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.

First the vision thing. From his earliest days Heath wanted to go into politics. But what was it all for? It was an improbable ambition, even for a highly ambitious boy, to think that the Conservative Party of the Thirties would yield to the talents of a builder’s son from Broad-stairs. Though able, young Teddy was not unstoppably brilliant, and it took him until he was 19 to land a place at Balliol College, Oxford, as a commoner. This meant that his parents had to scrape to supplement the loan available from Kent County Council. Luckily, the boy’s musical abilities secured him the College’s organ scholarship during his first term, making for proud self-sufficiency at the price of a strenuous programme.

Active in the Union, he became one of the leading Conservative speakers, but did not make a real splash until he broke with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement after Munich. In the Oxford by-election of 1938 Heath was one of the rebel Conservatives who supported the anti-government candidate, A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol. Lindsay succeeded in halving the Conservative majority. Heath did still better out of it, winning the presidency of the Union on the back of the informal popular front which coalesced in common hostility to the self-righteous autocrat of Downing Street, whom he accused of leading ‘an organised hypocrisy, composed of Conservatives with nothing to conserve and Liberals with a hatred of liberty’. It took nearly fifty years for his rhetoric to be stimulated to similar fervour.

His term as President of the Union was a glittering success, showing what a scholarship boy could do. Campbell has dug up a revealing piece in the Spectator, written by Heath in 1940, which shows conversely what a scholarship boy could dread when forced ‘to answer that one’s father is a bus-driver or a carpenter’. It is obvious that the writer knew what it was to introduce one’s friends to parents who were ‘unhappy and ill at ease’ and to ‘feel oneself shudder at a rough accent or a “we was”’. A trace element of snobbish disdain for the clean-limbed meritocrat polluted his wake as he sailed through Oxford, through the Army (Colonel Heath), through the post-war Conservative Party (Chief Whip). Little wonder that he was defensive, even while taking on the protective colouring of his new surroundings.

Determined to give no hostages to fortune, Heath manifested lifelong inhibitions in his social relationships. He readily dropped into the conventions of the mess with a bantering manner which gave little away and was sometimes taken amiss. Practical jokes, insult techniques, brusque gaucherie, kept the world at bay and denied real intimacy, especially with women. In all this he resembled another of life’s staff officers, Selwyn Lloyd, both of them used by the grandee Macmillan in the Fifties for the sort of dirty work with which he refused to sully his own hands. Lloyd was once married, briefly and disastrously; Heath less than once. He remained, in an old-fashioned sense, a confirmed bachelor.

As Campbell acknowledges, it is hardly enough for a biographer to leave it at that these days, however firmly Heath himself might decline to discuss the matter. The author’s conclusion is that Heath’s instincts were heterosexual but that he repressed them as one sacrifice to his political career, his first love and his consuming passion. His women friends had to endure a form of joking relationship which he characteristically established by refusing to compliment them on their appearance, and by abstaining from ordinary courtesies, still less flattery, least of all gallantry. Margaret Thatcher was not the only woman, only the most famous, to resent this treatment. But in Heath’s straitened circumstances, making his way in the gentlemen’s party on nothing a year, living in a cupboard of a flat, unable to cope with the consequences of any indiscretion, he found no room for love and had little time even for good manners.

If Heath was not much loved, he was much respected. Partly this was because he worked so hard, because he was formidably well briefed, because he delivered on his promises to get things done. The Government Whips’ office was impressed by Heath in the Fifties, as it was to be by John Major, for much the same reasons, thirty years later. In both cases service as a Whip had the function of masking and suppressing any clear political commitment, because of the convention that Whips do not make speeches. When Macmillan finally gave his indispensable Chief Whip cabinet office, Heath was a dark horse. The Financial Times commented on his appointment to the European portfolio at the Foreign Office in 1960: ‘His views on this vital aspect of UK policy are unknown and he has never had a chance to show in public whether he has any.’

Heath warmed to his task. He was dubbed ‘Mr Europe’ when Britain’s application to join the European Community was announced in August 1961. He lived up to the name, pressing Britain’s cause in Brussels and championing the European aspiration at home. For the first time this gave him a clear public identity, not only in Britain, where Private Eye now called him Grocer Heath, but, despite the failure of the negotiations, within the Community too, where his command of Eurospeak was a revelation. After de Gaulle had exercised his veto against Britain, Heath responded in terms that brought tears to the eyes of the listening interpreters in Brussels. ‘We in Britain are not going to turn our backs on the mainland of Europe or on the countries of the Community,’ he affirmed. ‘We are a part of Europe: by geography, tradition, history, culture and civilisation.’ He was then awarded the Charlemagne Prize, which promoted this stolid second-ranking minister, with poor French and worse German, into the company of Churchill and the founding fathers of the Common Market, Monnet and Schuman.

Heath’s life work now lay before him. Nor was this fortuitous. Attentive students of his career should have thumbed through Hansard of 1950 for his maiden speech – his only speech in the Commons before he was whipped into silence. Unusually, he had applauded the Schuman Plan for a single European market in coal and steel. He had warned the Labour Government that ‘by standing aside form the discussions, we may be taking a very great risk with our economy – a very great risk indeed.’ He had pointed out how important it was to be in at the formative stages, when the structure could be moulded. ‘Now we may be left with the choice of taking or leaving a prepared Plan.’ Naturally Heath reproached Labour for not seeing this, insisting that ‘we on this side of the House’ would prove more enlightened. In fact, it was to be a Conservative government which stood aside from the discussions at Messina which constituted the formative stages of the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

Governments of both parties were thus left with the choice of taking or leaving a prepared plan in the Sixties, with acceptance of the Common Agricultural Policy now used by the French as a test of Britain’s European credentials. That it was to be Heath who finally took Britain into the Common Market was poetic justice. It was also an object lesson in the importance of doing the right thing at the right time. By 1973 the opportunity to share the dynamism of the booming European economy had passed: instead, Britain’s meagre political credit within the Community was to be exhausted in attempting to redesign, restructure and remodel the European house, now that the concrete had set.

The abortive negotiations of 1961-3 were the making of Heath as a national figure. His mastery of an enormously complex brief impressed the House of Commons. More, his demeanour now won golden opinions. ‘Mr Heath has learned during the past 18 months,’ wrote the Daily Telegraph in 1963, ‘how to be patient with the ignorant and persuasive with the bemused.’ If Heath learned it, he soon forgot it again. But his flirtation with the emollient arts of communication, his brief affair with the politics of mobilising consent, was fortunate in its timing. His thaw occurred while the Tory Party was casting about for a leader to succeed Macmillan. Heath, perhaps surprisingly, threw his weight behind Douglas-Home, who, less surprisingly, turned out to be only a stopgap; and by the time this had become clear. Heath himself had become the candidate of the modernising wing of the Party. Once elected leader, he froze back into a talking refrigerator.

Remote, arrogant, self-obsessed, Heath relaxed only when he escaped into his familiar private world of music or into the hitherto uncharted seas of ocean racing. Everything he did, he did well; Campbell is right to claim that Heath’s extraordinary achievements as a musician and a yachtsman were never given their due. Instead of winning him popular acclaim, his hobbies were dismissed as élitist pursuits, as gimmicks and distractions. If ever a man needed distractions from a punishing workload, it was Heath. For him opposition was no fun, especially when it meant a twice-weekly humiliation in the House by Wilson’s cheap gibes and headline-grabbing repartee. Heath’s conception of opposition was as an opportunity to prepare for power. He made the Conservative Party devote unprecedented attention to the formulation of detailed policies for its next period of office. Heath offered government by blueprint.

It was far from clear that his offer would be taken up by the electorate in 1970. The polls said otherwise. Heath’s own ratings had for years run behind those of his party. His triumph was all the more stunning because it was unexpected, his personal ascendancy all the greater because he had been so comprehensively written off. So much for the polls. Heath now felt licensed to back his own judgment as to what was right, and damn the consequences. His Cabinet, moreover, followed his lead readily enough. There was little of the rancour which had riven Wilson’s Government or of the in-fighting which was to characterise Thatcher’s. Like Peel, Heath could motivate his own hand-picked colleagues, but hardly bothered to cultivate the backbenchers. His inner circle observed a mordant sense of humour, set off by a deadpan delivery; the rest of the world saw insufferable aloofness, punctuated by mirthless guffaws.

The charts for Heath’s great voyage were not all they were cracked up to be. One trouble was that the programme had been oversold. To be sure, the Conservative shadow cabinet had once spent a weekend talking about policy at a blamelessly respectable suburban hotel. But it took Harold Wilson to add the hype. ‘Selsdon Man,’ he claimed, ‘is not just a lurch to the right, it is an atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution.’ As Campbell comments, this memorable if factitious phrase ‘rebounded on Wilson, first because it lent the Opposition’s earnest catalogue of humdrum policies precisely the cloak of philosophic unity and political impact that they had hitherto lacked, and second because it turned out that the electorate was at least as much attracted as repelled by them.’ This was the ultimate, paradoxical triumph of the Wilsonian style: to ensure that Heath sailed to victory under false colours.

Remember the famous pledge in the Conservative manifesto: ‘We utterly reject the philosophy of compulsory wage control.’ The origins of this, however, were at least as much tactical as philosophical. Faced with the Government’s difficulties in enforcing its incomes policy, it was the sort of thing the Opposition would say. Heath was only doing, for once, what Wilson could not help doing all the time. It was a statement which Heath ought never to have sanctioned in the first place rather than a creed which he subsequently betrayed. Either way, he found it difficult to explain away.

In the end, the policies of the Wilson and Heath Governments showed striking similarities, notably on incomes policy, Europe and trade-union reform – which can be read in different ways. One way is to talk of consensus – a philosophical explanation stressing convergence and agreement between the Conservative Party and Labour. Another is to point to the temptations of opposition and the imperatives of government in generating functional responses: partisan divergence and disagreement could be constant, even though the parties swapped policies.

In this sense, the most striking similarity between Wilson and Heath was in the U-turns which they performed. Heath was taken aback by Wilson’s brazen reversal when, having backed trade-union legislation in office, he immediately backed off in opposition. This was as nothing to Wilson’s repeated tergiversations over the Common Market. Under the cover of his formula that he favoured entry if the terms were right, he managed to decide that the terms – essentially the same terms, of course – were right whenever he was prime minister and wrong when he wasn’t. This earned Heath’s contempt. But on incomes policy, if Wilson seemed to play cat and mouse. Heath looked as though he ratted.

The case for Heath is that at least he did not re-rat. He accepted the implications of the rethink on policy which events forced on him. He had to abandon the easy assumption that the election of a Conservative government which appealed for a quiet revolution in attitudes would be enough to stimulate the British economy. When unemployment touched a million, Heath ordered a switch of priorities, in a bid for economic growth which relegated inflation from the prime target of policy to the status of an undesirable side-effect. He certainly did not believe that tight monetary policy could in itself control inflation – except, of course, by provoking a major slump. He needed incomes policy to do the job only because he refused to sit back and let unemployment do it for him.

The strategy was a notorious failure, ending in confrontation with the miners and Heath’s defeat in the General Election of 1974. It was not a conflict which he sought, nor knew how to exploit politically when it was thrust upon him. His failure in communication was disabling. He got the worst of all worlds. It was not so much that he was accused of betraying Selsdon; that came later and ministers like Thatcher kept quiet at the time. Heath was left to devise his own plans with his own trusted associates, crucially Sir William Armstrong, the head of the home Civil Service. Vic Feather of the TUC called Armstrong ‘deputy Prime Minister’, and this expressed a truth not so much about Armstrong’s impropriety in becoming ‘political’ as about Heath’s increasing detachment from his own political base. Trade-union leaders recognised his genuine wish to mend his fences with the unions, now that he had belatedly decided to embrace them as ‘social partners’.

They were, however, in no position to deliver on their side of the bargain which he proposed to strike with them. He offered economic growth in return for an agreement on pay restraint; but competitive bargaining was the rationale of British trade-unionism. Nowhere was this seen more starkly than in the coal industry. What the miners wanted was a deal which made them a special case. Joe Gormley even had a bright idea about how it could be justified. It is a mark of Heath’s wish to avoid confrontation that he (and, of course, Armstrong) had a secret meeting with the miners’ leader in the garden of 10 Downing Street. Gormley suggested a special payment for ‘unsocial hours’, as a way of giving the miners more. ‘We never thought of that.’ the Prime Minister and his deputy crooned. ‘We never thought of that at all.’ So they solemnly wrote it into Stage Three of the official document, as a general provision. Gormley, of course, knew that this spelt the end of his plan – ‘I must say that I wasn’t best pleased’ – which had been conceived strictly as a ruse for getting more for the miners alone.

Conversely, the TUC supported the miners, knowing full well that, once the miners had established a special case, everyone else could cash in on it. The irony was that, by the time the crunch came, the miners indubitably were a special case, not because of social justice or unsocial hours, but because their unacknowledged allies in the Middle East had forced up energy prices. Heath and Armstrong, chained and manacled to the Stage Three guidelines, were visibly at a loss. Armstrong cracked up and was shipped off to Barbados. It was Heath’s last stand: doomed by too many principles, too little imagination. When the TUC threw him a lifebelt, he spurned it. Belatedly, they offered an undertaking that other unions would not exploit a special settlement with the miners. Heath could have lived to fight another day, on ground of his own choosing. As it was, he was too honest to go along with a deal in which he could not believe.

Heath finally called a general election, not to smash the miners, as many Conservative hoped, but to settle with them. He lost to Wilson, whom he despised, and went on to lose the leadership of his party to Thatcher, whom he could not bear. It could be said that he prepared the way for a successor like himself. His career, after all, had made the Conservative Party safe for ‘we was’ and he inadvertently hastened the coming of an era when Oxbridge-educated Tory ministers would utter soundbites in which they professed to be gutted or gobsmacked. Another consequence of Heath was that his party would want a successor unlike himself – a leader who would be ready to play dirty and to pander to the lowest prejudices of the Party.

The leader who was simultaneously most like himself and least like himself was, as we all know, Margaret Thatcher. And John Major? He may resemble Heath in his grasp of detail and in his weak Parliamentary presence. But whereas Heath’s problem was a failure in communication. Major’s problem seems to lie one stage further back: a failure to have anything worth communicating. A prime minister whose response to big issues is to drift, dither and dodge, usually in that order, lacks most of Heath’s redeeming features – of which John Campbell’s fine biography offers a timely reminder.