct behind the fears was right, even if the issue was wrong. Consider Heath's remark in 1964: 'I want to see the guts torn out of our older industrial cities, and new civic centres and shopping areas built there; the older houses torn down and new ones in their place.' Suddenly progress becomes stupid vandalism because the distant goal blinds the man to the present consequences.

Heath the moderniser was, of course, taking on the old Tories with such remarks. He was reacting to the fear that Labour might really become the natural party of government as the Tories twittered on the grouse moors. Look, the fair hair and bronzed cheeks advertised, we can be modern, too. But it was all surface. 'Modern' was just another ill-defined goal. Was it 'modern' to take on the unions or to have them in to drinks at Downing Street? Which course would build the new civic centres? Never mind, Heath could do both without breaking step.

The problem appears to be that he does not think. Campbell speaks of the 'intellectual vacuum at the heart of his politics' that blinded him to the fact that his policies were all but indistinguishable from those of that technophile fixer Harold Wilson. Thinking, he clearly feels, is a task that can be contracted out. So he came up with Rothschild's Think Tank, a bizarre and troublesome organism that, for reasons I could not grasp, Campbell regards as one of Heath's great achievements. In truth, it simply embodied the central misconception of the time - that things could be made to work properly by the application of expertise. It was all a question of management information and all the other modern buzz words that are still employed to sup-

plant wisdom, sensitivity, and cultivation.

Perhaps this points to the worst charge against Heath, that he launched the professionalisation of politics. Henceforth ministers were to be professionals, buried beneath red boxes, always late at the office and, of course, utterly impotent, their capacity for thought shrivelled by the incessant chatter of 'experts'. Gone was the possibility of the wise amateur; gone, but for the aberration of Margaret Thatcher, the possibility of real politics.

Professionalism suited the unmarried Heath with his appallingly one-dimensional life. Campbell goes to some length to establish his 'hinterland' - the music, the sailing - but it is all extraordinarily unconvincing. His conducting and captaincy come across as recreational mirrors of his coldly dominating personality rather than as passionate escapes. Indeed, the hinterland that is Heath himself barely seems to exist outside Bexley and Westminster. He is, it is always said, a hard man to get to know, and this book is only sporadically helpful. One seizes with pathetic gratitude on details, such as the half-bottle of champagne he required before every press conference during the 1966 election campaign. But most of the time Heath the man is seen through the usual prism of his political self.

As for the restoration of the reputation - well, in the banal sense that Thatcherism has gone, certainly it can be said to be happening. Heath is no longer the bitter backbench loony hurling purple-faced imprecations at his leader. And, as the Tories seek desperately for an identity, he has come to represent, rather spuriously in the circumstances, some sort of ancient, humane lineage of conservatism. But, beyond those temporary fictions, even this block-like apologia cannot achieve a lasting Heath restoration. He remains on page 811 as much of a wrong- headed, unattractive, partial personality as he was on page 1. Those in the business will happily read the intervening narrative and think it significant; those outside will simply conclude that modern politics is a bad business full of strange people about whom the less we know the easier we shall sleep.

Robert Winder is on holiday.

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