Philip Hensher: Who wants a museum to Edward Heath?

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

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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.

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