Plonking

Ferdinand Mount

  • Edward Heath by Philip Ziegler
    Harper, 654 pp, £25.00, June 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 724740 0

At the end of his official biography of Lord Mountbatten 25 years ago, Philip Ziegler wrote: ‘There was a time when I became so enraged by what I began to feel was his determination to hoodwink me that I found it necessary to place on my desk a notice saying: REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN.’ At the end of his authorised biography of Edward Heath, Ziegler writes: ‘He was a great man, but his blemishes, though far less considerable, were quite as conspicuous as his virtues, and it is too often by his blemishes that he is remembered.’ In the case of Mountbatten, we were to understand, it was the charm, the deviousness, the sexual vanity, the manipulation of people and the rewriting of history that were in danger of blinding us to the genuine achievements. Heath’s traits were almost the direct opposite: charmlessness, rudeness, sexual neutrality, rancour, an excess of candour and an unwillingness to budge. But these too we are to forgive, or at least put to one side, and see beyond to the solid body of achievement. The trouble is that in both cases Ziegler’s relentless accumulation and presentation of the evidence diminish that achievement to near-invisible proportions. Mountbatten smashed up almost every ship he skippered, and as a strategic commander his ingenious schemes vanished into the air with alarming rapidity. And Heath?

Ziegler has not lost his silken narrative touch, nor his insidious but brilliant gift of making the best possible case for his subject while not hesitating to show him in the worst possible light. Only thus can a biographer who hopes to be authorised or official please the victim’s family or executors while serving the cause of truth. This is a deliciously readable and unfailingly fair book, but I cannot believe that its subject would have liked it any better than he cared for John Campbell’s 1993 biography, Heath’s own copy of which is scrawled with angry marginalia – ‘Nonsense!’, ‘No!’ and ‘Wrong!’

Campbell’s book was less alluring in style, more detailed in its accounts of interminable negotiations, psychologically no less acute than Ziegler’s, but above all more hopeful that history would judge Heath less harshly than his contemporaries did; indeed, that his reputation was already beginning to be restored. Heath, he wrote, was arguably the true Tory, and his ‘lonely doom-mongering looks more prescient than he was given credit for in the heady boom years.’ Campbell, writing after the collapse of the Lawson boom, thought that Thatcherism had ended in painful disillusion and that Heath had been ‘a political Cassandra, very largely right but not believed’. Yet 17 years later, there are few signs of any such restoration of Heath’s reputation, and Ziegler makes scarcely any such claims. It was to Thatcher, not Heath, that Tony Blair hastened to pay court. And although the Con-Lib coalition has made much of its determination to protect the poorest against the cuts better than they were protected in the 1980s, it is common ground that the reduction of the deficit must be given top priority even in a recession. The protests of Keynesians and vulgar-Keynesian journalists are no more listened to than the 364 of their brethren who wrote to the Times to protest against the 1981 budget. Ted Heath’s angry shade remains unloved and unappeased.

Not since Achilles has a public figure been so notorious for wrath. The journalist George Gale spoke of Heath’s ‘angry will’. Yet the sources of this anger remain hard to get at. If it was some sexual hurt which made Heath so solitary and so horrible to women (though, as Campbell points out, he could be equally horrible to men – it was just that the women minded it more), then it must have been as obscure as the hurt allegedly suffered by Henry James, since nobody so far has convincingly explained it.

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