Wednesday, July 20, 2005

So what are we to make of Edward Heath?

Well, at least he did not outlive his “nemesis”, whom he had managed outsit in the House, Margaret Thatcher. She, in her inimitable way, produced a “eulogy” that was about as backhanded as it can be:
“Ted Heath was a political giant. He was also, in every sense, the first modern Conservative leader - by his humble background, his grammar school education and by the fact of his democratic election.

As prime minister, he was confronted by the enormous problems of post-war Britain.

If those problems eventually defeated him, he had shown in the 1970 manifesto how they, in turn, would eventually be defeated.

For that, and much else besides, we are all in his debt.”
Wonderful stuff. There she is, praising the man, while making it quite clear that he was a complete failure and the person who managed to put the right policies into action was herself. What would we do without the Lady?

The reason, I venture to suggest, why there is so much description and analysis of other aspects of his policy, not the Common Market, is because it was all the rest that was important at the time.

As his obituaries bring back the full horror of his completely unsuccessful premiership, it becomes ever more comprehensible why so many people thought at the time that membership of the Common Market may well be the answer to Britain’s problems. Why anyone should think that membership of the EU is the answer to her problems now, of course, remains a mystery.

Edward Heath himself was a passionate believer in the whole idea. This is very important. He genuinely thought it was the best thing for Western Europe and the best thing for this country.

I do not go along with the idea that he was a traitor or that he was somehow paid for his “treachery”. The evidence for the large sums he was supposed to have received has never been shown and the fact that “everyone knows” something they could not possibly know is of little import.

At this point it is worth noting that a man who has a good salary and ever increasing expenses (as all MPs did and do), who also manages to earn well for his books (mysterious though it is why anyone should want to read them) and gets the odd Charlemagne prize but has no family to feed, clothe, educate and amuse, can live extremely well.

The obituary in the Daily Telegraph summed up the problem of Edward Heath and his failure well:
“… the “Grocer” was pilloried as a heartless automaton, contemptuous of the poor and unemployed. In reality, his administration twisted and turned because the kind of Conservatism which Heath espoused – and which appealed to his instincts far more than did the prescriptions of the market-place – was corporatist rather than political, dirigiste rather than democratic.”
Clearly, a man with that sort of outlook would rather approve of the concepts outlined by Monnet and Schumann, concepts that he actually understood better than almost anyone in Britain. But the idea that managerialism rather than messy politics is the answer was the mantra of the sixties and seventies.

Indeed, it has not disappeared from public life. This government, in particular, is adept at setting up various groups of “experts” to tackle problems that ought to be the province of democratically elected and accountable politicians.

One can probably isolate several formative influences. First and foremost there was the fact, noted by Thatcher, that he was the son of a manual worker (a carpenter), who made it to Oxford, became an officer in the socially exclusive Honourable Royal Artillery Company, and rose in the Conservative Party at a time when family background mattered a great deal.

He was, thus, something of an outsider who had made good through his own remarkable but somewhat pedestrian talents.

However, and this is important, he was not really outstanding. Pace Bill Deedes, also in the Daily Telegraph he was not a star, or, at least not one of the first magnitude. (One might say that this reflects in his music-making – always scrupulous and pernickety but with no heart or feeling. He is supposed to have conducted like a metronome.)

Getting to a good school and Oxford from his background was admirable but he did not get that coveted scholarship (though, eventually, he got an Organ Scholarship). He left with a Second Class degree – very respectable, indeed, in those days but hardly brilliant.

He was a good administrator, a reasonable Whip but never a good, let alone great, politician. That must have hurt, particularly as his hated successor became such a shining star.

The other formative influences were his precocious understanding of the reality and threat of Nazi Germany and his view of Europe at the end of the War.

At Oxford Heath was an anti-appeaser and campaigned for A.D.Lindsay against the official Conservative candidate, Quintin Hogg, who supported Munich.

He visited Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany. Astonishingly, for a young man in his early twenties he grasped the significance of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and immediately started to make his way back to England, returning before the declaration of war.

He had what used to be called “a good war”, saw a good deal of active service, was mentioned in dispatches and given a wartime MBE. Again, that meant something in 1946. As his regiment rolled across Europe in 1944-5 he witnessed what had become of the places he had visited in 1939. Many of those who saw the same thing accepted the need for European unification to avoid such a catastrophe again.

His other great belief, also the result of his essentially managerial attitude to politics, was in size. Units had to be big to survive and thrive. Again, this was a mantra of those years.

Size was one of the arguments used in favour of the comprehensivization of English and Scottish education, a process that was started under Wilson and continued relentlessly under Heath.

Size was the reason for the destruction of the old counties and London boroughs. Local government had to be conducted in large units.

Size was the reason for the similar destruction of the old police forces.

It was not till well into the eighties that the words “small is beautiful” and the understanding that political and social structures cannot function if they lose their contacts with the human members of it, became widespread, though not actually put into action.

As one thinks of Heath’s premiership, one remembers the bright promise: the Selsdon Park meeting adopted a number of policies that might, if pushed through relentlessly, have solved some of Britain’s problems. They were ditched at the first difficulty with the unions, partly because Heath lacked the necessary ruthlessness but partly because he did not really believe in them.

His premiership also began with the expulsion of 94 Soviet agents, a welcome relief after the determined flirtation with the Soviet Union that had characterized Harold Wilson’s attitude.

But it collapsed into failure. The battle with the unions seemed relentless and catastrophic; the country endured annual power cuts, three-day weeks, legislation that was supposed to curb wage demands but never worked; Northern Ireland disintegrated. By the time Heath left office there seemed no hope anywhere and the second Wilson and Callaghan governments continued the downward spiral.

In the midst of it all came the continuing negotiations for Common Market membership and the battle to push through the European Community Act. There is no question that Heath lied a great deal about the realities of the Common Market and the agreements he had made.

In particular, he lied about the agreements on the fisheries and the lies were subsequently repeated by Harold Wilson. The truth about the betrayal of the fishermen was not revealed till many years later.

Heath was economical with the truth about his understanding that a single currency was being planned. But the terms of the Treaty of Rome and of the European Community Act were publicly available. The no campaigners in 1975 referred to the first document continuously. If their warnings were not taken into account, that was a serious oversight on the part of the electorate and the politicians.

This is not the place to go into the details of the referendum campaign, in which Heath, together with most senior Conservative politicians took part, as he was not by then the Prime Minister. He was not even the Leader of the Opposition.

Despite the fact that the two 1974 elections produced very respectable results in terms of popular vote, the truth remained that he had lost them. In fact, he had lost three of the four elections he fought, a fact that he, rather incomprehensibly, never acknowledged, apparently even to himself.

It all became much worse after 1975. His “great sulk” against Mrs Thatcher meant that he effectively tried to sabotage a number of her policies and rejoiced with unseemly delight when she was finally forced to resign.

His joyous support for all aspects of European integration, even as it became more and more obvious that the effects on this country were appalling, grated more and more.

Worst of all was his ever more obvious power mania. The man who began his government by expelling all those Soviet agents, now spent a great deal of time cosying up to the Chinese leadership, even accepting various consusltancies.

He publicly justified the Tiananmen Square massacre and showed his “statesmanship” by defending Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. The man who, as an undergraduate, campaigned against appeasement, went off to “negotiate” with the Iraqi tyrant, explaining that the latter regretted his rather precipitate action in Kuwait. Eventually, I expect, he did regret it.

One has to assume that he was rather a lonely man and yet many people who knew him speak highly of his kindness. He was re-elected until 2001 when he decided to step down because he was a good and popular constituency MP. He was often a funny and entertaining speaker.

He was also rude and brusque and managed to antagonize most of his colleagues, the entire corps of journalists and most people who came across him.

There seems no way of reconciling many of his contradictions. At a much lower level, his personality, motivation and behaviour resemble those of Marshal Petain. In the end, they were both failures on a grand scale, though Heath failed, probably, more spectacularly than Petain. After all, he could not have missed in his last months that even his beloved EU is showing severe signs of straining and fraying.

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