Sir Edward Heath: One Nation Tory's political legacy

By Julia Langdon
Political journalist

Published
image captionEdward Heath entered Downing Street after winning the 1970 general election

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party Treasurer, might perhaps have waited a little longer before publishing his colourful biography of the prime minister.

The sensational headline-hogging allegations in Call Me Dave, motivated apparently by a sense of aggrievement at David Cameron's failure to give his lordship a decent government job in exchange for some handsome financial support for the party will undoubtedly be an ongoing source of amused chit-chat in the political salons and public saloons of Manchester at this year's party conference.

It seems likely, however, that real political debate may nonetheless take precedence, given the party's success in winning an overall parliamentary majority just months ago.

What perhaps should excite more public interest and attention, diverting though Lord Ashcroft's somewhat trivial revelations have been, are the circumstances in which sensational claims about public figures are publicised, sometimes without any supporting justification, let alone evidence.

Take, for example, the extraordinary swirl of rumours that emerged about the late Sir Edward Heath. These were puzzling and perplexing.

The allegation that the former prime minister may have been involved in child sex abuse has astonished the political world, raising perhaps as many questions about the behaviour of the police and the press in this "post-Savile" public atmosphere where fear of any kind of official cover-up exceeds all other considerations.

Now, in recent days, we learn that the police themselves admit that they have indeed made errors here.

What seems bizarre is that Sir Edward's life may now be recorded with more attention paid to this unlikely postscript than to the political legacy of a man who led the Conservative Party for 10 years and who was single-handedly responsible for the most momentous change in recent British history by taking the country into Europe.

The claims that have propelled Sir Edward's name on to the front pages have eclipsed the fact that it is 50 years since he won the leadership of his party, the first working-class meritocrat to do so in the party's modern history.

And this year also marks the 40th anniversary of his ignominious and unexpected defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, the second party leader from humble origins, who had seen and learned from his example that the Conservative Party was changing and that social class no longer defined the ability of an individual to succeed in politics.

One Nation Tory

It was as much a surprise that Sir Edward won the 1970 general election as his initial election as leader.

He was a "One Nation" Tory in the Disraeli tradition who rejected the laissez-faire capitalism that Baroness Thatcher would enthusiastically endorse.

"What distinguishes man from animals is his desire and his ability to control and to shape his environment," was how he once defined his political philosophy.

An officer who had fought in World War Two and was decorated for his military achievements, he believed passionately in a united Europe.

image captionAs PM, Sir Edward treated his ministers "as the headmaster treats his sixth form"

It would be this cause, Britain's accession to the Common Market, as it was then known, which would underscore Sir Edward's place in history.

This is far from forgotten, of course, and not least because Conservative Party mainstream opinion has veered sharply away from the endorsement of Europe that was the acceptable Tory norm 40 years ago; to this extent Sir Edward is viewed by today's Conservative Euro sceptics not as hero, but villain.

What marked, marred and ultimately destroyed his government however, was nothing to do with Brussels, which was a contentious issue then only in the Labour Party.

It was, rather, his attempts to control the trades unions and prevent inflationary wage claims.

He embarked on a disastrous attempt to curb the unions' industrial muscle, with even less success than Barbara Castle in the previous Labour government, and he made the particular mistake of taking on the miners.

Mistaken

Sir Edward was an imperious man with a brusque, brook-no-argument manner.

That was as true in private meetings of the cabinet as in public meetings with other politicians, or even in social circumstances where he exhibited the diplomatic skills of a diplodocus.

The TUC leader of those days, Vic Feather, remarked that he "treats his ministers not as the headmaster treats his staff, but as the headmaster treats his sixth form".

This mistaken sense of being in the right was what led him, with the country riven by inflation and industrial strife, to call the February 1974 election on the question of "Who Runs Britain?"

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSir Edward left Downing Street after losing the 1974 election

When Labour won more seats than the Tories and Sir Edward failed to patch together a coalition with the Liberals, Harold Wilson got a second term at the head of a minority government.

When that became an overall Labour majority in October of the same year, Sir Edward was finished.

He lost two general elections and then the party leadership as a consequence primarily of ineptitude, but it was also the end of an era for the Conservatives, as Margaret Thatcher's election to succeed him demonstrated so dramatically in 1975.

Sir Edward Heath: In quotes:

"We will have to embark on a change so radical, a revolution so quiet and yet so total, that it will go far beyond the programme for a parliament" - October 1970 to the Conservative Party conference

"I am not a product of privilege. I am a product of opportunity" - 1974

"You mustn't expect prime ministers to enjoy themselves. If they do, they mustn't show it - the population would be horrified" - November, 1976

"Do you know what Margaret Thatcher did in her first Budget? Introduced VAT on yachts! It somewhat ruined my retirement" - 1992

As the Conservatives moved into a more modern world than that exemplified by Sir Edward's post-war predecessors, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden and Sir Winston Churchill, so it rejected the age of deference and unquestioning loyalty to the leader whoever it might be.

Sir Edward lost the leadership because of a complacency that hinted at arrogance and because his ineptitude meant he had lost the loyalty of the MPs on whom he depended for re-election.

Bad loser

Nothing of his record in the following 26 years in which he remained in public life is much to his credit.

He was an ever-present bulwark on the Commons back benches, a personal testimony to the principle of being a bad loser.

I was among the journalists he would invite to dinner at his home in Salisbury or at party conferences in order to annoy and embarrass Baroness Thatcher, showing the extent to which he revelled in repudiating her.

image copyrightPA
image captionSir Edward was a persistent critic of his successor as party leader, Margaret Thatcher

I sat next to him more than once and found him amiable in a rather chilly fashion. I was told by an aide that he rather liked me which was mildly alarming and made me somewhat unusual.

I can't say I reciprocated, but I feel sorry for him now.

Ten years after his death, his party has changed beyond recognition.

Little remains of his political approach - although others, Sir John Major and David Cameron, have laid claim to the One Nation philosophy.

British membership of Europe will be his lasting political testament.

It is David Cameron's responsibility now to deliver an answer to the question of whether that will be a legacy that lasts.

More on this story

Around the BBC