Longing for Mao

Hugo Young

  • The Curse of My Life: My Autobiography by Edward Heath
    Hodder, 767 pp, £25.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 340 70852 2

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.

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