Monday 18 July 2005
Bruce Anderson: A much better man than his sour and ungracious reputation might suggest
'Within months of losing office, he had become the incredible sulk, his political vocation for the rest of his life'
Yet he was a much better man than that. He had a good war, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In the aftermath of Suez, he was a serious chief whip. At that stage, the Tory party seemed close to disintegration.
When Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden, he wondered whether his government would survive for more than six weeks. In those days, it was easier to manage the Tory party. Most MPs had a military background, and were used to taking orders; the knights of the shire were more obedient than their successors, the esquires of the suburbs. Even so, Ted Heath deserves credit for ensuring that, despite his premier's forebodings, the party was in a good enough shape to win a majority of 100 at the 1959 election.
He was also serious about Europe. At the end of the Second World War, he and his contemporaries contemplated a Europe in ruins: shattered cities, starving populations, broken nations; thousands of years of civilisation on the edge of collapse. Ted Heath resolved that must never happen again; that Europe must transcend warring nationalisms and find survival in unity.
That was not an ignoble vision. But there was a problem. Sir Edward never tried to share his idealism with the British people. Indeed, he not only concealed his real goals; he lied about them. Anyone listening to him during the campaign for British membership would have been forgiven for concluding that he merely wanted Britain to join a common market, with minimal loss of sovereignty.
Convinced that Europe was a vital national interest and which would rapidly become apparent once we had joined, Ted Heath felt justified in lulling the voters with a false prospectus. Thirty years later, that founding act of deception is still poisoning Britain's relations with Europe.
Europe apart, his premiership was a failure, though that was not his fault. Like Harold Wilson before him, and Wilson and James Callaghan after him, he was destroyed by his inability to bring the trade unions within the rule of law, or to control inflation and public spending. In those years, Britain seemed ungovernable. To his credit, Ted made a more thorough-going and honest attempt to confront the difficulty than either of his Labour rivals. But success had to wait until Margaret Thatcher.
He then lost the premiership, the Tory leadership - and a great opportunity. Out of office, he could have become the British leader of the European cause. Instead, he was far more concerned with revenging himself on Mrs Thatcher. Justifying the ways of Europe to Britain would have required a big personality who could inspire public opinion. Instead, Ted gave way to petty-mindedness. Within months of losing office, he had become the incredible sulk: his political vocation for the rest of his life.
Younger Tories who shared his European views would assure one that he could be excellent company and was even capable of making a joke. As the years passed, it was harder and harder to find evidence for those propositions. As partisanship gives way to the broader perspectives of old age, many politicians ripen into wit and wisdom: but not Ted. Instead of mellowing, he soured.
That had a sad consequence. In his latter years, Ted Heath was frequently unhappy. He often gave the impression he was solely interested in the company of heads of state, or at least heads of government.
As they had other demands on their time, the old boy suffered loneliness. So oppressed was he about the way in which the world was going wrong that he seemed unable to take pleasure in life's simpler enjoyments.
Three or four years ago, he gave a luncheon at his house in Cathedral Close, Salisbury. Even by his standards, he was wretched company: surly, grumpy and petulant. Finally, one of his guests, Ray Seitz, the then American ambassador, could stand it no longer. "Tell, me Ted ," he said: "You've seen a few presidents and a fair few prime ministers: which of them had the best working relationship?"
"Oh, Nixon and I, of course."
"But aren't there other examples?"
"Yes, I suppose Harold Macmillan and JFK."
"But what about more recent times, Ted? What about the 1980s?"
Ted Heath coloured and looked furious. "I don't know what you mean."
His inability to mention Thatcher's name in any favourable context was a sad instance of a serious figure giving way to vanity and childishness. But as the years pass, and those aspects of Ted Heath's personality fade, there will be a recovery in his reputation.
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