Tale from a Silver Age

Peter Clarke

  • Edward Heath: A Biography by John Campbell
    Cape, 876 pp, £20.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 224 02482 5

Time was when the leadership of the Tory Party passed smoothly and gracefully from one incumbent to the next, as the old leader, full of years and honours, felt moved to bow out and the new leader duly ‘emerged’. Behind the scenes, of course, it was often more tetchy, but appearances were decently kept up. No one supposed that Arthur Balfour, that inveterate political animal, was weary of politics when he pulled out in 1911, as he showed by insinuating himself into most of the Cabinets formed during the next twenty years. Like-wise, Austen Chamberlain’s displacement as Conservative leader in 1922 came as a rude shock. It was said that he always played the game and always lost it; having lost, his recriminations were private; in public he continued to play the game, in due course receiving the Foreign Office as a consolation prize.

Nor did his brother Neville relish being ousted as prime minister in 1940: but during the remaining months of his life he supported his successor, Winston Churchill, to whom the leadership of the Conservative Party then passed. Churchill, in turn, drove his last Cabinet wild with exasperation at the tenacity of his octogenarian grip on office, and the decencies were only just maintained. But, with whatever personal misgivings, he recognised Eden as his legitimate successor, just as Eden later forced a smile of approval when Macmillan took over. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a pocket-sized Balfour, emulated him both in deferring to the Party’s wish for change at the top and in serving under his successor.

That successor was Edward Heath, the first leader to be elected under elaborate new rules adopted by the Conservative Party in 1965. Those rules, given a further twist ten years later by none other than lord Home himself, set a formidable threshold of support for victory in the first ballot of a leadership election, making it difficult for a faltering incumbent to rely on inertia in seeing off a serious challenger. This was the system which allowed Thatcher to snatch the leadership from Heath in 1975 and Heseltine to knock out Thatcher in 1990, to the ultimate advantage of Major. It signalled a change not just in the rules but in the code.

Neither Heath nor Thatcher went quietly: neither of them played the game. For 15 years, Heath was to keep up an unremitting campaign, in defence of his own record and in criticism (increasingly explicit) of his successor’s policies, style and outlook. Conversely, Thatcherism was premised on a repudiation of ‘the policies that failed before’, which were not just those of the Labour Party but preeminently those of the Heath Government. Thatcher’s radical credentials, her claim to have ‘changed everything’, her aspiration to remould her party in her own image, all made it necessary to denigrate Heath as much as Wilson. Now that she in turn is gone to an unquiet political grave, and is in turn held at arm’s length by Major, how is the recent history of the Conservative Party to be written and rewritten?

John Campbell’s biography addresses this question with admirable erudition, insight and dispassion. It sets out to make the case for Heath in much the same way that Ben Pimlott’s biography did for Wilson last year: that is, not to argue for a favourable verdict with blinkered advocacy but to reopen judgments on an epoch which needs to be rescued from peremptory dismissal. Campbell has written an unusually long book on a living politician. He has made good use of earlier biographies and has assiduously mined contemporary printed sources. These, rather than archival materials or personal interviews, provide his main evidence.

In the first three parts of the book there is a searching account of Heath’s career up to his premiership. Part Four, much the longest in the book, is virtually a history of the Heath Government of 1970-4, with chapters like ‘Whitelaw in Ulster’ which are hardly biographical in the strict sense. Part Five on Heath’s fall, is virtually an epilogue, Part Six a codicil, showing how he denied any political legacy to his appointed successor. All told – and it is – this is surely the best account we can expect until Heath’s own papers become available and the public records are opened under the Thirty-Year Rule.

It is a tale from the silver age of the two-party system. Confronting each other as party leaders in the House of Commons for longer than Gladstone and Disraeli, Wilson and Heath displayed the qualities of a great prime minister – sensitive antennae, spontaneous wit and tactical adroitness; businesslike efficiency, consistency of purpose and strategic vision. The trouble was that Wilson had only the first set of qualities and Heath only the second. Heath was elected as leader in 1965 partly because the Conservatives believed not only that they needed a Wilson lookalike but also that Heath looked like Wilson. This was never a very perceptive judgment; it stood the test of time badly; and Heath himself was always the first to repudiate any such idea. He made Wilson’s way of doing things into his personal benchmark of how not to do them. One result was that his aversion to playing politics with important policies led him to despise the political skills which were necessary to implement those policies – or ultimately to save his own skin. Heath’s prickly personality shaped his career, from first to last.

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