Edward Heath: the Authorised Biography

To Edward Heath, there was no contradiction between love for his country, Conservative values and hi

The date is July 1965, the occasion is the election for the leadership of the Conservative Party. The main contenders are Reginald Maudling, former chancellor of the Exchequer, and Edward Heath, former Lord Privy Seal and in charge of the British negotiations for entry into the Common Market. News arrives that Heath has won the election, by a considerable margin. Maudling retires to the House of Commons smoking room and takes refuge behind a glass of Scotch. "What is there left for me to do save to sit here and get pissed?" he asks, and suits his action to the advice.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Palace of Westminster, Peter Walker keeps company with the winner, recalling later that "he was obviously happy . . . but already recognising the magnitude of his task. He had an immense desire to restore the fortunes of his country. Much of his political motivation is in fact simple patriotism." Such platitudes might come naturally to many politicians at the moment of success and may be discounted accordingly: taken by itself, the comment is banal. But when applied to Heath, it will ring true to those who worked closely with him. Indeed, it provides the key to much else in his life, which would otherwise be confused or contradictory.

Heath had a rough way with books about his life except those that he wrote himself. Philip Ziegler makes good use of the marginal criticisms that Heath scribbled on his copy of John Campbell's perceptive biography, published in 1993. Heath's own autobiography (The Course of My Life, 1998) emerged only after a slow and painful birth, but deals more fully and more frankly with the difficult passages of his life than some of us had expected. Yet there always was room for a further book, which Ziegler has now supplied, bringing to the task his familiar blend of wit and perceptiveness. His book is described as the "authorised biography", by which is meant simply that he was given full access to Heath's papers by his trustees. They made no attempt to influence or guide him in the use that he made of this material. The result is a more rounded account of the man than we have had from others or from himself.

No effort is made here to disguise the mistakes or defects of his career. Heath could be a brilliant host, but was often an appalling guest. In the company of others, he often fell short of that minimum of courteous communication which we usually take for granted. Although a determined musician, he paid no particular attention to the harmonies of the English language. He was often slow to make up his mind, but excessively stubborn in refusing to admit a mistake. These were real failings that brought him much trouble; yet, for most of us, they were eclipsed by the conviction that here was a man who, in and out of season, was working to find the right answers to the problems that were besetting his country.

Heath is remembered primarily for his success in taking Britain into the European Economic Community. Some regard this as a denial, rather than an affirmation, of patriotism. It is true that Heath remained throughout his career a convinced and determined European. He did not, like President de Gaulle, reluctantly accept membership of the EEC as a means of ensuring the greater glory of his own country. In the troubled circumstances of today, he would certainly be arguing for completing economic and monetary union by fiscal harmonisation. We can be sure of this because, in March 1973, he came very close to this position in his talks at Schloß Gymnich with Chancellor Willy Brandt. And he would certainly have seized on the difficulties of Greece to renew such an initiative. He would have seen no contradiction between that and his patriotism. For him, logic would have dictated that the British interest lay in further European integration, just as inexorably as it impelled Peel to repeal the Corn Laws. Whether Heath would have made a better job than Peel of explaining this decision to the British people is less clear; but he would certainly have tried, even if it meant perishing in the attempt.

There are other examples where a somewhat old-fashioned patriotism swayed his thinking. In November 1967, he brushed aside the argument that the British economy would benefit from devaluation. For Heath, this was a political matter: devaluation was a crushing political defeat unworthy of a great country. He felt the same about Denis Healey's decision as defence secretary, the following year, to withdraw British forces from "east of Suez". To Heath, the money saved was inconsequential compared to the loss of prestige that would result from a quite unnecessary abdication. By the time he came to power in 1970, it was too late to reverse that decision, though he did his best to retrieve something in the Far East. Those of us who attended the dinner for Commonwealth leaders on board HMS Intrepid off Singapore in 1971 will not forget the wave of nostalgia which swept over that occasion in part-mourning, part-celebration of the sunset of empire.

Ziegler deals briskly with Norman Tebbit's argument that, before 1970, Heath had signalled the end of the postwar Butskellite consensus on economic policy. He admits that Heath denounced bureaucracy and socialism in conventional Tory terms. But in practice he was developing an admiring relationship with the civil service. He had accepted, but later regretted, a commitment to oppose a statutory incomes policy. In cabinet, he discouraged theoretical discussion and stuck as closely as he could to his own pragmatic approach on economic matters. Even before the Industry Act 1972, with its wide range of incentives for investment, Heath had shown over Rolls-Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders that he was prepared to intervene in support of ailing companies. He envied the positive French approach to government help for key industries. As trade and industry secretary under Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-64, his two main priorities had been to improve competition by abolishing resale price maintenance and using taxpayers' money to encourage regional development. Heath saw no contradiction between these two policies.

But in the end, pragmatism was not enough. First, he was forced into an incomes policy that placed a formidable load on the civil service. When this policy was challenged by the miners in 1972 and 1973, he cast around desperately for some means of escape. Meeting after meeting ended without success. So, far from welcoming the prospect of a general election on the theme "Who governs the country?", Heath dreaded it and postponed a decision until the last possible moment. Against his own judgement, he found himself leading the party back to the old days of class warfare. I am one of those who believe that if he had held the first election of 1974 three weeks earlier, the Conservatives would have won. But that was not Ted's way. His courage did not desert him and he made the best fist of the hand he was dealt. In the end, a new and harsher generation took over the Conservative Party. The wheel has now turned, and once more the pragmatists are in charge and we have a coalition government. Heath would have wished it all possible luck.

Lord Hurd was Edward Heath's political secretary from 1970-74

Edward Heath: the Authorised Biography
Philip Ziegler
HarperPress, 672pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas