Lord Deben is Chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change and a former Environment Secretary.
“I am singularly honoured to have been asked to deliver the third annual Edward Heath lecture, not just because of the distinction of my predecessors, although that would be honour enough, but because in an important way my generation was marked more by Heath’s influence than that of any other single politician. Like so many other students, I had met him at conferences, heard him speak on Europe, and shared the disappointment at de Gaulle’s ‘Non’. But my clearest memory was the elation I felt when, sitting in a tube train on July 27 1965, I read of his surprise election as leader of the Conservative Party. All had seemed lost when the overnight opinion polls showed that MPs would give the immensely clubbable and popular Reggie Maudling a thumping majority. For those of us for whom Europe was the key issue, the prospect of being led by the nebulous Maudling was deeply concerning. In the event, as so often, the polls were wrong and Heath won by 150 to 133, with Enoch Powell trailing behind with 15. It was the first time that MPs had chosen their leader. That in itself was a victory.
Let’s pause for a moment on that amazing fact. In our ancient parliamentary system, its oldest and most successful political party had never before chosen its own leader by ballot. That happened for the first time a mere 50 years ago – within the lifetime of almost everyone here. That was the moment when what Iain Macleod had witheringly attacked as the ‘magic circle’ was finally broken, and the Tory party was no longer in thrall to great, and largely aristocratic, men. It was, after all, only two years before that this tiny group had refused Rab Butler the leadership and, on the basis of ‘soundings’, gave it instead to the charming but unelectable 14th Earl of Home. They thus handed power to the 14th Mr Wilson.
So it was that Edward Richard George Heath became the first Conservative leader to be elected by the Parliamentary party, and in a sense that was his first tangible success in the battle to bring the Tories into the modern world. The son of a small builder, the product of universal education, he was the least typical Tory leader since Disraeli. And he was faced with a mammoth task. Macmillan had rung down the curtain on Empire, but the Conservatives hadn’t yet begun to find their role in the post-Imperial world. The Suez debacle had shown just how little the old guard had really understood about the changing world outside Britain. This was a Party which felt the ‘swinging sixties’ were a threat and saw the Beatles as a regrettable and largely inexplicable occurrence. It was a Party entirely unprepared for the social upheaval that was about to break and end the deferential culture upon which it had depended for so long. It was a Party in desperate need of remedial surgery and the change in the mechanism for choosing a leader played a small but essential part in that process. Heath had used his role as Chief Whip first to help secure the change and then to take full use of it to organise his own election.
Even so, his victory was against all the odds. He had, after all, had no high profile jobs. He was not known for great achievements or as the author of significant changes. He had been a technocrat and political manager during the whole of his ministerial career. It all started when he had become the first of the 1950 entry to be promoted when he was asked to serve in the Whips Office. He had had only one year on the back benches. That meant no time at all to create a wider political reputation, for good or ill.
There were, however, two important indicators of his future course. Very soon after arriving in the Commons, he had helped to found the One Nation Group, thus putting himself firmly in the great Disraelian tradition. He had also already rebelled against the party’s whip. Rather surprising perhaps for a novice so recently back from the discipline of war. Yet the issue upon which he rebelled was an important pointer to Heath’s future stance. The Conservatives were supporting the Labour Government’s craven refusal to allow Seretse Khama to succeed to the leadership in Bechuanaland – now Botswana – or even to return to his homeland. They had succumbed to the pressure of the South African Government whose apartheid policy was affronted by the fact that this tribal chief had married a white English woman and, even worse, that his people were increasingly supportive of it. Ted was one of 30 who stood out against the consensus view that now seems so deeply unacceptable. In fact, this was the only glimpse that his colleagues had of Heath, the rebel. Yet that was what he had been in Oxford and would become again as Father of the House.
For it was not long before he would join the Whips Office, then be moved to a junior Treasury post, and then back to become Eden’s Chief Whip, carrying him through the Suez crisis. His loyalty to the man who had resigned over appeasement stifled any concerns that he may have had. That was what was to be expected from a Chief Whip and he lost no friends nor gained enemies over it. In my home constituency of Gravesend, we were all agog over the issue as our MP, the intellectually able and committed Europhile Peter Kirk, was a rebel – condemning Eden’s policy in no uncertain a manner. Yet even he never thought that Heath should have behaved differently. When Macmillan succeeded Eden, Ted was sent to negotiate our unsuccessful entry into the Common Market and for many in this room this was the beginning of our long and continuing commitment to the European ideal. After the veto, he returned as Industry Minister where he remained until the Conservatives lost office.
So this was a career in which Heath had to display little of himself and reveal almost none of his own views, save for his commitment to Europe. By accident, for it couldn’t have been by design, he had not had to manage education, save the NHS, or even build a roads policy. His interaction with MPs on constituency issues had been minimal, and the only principle he had had to instill was that of loyalty. His whole career had been one of conformity – he had never had the opportunity to rebel except the once, and few of his colleagues had any understanding of just how radical he was.
However, they should have had no doubt about his determination to reach to the top and the grammar school boy who had made it to Oxford knew that meant concentration on doing his job well while at the same time learning to navigate a way through and around the Conservative Party. That singleness of purpose was largely unencumbered by political friendships. He was close to almost no-one in the Parliamentary Party. There were real friends outside – in particular Madron Seligman, whom he had met at Oxford, with whom he travelled to Poland on the very eve of invasion and with whom he escaped from France with hardly a day to spare. There was also his doctor, Brian Warren, who had looked after him from the 1950s, and that malign influence upon whose judgement he depended, Toby Aldington. Close too were men with whom he had gone through the war and who remained friends with whom he could relax. But none, with the possible exception of David Gibson-Watt, were serving MPs.
He had had neither the time nor the opportunity to express his political views or build a reputation as a man of a particular political tendency. His role in the Whips Office made it his duty to reflect all views and not impose his own. Circumstances therefore conspired to remove Heath from the life of the Opposition back bench in what must have been the most exciting of times for a new entrant as the Labour Government staggered to its end. By accident it meant that he did not become, as did Iain Macleod, a figure of the reforming Left. As a whip he couldn’t speak in debates and was denied membership of the One Nation Group he had helped to found. He was therefore distanced from the camaraderie which for so many is the essence of Parliament. His Ministerial roles made him into a loner not least because in all those formative years, he never found in the Commons the opportunity for the relaxed relationships that he had enjoyed in Oxford, where he had felt at home and had fitted in.
There, his position as the Balliol Organ Scholar had given him very convenient and preferential rooms where the leading undergraduate Conservatives like Hugh Fraser and Julian Amery met. Heath was in his element and there was then no hint of his later reserve. Nor in Oxford had there been any question of his political views. A staunch opponent of Munich from the first, he welcomed Eden to speak at the Oxford University Conservative Association, of which he was chairman, and was deeply disappointed when Eden contented himself with a few generalities and did not make the great oration attacking the National Government, Hitler, and the Nazis for which Heath had hoped.
It had been natural for Ted to lead the debates in the Oxford Union condemning appeasement as it was for him to take a leading part in supporting the Independent candidate against Quintin Hogg, the official Conservative. In that stanc,e he stood alongside Harold Macmillan whose book The Middle Way exercised so powerful an influence over him. Heath sums it up simply and powerfully in his autobiography. “The Middle Way represented a sound set of answers to our economic and social problems, avoiding the evils of both an unregulated capitalist system and a dirigiste socialist approach.” That understanding and commitment to the conservatism of Peel, Disraeli, and Macmillan drove him throughout his political life but it was not a vision that he shared much in the tearoom of the House of Commons. It was instead his music and later his sailing that provided the outlet that others found in Parliamentary dining clubs and bars.
Among musicians and sailors Ted felt included. Among his Conservative contemporaries, he increasingly didn’t feel at home. It was partly the simple fact that he came from so different a background. He would be the first leader since Disraeli who was so déclassé. It was also his own family upbringing which was simply not comfy. It made him angular and often ill at ease. So it was fortunate that his ministerial jobs did not demand much in the way of socialising. Had they, he might never have become leader.
It is here that I want to face up to this fundamental problem of Ted Heath. In so many things, he was a giant yet there were parts of him that didn’t seem ever to have been properly formed. Of no Prime Minister in our long history could the phrase ‘Renaissance Man’ be more appropriate. Political visionary, brilliant negotiator, soldier, sailor, musician, the best of one-nation Conservatives – and yet this was a man who, humanly and personally, was curiously stunted. Even those of us who cared for him and knew his kindness and experienced his warmth – even we remember the long silences, the apparent rudeness, and the surprising insensitivity.
There was of course the other side. The one we only saw in private and away from politics. The funny, almost whimsical man who spoke at our wedding and thanked Penny for the five years he had worked for her; the kind boss whose New Year epistles to his staff showed such understanding and such real appreciation; his many personal letters, whether written in his own good hand or dictated – full of genuine sympathy and understanding. These were flashes of what might have been or perhaps of what really was. But for the most part and in most circumstances, for such a remarkable mind and so cultured a soul – his was a personality that simply didn’t add up. As a result, his place in history has been hugely understated and his legacy seriously undervalued. His friends and admirers have to admit this fundamental problem, or we cannot effectively begin the reassessment that Ted so richly deserves.
In his recent autobiography, Chris Patten illustrates our uphill task. Intellectually, culturally, and politically an ally, Patten is scathing about Heath as a person, and yet he is kind and generous to Margaret Thatcher with whom he shared practically nothing. If that is true about people who were on his side, it is doubly true of Ted’s enemies. And there were and are many. The sheer nastiness that Brexit has unleashed was long a feature of his life. I vividly remember the vicious woman whom the host at a wedding had seated next to Ted. She changed the place settings so as to be on the other side of the table exclaiming ‘I’m not sitting next to that traitor’. That streak of hatred among a certain kind of Tory can be seen most clearly in the obituary edition of the Conservative History Journal. Their assessments of the recently dead former Prime Minister were characterised by real bitchiness and triviality. With all the illiberality characteristic of the hard Right, they belittled the few of his achievements they bothered to recognise and concluded he was a merely a curmudgeonly irrelevance.
Actually, Ted Heath was in many ways the seminal figure in the creation of the modern Conservative Party. Not only did he take Britain into Europe and therefore into the modern world, he saved the party from post-colonial depression and decline. His treatment of the East African Asians, his firm rejection of Enoch Powell’s populism, his modernisation of the machinery of government, and his reform of the trades unions – all these were essential components in the creation of a Conservative party capable of governing a Britain devoid of deference and stripped of an Empire.
What he did made Thatcher possible. The daughter of a grocer could aspire to the leadership of the party only because the son of a builder had made it the kind of party that would accept her. Although she sought always to present herself as far removed from him – a position which he did nothing to discourage – her essential role in freeing the economy from trades union control was only possible because of his earlier reforms and could only have been carried through successfully because of the rising prosperity our membership of the European Community engendered and her own achievement of the Single Market enhanced.
Yet for too long we have allowed him to be seen through her rather than the other way round. For more than a decade she so dominated British politics that she overshadowed all that had gone before. The Great Leader is never allowed to have near antecedents, and hers has to be the only legacy. So, contemporary Conservative history has been seen only through the Thatcher prism and written as if she were the true inheritor and he a temporary aberration. This is a distortion that we need to correct not simply for truth’s sake, but because the myth increasingly impedes the re-emergence of an authentic Conservative Party.
None of this is to denigrate Mrs Thatcher’s achievements nor to set the two up as rivals again. I served both Prime Ministers and would not for one moment deny the essential role Margaret played in the recovery of our nation and its retooling for the modern world. Nevertheless, the attempt of her devotees to turn what was her specific role for a particular time into a continuing philosophy – an alternative to historic conservatism – lies at the root of our present difficulties as a Party.
Right from the first, that misinterpretation of her achievement enfeebled the Tory party and led it to make a series of disastrous choices for leadership – simply because we were looking to continue her inheritance rather than to fashion a new Conservative response to the world which Tony Blair and New Labour represented. If we had gone back to our roots, understood what Heath had understood and began again to fashion historic Conservatism so that it responded to the aspirations of Mondeo man, we would have provided a powerful opposition to the vacuous self-congratulation of Mr Blair’s superficial synthesis.
Instead we continued to ignore our real political history because we were still caught up in the Peronista illusion. We picked William Hague because he seemed to be a youthful Thatcherite; Iain Duncan Smith because he wasn’t Ken Clarke; Michael Howard because he seemed safe but still in the Thatcher mould. We turned Europe into a whipping boy, obsessed about immigration, failed to understand the social revolution that was happening around us and missed out on the way the world now communicated.
That nostalgia now threatens the Conservative Party’s very existence as a political force and our recovery will demand that we regain a proper perspective by which to view who we are and what we mean to our nation. Just because we are the oldest political party in the world does not guarantee our continued existence. What has ensured that in each new generation is the constant process of so refreshing our enduring principles that they are seen as relevant to the time in which we live. That was what Ted Heath did in his generation. Understanding and appreciating what that was will help us to see how today’s Tory Party can again find its way back to the Conservative mainstream.
Heath was intellectually well prepared for high office. His reading and grasp of politics was prodigious. When his general library was sold I bought a number of his well-thumbed books – some of them he had bought as an undergraduate, others were testament to his continuous involvement in the history of political ideas. He bothered to understand the arguments of others from the Left and the Right – not just the quotations from commentators. It meant that he grasped the nuances and relished his discussions with thoughtful people of other Parties. It explained why he was so good a negotiator with other European politicians, because he knew their history and the intellectual basis from which they derived their attitudes and their arguments. He did not deal in the easy straplines and slogans, the convenient quotations and simplistic wisdom that others mistook for philosophy. He had read the books, followed the arguments, and discerned the weaknesses. His position was not derivative but worked through, proofed in serious intellectual fire. That meant that his global view was rigorously based and properly considered. It would be this that, many years later, would endear him to the Chinese.
On 18th June 1970, Heath won an election the polls had said he was destined to lose. Together with a number of my friends from Cambridge, I was one of those who provided his majority. He had been a generous neighbour to me, speaking in my support and giving credence to this bearded youth who snatched victory in Lewisham West by 760 votes. We were a merry crew, that 1970 intake. Ken Clarke and Norman Fowler, David Madel and David Knox, Alan Haslehurst, Sidney Chapman, and Robert Hicks, Lawrence Reed and John Wilkinson. We largely came from the same unpretentious backgrounds. We were committed to Britain entering the European Community and we were proud of our new Prime Minister, thrilled that he had proved the polls wrong and excited that he had given the Conservatives a working majority.
Eighteen months later we were gathered in the House of Commons to hear the result of the vote to approve in principle Britain’s entry into the European Communities. We knew that we had participated in the most important vote in our lives. I stood in the well of the House next to Ken Clarke as the result was read out: “there voted Ayes 356 and Noes 244 so the Ayes have it”.
It’s the only time either of us have shed tears in public. We had done what we had come into politics to do. We had given our country the chance to be a leader again, to move beyond the nostalgia for Empire and help forge a Europe where war would be unthinkable and which would be a force for good instead of bringing the world to its knees in pursuit of our civil wars.
We didn’t know then what was happening in Number Ten. Ted had returned from his triumphant vote to be joined by his father, brother, and sister-in-law. He sat down at the piano as he always did when he needed to unwind. He played the First Prelude from Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It was symbolic. Britain had rejoined the mainstream. Only after he had finished at the piano could the partying begin.
And it was Ted who had done it. Make no mistake – no-one else would have had the tenacity or the single-mindedness to deliver this result in the teeth of traditionalist opposition. They were all there voting with Harold Wilson and the unreformed Labour Party, all with a view of a Britain which had long gone. Sir Ronald Bell, Sir Richard Body, Sir John Farr, Sir Anthony Fell, Sir Hugh Fraser, Sir Donald Kaberry, Sir Stephen McAdden, John Sutcliffe, Teddy Taylor, Sir Robin Turton, Sir Neil Marten, Sir Carol Mather, Sir Angus Maude, Sir Jasper More, Sir Gerald Nabarro, Enoch Powell, Sir Ronald Russell, Sir Derek Walker-Smith. And they never forgave him. They knew now that they had a leader who was determined to build a Party not in their image but one which could capture the minds and hearts of a new generation. In the face of a hidebound Labour Party dominated by reactionary trades unions, the Conservatives had seized the initiative and set the agenda for the future.
Mind you, by now we were all blooded. We had fought Labour night after night on the Industrial Relations Act. It was part of our election manifesto and fiercely opposed by the trades unions and the Labour Party, who rightly saw it as a threat to the stranglehold that organised labour had on Britain’s industry and commerce. Again, Heath had showed his tenacity and determination. The woolly heads in the CBI and the liberal commentators had yet again argued for caution and conciliation. They advised that the Government should retreat. They talked of compromise and concordat, of bargaining and voluntary restraint. Ted would have none of it. He knew that we had to win this battle if we were to compete in a world which would simply roll over us if we were confined by out-of-date labour practices and restrictive agreements. We voted again and again late into the night, Mrs Oppenheim resplendent in silk gowns and elaborate slippers, the rest of us simply longing for it all to be over.
Of course there was much more. The recasting of the Government machine, the patient detailed consideration of the European Communities Act, the battle with militant labour, decimalisation, local government reform, and the Sunningdale Agreement, – all these were the work of a man determined on the renewal of his nation and the reformation of his party. He was in the end defeated, more by the quadrupling of the oil price than the NUM, but he had fought the fight and without him Britain would be much poorer and less influential and the Tory Party might well have gone the way of all flesh.
Much more important is what his example has to teach us today in the ludicrous and embarrassing position in which our country stands. Let us be quite clear, as he would have been. We are where we are because of the serious and stupid decisions of our Party – the Party that he dragged into the modern world. We misused our mandate and sought to solve our own continuing internal divisions, not within the Parliamentary process but by the entirely alien system of referendum. We forgot that referenda only work in the Westminster system if you win. Lose – and Parliament can’t deal with the consequences. Representative democracy is a great treasure but a jealous master and we have abused it for our own party political purposes. We didn’t even take the most elementary of precautions, allowed sweeping constitutional reform without any necessary majority for change; excluded from voting those to whom the result mattered most; and allowed huge sums of money to fund a campaign of lies which its perpetrators now disown and its advocates now admit could never have been delivered.
So, in the spirit of penitence that befits the Constitutional Party that has betrayed the constitution, we might ask what would have been Heath’s advice. It would not have been very gently put – there would have been a good deal of harrumphing and neither Mr Cameron nor Mrs May would have found it comfortable. He could not have resisted saying that he wouldn’t have started from here! He would then have said ‘you don’t solve your political problems by resorting to clever wheezes like referenda; you face down your opponents; you argue your position; you challenge them to vote against you and you win the day. There was never any cop-out with Ted. He wouldn’t have let Bill Cash and Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg seize the agenda. He would have fought Nigel Farage’s populism as he fought that of Enoch Powell. He’d have done it because he thought that was the right thing to do, irrespective of those who wanted appease UKIP. And he would have won. He would have shown that UKIP was a threat to the Labour Party and that its appeal was to the unreconstructed Left not to the moderate and progressive right. His deep understanding of political history and philosophy would never have allowed him to take the referendum route. He’d have seen it for the aberration it was and no superficial press-driven demand for direct democracy would have convinced. Nor would it have permitted him to go to the country for a mandate to pursue a policy which had neither been defined or costed.
But, as so often with Ted, it is better to leave the acid preambles to one side and cut to the chase. What do we do? First, he would remind us that now more than ever Britain is seen to be part of Europe. Every day that passes that fact becomes clearer. The most preliminary of Brexit discussions have already revealed the difficulties of severing our limb from the body politic of Europe and the pre-med for the surgery has not yet begun. Instead we are in the early stages of learning that the idea of one man, one vote, once has no place in our Parliament and belongs to dictatorships alone. The idea that we cannot learn from experience nor change our mind is not one which a Parliamentary democracy can entertain for long.
Nor would fear of the anger that a thwarted Brexit would engender divert him. He would know there was another anger – the growing anger as the moderate majority recognised that they lived in a country where an obsessed minority was calling the shots and destroying their future. That anger he knew would in the end prevail. What was more he would see that appeasement would indeed end in the electoral extinction of the Conservative Party. If we become the party that destroys our economy, diminishes our influence, and impoverishes our public services, we will become a party that makes way for Mr Corbyn – just as the magic circle made way for Mr Wilson. So Heath would insist that those of us who stand in the Conservative mainstream should tell the truth and shame the devil. He would remind us that there have been too many lies and too much deception and we must trust the people with the truth.
He would perhaps have hit upon a three point plan. First, we fight as we did in the Industrial Relations Bill, line by line and clause by clause to ensure that the so-called Great Repeal Bill exactly transfers all our present protections and arrangements into British Law. Not one exception nor a single extension of the powers of the Executive. This must not be an excuse to substitute Ministerial diktat for the European consensus. Second, he would expect us to demand the audited accounts of this whole enterprise. Department by department, agency by agency – the British people must know the cost of Brexit and our representatives in both Houses must demand it of every Minister who comes to the Dispatch Box until finally they recognise their duty to comply. It is indeed a financial scandal that, under the cover of not revealing our hand, the Government thinks it proper to embark on these negotiations without revealing any figures to Parliament. We are not only buying a pig in a poke – we haven’t the faintest idea of the the cost of the pig or the value of the poke.
When we have those figures we should insist that they be properly and independently audited line by line and issue by issue. What will we really owe the EU for our commitments were we to leave? What does repatriating our environmental enforcement, product testing, scientific research, health and safety, and all the rest really mean to our national budget. What’s the cost of an Irish Border? What are the fiscal and public spending consequences, the security and policing implications?
In this way, when we come to the crunch, when the deal or no-deal begins to emerge we can ask this Parliament of ours, to consider the facts. Shouldn’t we think again? Or is this Conservative Party really going down in history as being willing to choose to weaken Britain because it feared to stand up for the truth.
Edward Richard George Heath, with all his faults and awkwardness, from Munich to Father of the House never failed to stand up for what he believed to be right. Appeasement was not for him. He loved and fought valiantly for his country and he would not allow us to betray it now.”
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This is the full text of the Edward Heath Memorial lecture. It was given in support of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation which maintains his former home Arundells in Cathedral Close, Salisbury and its gardens, which are open to the public until 1st November. For more information, contact: 01722 326546, email@example.com or visit: www.arundells.org.