The Curse of My Life: My Autobiography 
by Edward Heath.
Hodder, 767 pp., £25, October 1998, 0 340 70852 2
Show More
Show More

In Modern British politics, Edward Heath is the Old Man of the Sea. Not quite as ancient as Methuselah, he has been around for five active decades which sometimes seem like a century. The ocean was what famously passed for his recreational hinterland, and the jacket of his autobiography shows an open, smiling face which could be that of a tweedy amateur sea-dog, weather-beaten and gimlet-eyed, and is, at a guess, at least ten years behind the corpulent, irritable landlubber who now rolls with some difficulty round the House of Commons. But Heath also has the Old Man’s figurative presence. He’s the burden from which the political system has not found release. He has never been persuaded to retire from the scene, but continues to perform the role he invented for himself two decades ago, as the face of the old, generous, socially concerned Conservatism that Margaret Thatcher destroyed and neither John Major nor William Hague has done anything to re-create. While most other believers in this brand of Toryism, not only from Heath’s generation but the next two, have slipped away, to the House of Lords and points east, this old, old man, 83 next birthday, is still there, fuming righteously.

Before considering the history in this memoir, it’s worth recalling the history of it. The author has taken 24 years to get it written. If that seems a laboured way of describing the process, it is exact. Heath has long told visitors about the 14 tons of private/public papers lodged at his house in Salisbury, on which the great work would be based, and seemed unembarrassed by his interminable slowness in producing it. Cohorts of research assistants came and went, their work hardly allowed to begin. Most former ministers are advised to get down to writing their memoirs the moment the waters close over them, for fear of falling victim to the amnesia of the reading public. Anyone remember Reginald Maudling, Heath’s rival for the Conservative leadership in 1965? Would you buy the life of James Callaghan now, if he hadn’t cashed in long ago? Did you then, for that matter? The stately progress of the Heath oeuvre reveals a certain chutzpah in an author evidently quite confident that people will still care about his life-chronicle. But that doesn’t entirely explain the procrastination, which has less to do with mechanics than psychology. The trouble with Ted, his friends confided to historians awaiting his version of many controversial events, is that he cannot face the past. He had the worst case of writer’s block ever found in the normally resilient profession of politics. In particular, he couldn’t bear to address the circumstances of his decline and fall in 1974, and the way this paved for Margaret Thatcher, whose ascendancy was directly due to his failure and who remained the focus of his unremitting bile. To write all that down was, for the moment, beyond him, and to explain it was even further out of reach.

He was, however, determined to get it down some time. The field couldn’t be left to other memoirists, least of all herself. And the delay had advantages that are visible in his text. Distance lends proportion and thoroughness at least to parts of the view. We learn quite a lot about how the working-class boy from Broadstairs eased with remarkable speed into an Establishment that was much more rigorously stratified in the Fifties than it is today. Oxford was the class-solvent and the 1939 war the social propellant. From Oxford onwards, Heath sat at Winston Churchill’s feet and was rewarded. At 21, having taken the anti-appeasement line in student debates, he was invited to the Savoy Hotel. Lunch in the River Room, he insouciantly writes, was postponed by Hitler’s annexation of Austria, but Churchill re-made the date and gave the boys champagne. It was Churchill, later, who made Heath deputy chief whip, and set him on the road, after an early false start in business and then in the Civil Service. The young man was looking for ‘a satisfactory passport to the upper echelons’, and had he been sent to the Treasury rather than Civil Aviation when he passed the Civil Service exam, Whitehall is where he might well have found it. Many, indeed, thought this should have been his métier, as they surveyed the halting record of a political leader who often seemed better suited to administration – even, John Biffen used to say, management consultancy – than the raw battlefield of ideas. But he always longed for politics, and was blessed with patrons who found his ambition worth cultivating. ‘Do come and stay the weekend with us so that you can have a rest,’ Clemmie Churchill is still saying to him, as late as 1960.

So he developed early roots as a governing man. It was a status which, once achieved, would never be surrendered. As chief whip, Heath was one of only five ministers apprised of the truth about Suez, and was therefore party to the mendacious charade of Israeli invasion and Anglo-French intervention in Egypt in 1956. It appears to have caused him some momentary inner difficulty, and he records his efforts to change the mind of Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister. Heath was, it seems, totally against the subterfuge. But he would not have considered resigning. A chief whip could never resign. His job, at all costs, was to hold the Party together. This subordination of means to ends, of anything that might be called conscience to the needs – indeed, the duty – of survival in the power élite has been a consistent thread in Heath’s life, never more visible than in the last 24-year period when, in truth, he has hardly mattered a damn to political developments in Britain.

After Churchill, his patron was Harold Macmillan, who ‘had by far the most constructive mind I have encountered in a lifetime of politics’. There was an almost touching mutual dependence between the two: Macmillan relied on his chief whip in the post-Suez months after Eden’s fall, and then put him in charge of the project that was to define, and subsequently end, his political career – Britain’s first attempt to enter the European Economic Community. In terms of perspective and disclosure, this is one of the chapters that better justifies Heath’s delay in writing. As well as portraying rather graphically his French counterparts, notably the Foreign Minister Couve de Murville, he admits, unusually, to error. The original British negotiating position, he now reckons, was far too inflexible. This contributed to a bad sequence of timing that helped give General de Gaulle the opening for his veto in January 1963. Macmillan also erred in brazenly negotiating with Washington to secure the next generation of ‘British’ nuclear weaponry just as the EEC deal was supposed to be coming to a head. Macmillan is not treated as a hero in this respect. He also emerges, for the first time in my reading, in the full regalia of an anti-German. Heath was present at a dinner for the Duke of Edinburgh during which these feelings erupted in language that even Mrs Thatcher was never recorded as matching. ‘The Huns are always the same,’ Britain’s first semi-European leader declared to the company assembled on HMS Britannia. ‘When they are down they crawl under your feet, and when they are up they use their feet to stamp on your face.’

For Heath, such opinions were anathema. He never felt a trace of them, but derived instead, from ceaseless tours of the Continent before and after the war, a belief that all of Western Europe should become ‘European’, as the essential precondition of future peace. The need for Britain to be part of this Europe was a conviction. Almost uniquely among politicians of his age, he defined it and sustained it without deviation throughout his life. He made its fulfilment his own admirable historic achievement. But it wasn’t his only conviction, and the reader of this book will perhaps be less struck by it than by being obliged to recall the domestic organisation of the nation-state’s economy that Heath has also always stood for. While Europe was at the heart of his time as prime minister, from 1970 to 1974, it is not at the core of the Heath conundrum. He did eventually take Britain in, and would happily have written a book about that triumph long ago. But it was his view of economic management, of industry, of trade unions, and of the way all these meshed together that composed the vision, and then the disaster, that history will tend to see as the defining feature of the Government of Edward Heath.

Before he was sent to conduct Macmillan’s negotiations in Brussels, Heath had a spell as minister of labour, when he began his quest for a style of economic government that was avowedly corporatist. ‘I was always in favour of co-operation and regular high-level meetings between government, unions and employers,’ he writes. By July 1960, when he left for higher things, he thought he had made a good beginning, and got a letter from Vic Feather, an official of the Trades Union Congress, commending him on the respect and confidence he enjoyed with trade unions. From the start of his time in the ministry, he had made it clear to his officials that he ‘did not believe workers were solely to blame for poor industrial relations’. Although this early period of grappling with the problem was marked by a rail strike and numerous wage disputes in the public sector, the minister persisted in his search for the holy grail of sweet reason, as he recalls: ‘I was impressed above all by the cordial tripartite relations which appeared to exist in other countries’ – the European model brought home, as he hoped, to Britain.

When he became prime minister, he resumed relations with Vic Feather, now the head of the TUC. But his quest for the corporatist ideal was immediately complicated. Alongside his desire to get on with the unions was an insistence that they must be reformed, backed up by some trenchant manifesto language pouring scorn on the failure of Harold Wilson’s Government to stick to its own, similar, reformist intentions. The curse of public sector strikes would be met by an Industrial Relations Bill, curbing wildcat action and putting the unions within the framework of tort and contract, which, he thought, ‘would surely bring about sanity in the long term’. So this was one conflicted aspiration: keep the unions on side, yet at the same time reduce their power. Another cropped up almost as quickly. Having set their face against anything that could be described as a formal incomes policy, ministers quite soon were forced to dabble in one, which was first described as ‘voluntary’ but then evolved into a statutory imposition, which purported to control every detail of public and private sector pay during the later part of the Heath Government.

The central passages of the book are a retelling of the corporatist saga that failed: of deals done and undone, micro-pay disputes that came and went across the cabinet table, endless sessions with TUC and CBI leaders as agreements were ever more desperately thrashed out that would determine growth-rates and bear down on balance-of-payments problems. The entire paraphernalia of the experiment in tripartite government is relentlessly laid out. It is not an easy read, but two aspects of it are especially striking all this time later.

One is the sense of an age that has utterly passed. For those who lived through it, there’s a grisly horror in being forced to remember a long-gone mantra like ‘Stage Three of the Counter-Inflation Strategy’, or recall that it was the inquiry of the Pay Board into something called ‘relativities’ which helped lose Heath the February 1974 election, the climactic moment when his desire to get on with the unions was repaid by a miners’ strike that challenged him to ask the people a question they found intolerable: who governs Britain? Heath records all this in a level-headed way. His sober recreation of a distant age is rendered the more admirable by the repellent grimness of most of the story. For younger readers, formed in the Thatcherite world, the account may arouse the same incredulity, concerning a world they could barely imagine, as a visit to the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.

But this passionless account comes at a price. The second telling aspect is Heath’s extraordinary lack of reflection about the meaning of the events that brought him down. He has nothing interesting to say about what went wrong. The Industry Act of 1972, for example, besides contradicting the non-interventionist industrial strategy to which the Tories were originally committed, supplied the legal basis for a great deal more propping-up of lame duck industries under the next Labour government. This reached a level that most Tories on all sides opposed. The policy of intervention raises complex issues. But a quarter-century’s time to reflect has induced in Heath nothing better than the bald assertion that other people – Thatcher – dogmatically motivated, have been ‘sitting back and doing nothing while our industrial base falls into decline’. As for the crack-up with the unions, it bears no more evaluation than the growling complaint that ‘the next generation of Tory leaders would give up on the unions altogether, casting them into outer darkness.’ To explain his final defeat at the hands of the people, several scapegoats are wheeled out, including the media and the inept corporatists, most prominently the CBI, whom he himself had invited into the heart of government. Still alluding to the case he made for an incomes policy, and the forces that defeated it, he remarks: ‘Unfortunately, it takes a long time for those concerned to see the folly of their ways.’ There’s little sign here that the old leader, freighted with reflective wisdom, would concede a particle of folly in his.

This entire volume, in fact, is an exercise in opportunities studiously missed. Most political memoirs turn into oppressive apologias, but Heath does not deign to make the apologia that his situation, after all this time, requires. Bald assertion does not meet the case. Nor does simple silence, which is what he confers on the other largest charge many Conservatives make against him, the dissembling over his biggest achievement, entry into the EEC. Since he left office, a lively debate has grown about what he meant by this. Did he intend to curtail the independence of Britain? Did he know what the consequences would be for national sovereignty? Was he straight with the voters at the time? Did he have a secret plan, such as modern Euro-sceptics now vilify him for concocting? There are answers to all these questions that do not reflect badly on him, but he does not address them. He passes grandly over, as if the matter were beneath his dignity.

We have got used to memoirs that devote more creative energy to concealment than disclosure. In the end, Heath exposes little about the inner workings of his government and, apart from a handful of laborious set-piece anecdotes, offers no illuminating gossip. His book is much less revealing, for example, than Thatcher’s first volume, which was written in the heat of anger and, though unreadable in the normal sense, contains a wealth of disclosure both conscious and unintended. More unusual, and more unsatisfactory, especially from an author long removed from office, is the steadfast refusal to answer explicit arguments made against important aspects of his conduct of affairs.

But then there’s a sense in which Ted Heath has never, in his own mind, left power. He belongs, even now, to the governing class. Never has a discarded leader constructed a longer afterlife. This has been dominated by a clear definition of himself as the man of old Tory pragmatism and social concern, standing against the evils of Thatcher and all her works. Though the allies have been whittled away, the old man stands as a beacon of what should have been and what might yet be again. Such is the belief that has grandly sustained him. It is a living promise of middle-minded Conservatism which seems relevant even today – perhaps especially today – to anyone watching the rightist hole young William Hague is digging his party into.

Unfortunately, that is not the image of Heath this book summons up. Rather, his afterlife has been spent sustaining the kind of role in the world which seems to be a peculiarity of discredited British Conservative leaders: travelling, lecturing, journeying round the chancelleries, being reliably received. Will Helmut Kohl expect the kind of reception everywhere that the Baroness continues to arrange for herself, along with several thousand dollars a time? Would George Bush? Both Thatcher and John Major have got privately rich on the basis of their public jobs, and Heath has been at it for longer than anyone: a point that perhaps fills one of the many silences in his memoirs, the vexed question of his grand lifestyle and who pays for it. He still keeps himself in good diplomatic trim, having retained, amazingly, the aura of someone Boris Yeltsin thinks worth seeing and Saddam Hussein will negotiate with.

This aura, however, is not that of a man who has shaken off the compromises of office to develop a more detached, even principled, vision of the world. Such might be our expectation of a Tory wet, miles removed from the scene of the action. But not at all, as his autobiography spends some time recounting. At bottom, Heath remains what he has always been, an insatiable attender on the upper echelons of global power. He longs for the world of Tito, Churchill and Mao Zedong, at whose feet he sat. He says whose side he’s still unfailingly on, by sucking up to Iran’s leaders and explaining that Salman Rushdie had no right to cause offence to the Muslim world. His favourite theatre of après-power experience is China, which he never visited as prime minister, but where for many years the powers-that-be seem to have imagined that he remained the paramount leader of Britain. He records no fewer than 22 visits there, parlaying with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. As far as we know, these visits achieved absolutely nothing, except the loan of some giant pandas that refused to mate when they got to London Zoo. They were visits for the sake of visiting, an appetite successive Chinese have been prepared to humour, and for which they got their pay-off in the form of Heath’s slavish criticism of Governor Patten’s experiment in democracy in Hong Kong.

One of the little mysteries of modern historiography is why so few retired Conservative politicians write worthwhile accounts of their experience. I can think only of Nigel Lawson and, rather less thoroughly, Geoffrey Howe, who have done us the favour of attempting serious revelation of their public work – though the first Thatcher volume, highly selective as it is, is in a special class, and Douglas Hurd, who did produce a little gem about the Heath years, may yet prove himself the best memoirist of the second half of the Thatcher-Major hegemony. No Tory cabinet minister has kept diaries to equal the extraordinary raw material supplied by Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Tony Benn for the delectation of students of government. The best explanation for this party discrepancy I have hit on is that whereas all people of the right enter politics to exercise power, at least some people of the left are as fascinated by how they do what they do as they are by what they are doing. They are in it to get something done, but also to watch themselves at work. That was true, at any rate, of the Crossman generation, when the Labour Party still contained a few practising intellectuals among its senior Parliamentary cadres. I cannot spot any secret diarists in the Blair Cabinet.

Ted Heath conforms to this model. As a rightist, he was wholly concerned with the exercise of power, and retaining his place in the world of power. This means that, as a writer, he is seriously ill-equipped for the task he has undertaken, a failing that somehow declares itself more oppressively to the reader, given the eternity the author has taken. Did this length of time not foretell an exceptionally revealing insight into history? But Heath is not sufficiently interested in the system he was part of, and still less in exposing the human frailties and bloody battles that make any governing system tick. He has remained a power-man to the end, even when power has totally vanished. This means he has written a book that did not need to exist, save to gratify himself; and which quite fails to address the important controversies attaching to his name. In the end, this is a chronicle of unreflective vanity. The Old Man of the Sea has come to resemble the Flying Dutchman, wandering the world, destined never to disembark into a land that might give him what he thinks his due.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences