It was an extraordinary achievement, however fraught the project has since become. The French at the time remained reluctant, the Americans disinterested, and the country at large, never mind the majority of Heath's own party, extremely doubtful. That the negotiations were eventually brought to a successful conclusion and the act of accession carried through Parliament was very much due to Sir Edward's personal determination and enthusiasm.
With a distinguished war record as a gunner, he was one of that generation of politicians on both sides of the Channel who saw in a united Europe the only route to a prosperous and, above all, peaceful future for Britain as for the Continent. Others might look at it largely in economic terms - and, indeed, it was mostly on this basis that it was sold to Parliament and the British people - but Heath viewed it largely in political terms. He continued to do so until the end, despite the way his own party turned against the Union and the French and others have since turned against enlargement and the proposed new constitution.
In that sense Sir Edward was an idealist in the best sense of the word. In that sense too it could be said that he spent his force, and his most creative abilities, on a single cause. The concentration on the European issue made him insensitive to the problems of Northern Ireland and the crises brewing on the home front.
The qualities that helped him succeed in pushing the European cause - negotiating skill, a firm grasp of the overall strategic end and an ability to deal with other heads of state - also made him impatient with objections, and blind to changing circumstance. No more than his infinitely subtler opponent, Harold Wilson, could Edward Heath manage Britain's besetting and inter-related problems of inflation, poor productivity and excessive union power. But when it came to the showdown with the miners, he hadn't the sense of public mood to adjust his electoral timing nor the political skills to see his way through the confrontation.
He flirted with the ideas of liberalised markets and a withdrawal of the state that Margaret Thatcher was later to introduce but, when it came to it, his natural instincts were those of an interventionist and a corporatist. A grammar school boy who had made his own way to the top, he believed in a meritocratic elite like so many who had done the same and he gravitated all too easily, especially later, to those who held power abroad.
Could he have matured into an elder statesmen when, having lost two elections in succession, he was ousted from the party leadership by Mrs Thatcher? Was it unbecoming for him to have shown quite such sourness to those who followed him? The answer must be yes, although it is noticeable that neither Lloyd George, Harold Macmillan nor Lady Thatcher herself found it any easier to decline into gracious old age, or to bless their successors. Politicians, as Tony Blair may yet find out, are rarely happy out of office and out of the public eye.
- More about:
- Conservative Party
- Harold Wilson
- Labour Party
- Margaret Thatcher
- Northern Ireland