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.

Ted’s father and grandfather were convivial, easygoing men, rooted in their native Kent, fond of a drink and ready to pinch any passing bottom. On his 80th birthday, Heath père, who had started life as a carpenter and later done pretty well as a builder in Broadstairs, was asked if he had any regrets and said: ‘Yes, that the permissive society did not begin 50 years earlier.’ Ted was fond of both of them and they of him. His mother adored him, and her early death distressed him greatly. But even she seems to have been in awe of her fiercely ambitious and gifted son. Once, when she went up to his room and suggested that he was working too hard and should come down and join the family, the ten-year-old Teddy replied: ‘Mother, sometimes I think you don’t want me to get on.’ At school, he was excused football and cricket on the grounds that they might damage his pianist’s hands.

Yet the force of his character was such that he was never bullied or teased as a milksop. On the contrary, he was popular in every milieu he passed through: Balliol, the army, the whips’ office (it is a later invention that he was a notoriously harsh chief whip). His opponents in the Monday Club liked to identify Heath as the original of Widmerpool – Anthony Powell disavowed the attribution. In any case, Widmerpool would never have been able to lose himself in music or sailing, or to achieve such high standards in either. Rising to wartime lieutenant-colonel, Heath certainly impressed his superiors, but he remained genuinely liked by his messmates and his men too. The fact was that he was almost superhumanly competent and diligent, and it was no surprise when he passed top into the Civil Service after the war. In his attitude to the British people, he reminds me more of the Efficient Baxter vainly attempting to sort out Lord Emsworth’s affairs.

Nor was he lacking courage. As an undergraduate, he visited the battlefront of the Spanish Civil War and only just managed to get out of Poland before war broke out. As an artillery officer, he fought his way through Belgium and Germany and saw men die alongside him. Ziegler treats Heath’s six years in the army rather skimpily (Campbell is a little better), yet this experience surely generated the hatred of war and determination to avoid it at almost all costs which were so conspicuous in his later attitudes to conflict, and also cemented his view, already formed in the late 1930s, that the best hope was a ‘United States of Europe … in which states will have to give up some of their national rights’. As an MP in the 1950s, he would declare in his plonking downright style that ‘the nation state is dead. What has sovereignty to do with anything in the 20th century?’

From this belief he never wavered. It was the source both of his sole claim to immortality and of the undying loathing he incurred in a considerable portion of his own party. Ziegler shows very well the energy, resourcefulness and mastery of detail that Heath deployed both as Macmillan’s minister for Europe in his first, unsuccessful bid to have Britain join the EEC and his later triumph as prime minister. It remains doubtful whether anyone else could have pulled it off. Yet, as Ziegler also makes clear in his unstressed, faintly feline way, the manner of the pulling off remains at the very least questionable and at worst the cause of long-term public disenchantment not only with the European project but with politics in general.

Heath wanted to gloss over the popular objections, just as his hero Jean Monnet had, believing that the European project could get off the ground only if it was undertaken by the elites, with little or no reference to the people. Heath told Kilmuir, lord chancellor at the time of the Macmillan application, that ‘in the modern world if, from other points of view, political and economic, it should prove desirable to accept such further limitations on sovereignty as would follow from the signature of the Treaty of Rome, we could do so without danger to the essential character of our independence and without prejudice to our vital interests.’ In reply, Kilmuir warned that ‘these objections ought to be brought out into the open now because, if we attempt to gloss over them at this stage, those who are opposed to the whole idea of joining the Community will certainly seize on them with more damaging effect later on.’ To put it bluntly, they would be accused of having taken Britain in on a false prospectus.

Heath would later claim that he had all along said explicitly that ‘the main purpose of the negotiations was political.’ But quite what ‘political’ was supposed to mean he did not feel obliged to elaborate on, preferring to point out that any move towards federalism could only come about with the support of all members, so that concerns about sovereignty were misplaced. Ziegler puts it nicely: ‘He did not seek actively to mislead the British public about his expectations, but he did not feel it necessary or desirable to spell out the full implications of British entry in any detail.’ That seems to me at least suppressio veri, with a whiff of suggestio falsi too.

There was also in Heath’s manner what Robert Rhodes James, then a senior clerk in the House of Commons, diagnosed as ‘an ominous note of thinly veiled intellectual contempt for those in his party who opposed the application’. Neither then nor later did Heath have much time for vox populi or for anyone who objected to his grands projets on grounds either of democracy or history. In old age, he developed a soft spot for dictators and was a fêted visitor to Peking and Baghdad, where they understood how to deal with dissent.

This indifference to popular sentiment was striking in the reforms of local government which he undertook in concert with his protégé Peter Walker. It is a pity that Ziegler doesn’t mention these, though Campbell covers them well, for the Heath-Walker reforms show Heathco at its crassest. Counties like Berkshire, which had lasted for a thousand years, were to be axed or have their boundaries sliced. The total number of authorities was to be reduced from more than 1200 to about 400. Bigger was better, more modern, more streamlined. Historical loyalties were for wimps. As a fledgling journalist, I was sent to interview Walker in his Commons cubbyhole and remember how astonished he was that anyone should have qualms about such alterations. Walker recanted long before his recent death; Heath did not. Some but not all of their work has been undone. It is now, I think, widely acknowledged that what we need is not less but more local government.

Elsewhere, Heath’s legacy did not endure nearly so long. When he came to power in June 1970 (much to the surprise of his opponents and most of his own side too), he inherited a bad and fast deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately – an adverb one reaches for far too often in reviewing Heath’s life – he totally failed to grasp the realities of Ulster politics. Ziegler is inclined to give him credit for ramming through the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973. After all, its terms weren’t so dissimilar from those of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years later – the latter memorably described by the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Doing his best for his man, Ziegler declares that ‘with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that he was right and that the Ulstermen were wrong.’

But is it? The trouble with this posthumous rehabilitation is not simply that Sunningdale lasted only two months, before the pro-Sunningdale Unionists were obliterated in the miners’ election that Heath had so suicidally called in February 1974. It was blindingly obvious that the Unionists would never accept the plan for an All-Ireland Council, which they regarded as a preliminary step to a united Ireland. A year or so later, Garret FitzGerald, the Irish foreign minister, was asked why they had not warned the British team that the All-Ireland Council was a step too far. FitzGerald, charmingly and not unreasonably, replied: ‘We didn’t think it was our business to tell the British how to negotiate.’

But what Ziegler also makes clear is that the Unionists really did have reason to distrust British intentions. At an informal meeting between Heath and Lord Rothschild, cabinet secretary Burke Trend and Heath’s principal private secretary Robert Armstrong (who were both hugely influential in British dealings with Northern Ireland), everyone had agreed that ‘the only lasting solution would lie in bringing about the unification of all Ireland.’ The foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, also believed that ‘the real British interest would … be served best by pushing them [the Unionists] towards a United Ireland.’ How revealing the apposition between ‘British’ and ‘them’.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 took place under completely different circumstances: the IRA had been fought to a standstill and had signalled that the war was over, and Blair had told the people of Ulster that he did not expect to see a united Ireland in his lifetime or the lifetime of anyone in his audience. The principle of majority consent was no longer a hurdle which might be dismantled twig by twig, but the foundation of a new settlement and understood as such by all parties.

What one can’t help noticing from this miserable story – more than 2000 people were killed after the failure of Sunningdale – is the singularly unresponsive quality of Heath’s mind. It is not true, as Enoch Powell claimed, that he shied away violently from anything resembling an idea. On the contrary, he espoused ideas with a passion he scarcely ever showed in human relations. But once an idea was lodged in his head, he did nothing with it; he allowed it no interplay with other ideas or other people. As a result, he had little aptitude for judging political risk or public reaction. It was not just that he didn’t know what made people tick, he made no effort to listen to the ticking. His insensitivity has often been compared with Thatcher’s, but until she was overtaken by hubris in her later years she retained a strong prudential sense of how far she could go and what she could get away with.

For the same reason, Heath’s grandiose plan for reforming the trade unions ran into collision after collision until it finally expired into irrelevance. He seems to have given little thought to how union members would react to an abrupt scrapping of all the legal exemptions that had built up since Disraeli’s day. It did not occur to him that a step-by-step process of whittling away the more indefensible privileges might have worked, as it did for Thatcher. In the same way, he never considered building up the European Free Trade Area by voluntary agreement, gradually extending its reach into other social and economic areas, such as freedom of movement for its citizens and reciprocal welfare benefits. There is a useful alternative model here in the shape of the European Convention on Human Rights, which over the years seeped into the language of our courts until it was finally enshrined in an act of Parliament. Some right-wingers still don’t fancy it, but they can’t complain that it suffers from a democratic deficit in the way that the European Union itself now clearly does.

Nowhere is this failure to think through the consequences of an idea more embarrassing than in the case of his economic policies: the free-market approach on which he won office and the prices and incomes controls he resorted to two years later, in the great U-turn from which he never really recovered. Ziegler makes it clear that Heath was never a wholehearted believer in ‘Selsdon Man’ – the phrase was a nifty minting of Harold Wilson’s. All he was looking for was a distinct and attractive contrast to Labour’s flounderings, and so he promised a ‘quiet revolution’, in terms which understandably convinced his right wing that he had come over to their way of thinking. By instinct, though, he preferred to control things rather than let them run free and endure the consequences. Indeed, he had hardly stopped denouncing the evils of Labour’s prices and incomes freeze before he was designing one himself. It is characteristic that in this secret enterprise he should have relied not on his political colleagues, whom he mostly thought little of, but on the senior civil servants he found so much more congenial, notably Sir William Armstrong, the head of the home civil service. Armstrong became widely known as the deputy prime minister before he went mad and lay on the floor of Number Ten raving about Communist conspiracies and had to be taken away.

A later generation remembers Heath mostly from the years of the Long Sulk. His graceless behaviour began before he was supplanted by That Woman (herself not the best of losers). His refusal to quit Number Ten after the February 1974 election may not have been quite as deplorable as Gordon Brown’s recent carry-on, which would have made a limpet blush. Heath, after all, had secured more votes nationally than Wilson and had only four fewer MPs. Yet his behaviour imprinted the image of a lousy loser which simply got worse and worse, despite all the efforts of his friends to stage a reconciliation.

It is tempting to assume that things might have turned out better for him if he had been better humoured or if he had been married or had a close confidant. Yet Ziegler points out that there were always plenty of friends, such as the redoubtable Sara Morrison, ready to tell him when his grumpy behaviour, and general refusal to show any sign of life, was damaging his own interests. Campbell argues that he was exceptionally unlucky in having to preside over a fevered period of union unrest and oil shocks. Yet the pattern of his failures seems too insistent to be entirely excused in this way. Time and again, he tried to mould all-or-nothing answers which came to pieces in his hands before the clay was dry. The underlying trouble strikes me as having been less one of temperament than of intellect, in so far as you can separate the two things. He simply lacked the agility of mind and the openness of imagination to play through the ramifications of a theme. He knew what he wanted to happen and he thought that this was enough to make it happen.

He was, ultimately, a solipsist. Nothing is more characteristic than that he should have left the bulk of his £5.4 million estate not to his brother’s children, of whom he saw little, but to the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, the principal function of which was to house his papers and show his lovely house in the Close at Salisbury to the public. It has now turned out that there is not enough money in the kitty to carry out his wishes. This vision too has foundered on the hard and slippery rocks of reality.