Held in misguided contempt

Observations on Ted Heath

As a new MP in 1994, I was fascinated by the brooding spectacle of Edward Heath. I made my maiden speech in a debate on Europe just after he had spoken. Two themes at the heart of Heath's politics, Europe and appeasement, came together. Anti-Europeanism was on the rise among the Tories and Heath's speech oozed contempt for it.

It was also a moment when Conservative foreign-policy chiefs such as Malcolm Rifkind were twisting to find any excuse not to use force to stop the genocide of Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. So it was easy for me to praise Heath for his stand in 1938, when he opposed the pro-appeasement Quintin Hogg in a by-election at Oxford, and also to thank him for having the guts, years later, to set aside conventional Whitehall thinking and take Britain into Europe.

"Good speech," he said to me gruffly afterwards. We exchanged occasional words in his remaining years as an MP. He did not say much more in the House, though I recall one speech full of venom for the United States and "American culture, if you can call it that". Heath was the only postwar prime minister who did not care much about the US and did not bother to schmooze its president.

It is easy to forget that the United States he dealt with was immensely weakened by the decision of Nixon and Kissinger to continue the Vietnam war long after a pull-out was inevitable, by Nixon's destruction of the Bretton Woods system, and by the upheavals of the civil rights movement. The cynicism, racism, anti-Semitism and contempt for democratic norms of Nixon's Washington further underlined Heath's (mistaken) belief that Europe was good and America bad.

When he rose to speak, there would be moans and mutterings from the lumpen Europhobe Tories behind him. He would turn and glare at them, and observe that "good manners no longer seem to apply in the House". It was a treat to watch him in Churchill's seat below the gangway. When he listened to David Davis, the Tory Europe minister who could never hide his contempt for and ignorance of the EU, Heath would shake his great head and stare bleakly into the distance.

I had grown up with the Grocer Heath image from Private Eye, and marched against his industrial relations reforms in the 1970s - although his proposals would have left unions legally stronger than they are today under the EU Social Charter. Later, as an MP, I heard him at diplomatic functions and he was a commanding speaker, with funny anecdotes and perfect timing. I could see then how he had won his way to power in the old Tory party.

In 2003 I organised a lunch for him, to mark three decades of British EU membership. Tony Blair made a charming speech: as the only member of the current cabinet to have voted "yes" in the 1975 referendum or to have been pro-European in the 1980s, the 1990s and so far this century, Blair may have more in common with Heath than he would care to admit. And after the years of appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic associated with Rifkind and John Major, the leadership of Blair in tackling fascistic politics in the Balkans and further east is of the same stuff that led Heath into politics in the 1930s.

Heath made a short speech about how he and President Pompidou came to an agreement after walking around and around the gardens of the Elysee, with no officials present. It was touching to see Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine come to sit by him afterwards: a tableau of the Tory party that had ruled Britain for most of my life. Both of the chief candidates to lead today's Conservatives are hostile to the EU and have never apologised for the appeasement policies of the 1990s. Is there a Ted Heath at Balliol today ready to take on the conventional wisdom of the Conservatives? The contempt most Tories feel for Ted Heath and his values explains why they are enjoying their longest ever period of opposition.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was a Foreign Office minister from 2001-2005