Philip Hensher: Who wants a museum to Edward Heath?

The idea is terribly funny, of course, but it has its tragic side, too

Share

There is discontent brewing in the tranquil waters of The Close, Salisbury. For some time before his death, Sir Edward Heath let it be known that he would leave his beautiful house there, Arundells, to a trust. In due course, Arundells would be opened to the public as a museum to his own life and work. The day is fast approaching. Mr James Elder, a former secretary to the great man, confided in hushed tones that "it will be as Sir Edward left it - that was his wish." It will open, he hoped, in July.

Not everyone, however, is very keen on the prospect. The Close Preservation society disapproves of the building being turned over to non-residential use, perhaps envisaging crowds of Sir Edward's admirers arriving in hired coaches to shatter the peace. Perhaps they hadn't read the details of the proposed museum's highlights. They include two vases given to Sir Edward by Chairman Mao, two portraits of Churchill and, oh, ever so many other things.

Sir Edward Heath was a great one for "letting it be known" and beginning letters "My attention has recently been drawn" - translations, "going about telling people" and "I've just read". He was not known for a lack of a sense of his own achievement. Even so, one could not have predicted that he would seriously think it worthwhile leaving a museum commemorating himself to the nation. I can console members of the Close Preservation Society; their tranquillity will surely go undisturbed by mobs of Heathite fanatics.

Heath forged links with Mao, and will be remembered as the prime minister who took Britain into Europe, but otherwise ran a fairly disastrous administration from 1970 to 1974. He instigated one of the most catastrophic policy U-turns in history, and allowed his government to collapse in shame and disgrace. He was legendarily rude in person, ended his career in a three-decade sulk, was almost always wrong about everything, and lost three out of the four general elections he contested. One might think the record was one to inspire a posthumous silence.

What he must have been thinking about, however, was the habit of American presidents of endowing presidential libraries after they step down. The libraries, often with a reverential museum attached, contain the president's papers and can be useful centres of research, or not much visited. Every American president since Roosevelt has done this, even Nixon, although his papers are in the national archives for obvious reasons.

That has never been the British practice. Official papers go automatically into the national archives, eventually to be opened to the public. Hardly any prime ministers have ever been commemorated by a site of pilgrimage, or by anything resembling a museum. You can visit Gladstone's house - I believe it contains an important library of theology. Many visitors pay their homage to Churchill's Chartwell. But there is no Wilson Centre or Macmillan Library, and nobody has ever thought there ought to be. I don't know where you could go to pay your respects even to so great a prime minister as Attlee.

The exception, as to so many things, is Lady Thatcher, who did, in imperious fashion, set up a Thatcher Foundation in the 1990s. It started strongly, but donations had all but dried up by the end of the decade. It shut its doors in 2005, only to start up again a year later in the more commemorative atmosphere of America. In any case, it was always more of an office than a museum. She donated her personal papers to Churchill College, Cambridge - pointedly snubbing Oxford after they refused her an honorary degree. Talk of preserving her birthplace in Grantham has always been mocked into the ground.

Could it possibly be, however, that the creation of the Thatcher Foundation worked away at Heath's mind? For 30 years, he could hardly bring himself to speak to her; the story goes that when she offered him a post in the Shadow Cabinet in 1975, he refused in two words, "Shan't", and "Won't". If that bloody woman, he may have thought, can have some stupid foundation, why can't I have my own museum, devoted to me, lovely me?

One of the attractive things about British public life is that all but the very greatest individual careers tend not to finish in a mood of hushed celebration and the recollection of spotlit triumphs, but to dribble away in argument, reassessment, rethinking and even sustained mockery. Both Wilson's and Thatcher's legacies lie chiefly in the continuing argument, pursued through ministerial memoirs at first, and subsequently the spats of historians and analysts.

With his much-reported concern for the judgement of history, it seems all too likely that Tony Blair, when he goes, will want to set up a presidential-style foundation, or even some sort of research centre. I doubt it will really be necessary, however. With really significant figures like these, the argument takes decades to finish, if it ever does - we are still arguing about Gladstone, after all.

The idea of the Heath museum is terribly funny, of course, but it has its tragic side, too. The Heath museum, with its photographs of Mao and yachts and conductors' batons and "two portraits of Churchill", is being set up in place of what a prime minister's legacy ought to be, an ongoing debate. The truth is that we all stopped talking about Heath years ago. We know what we think by now.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Development Manager

Salary/Rate: £32,000/annum: M&E Global Resources Ltd: Description/Main Duties ...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

In Sickness and in Health: It’s been lonely in bed without my sleep soulmate

Rebecca Armstrong
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv  

Why do we stand by and watch Putin?

Ian Birrell
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor