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Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

I never met Ted Heath. I joined the Conservative Party’s Research Department from Queen’s University, Belfast, where I had been teaching history, two years after he had been displaced as Tory leader.

I heard from him just twice. He wrote to rebuke me for omitting him from a reference book on Conservative policy, of which I published new editions before general elections. He wrote again to tell me that he believed that the Conservative Party’s Archive at the Bodleian Library, for which I then had responsibility, included papers that belonged in his own archive, and that he was despatching Douglas Hurd to Oxford to retrieve them.

I do not think my charming replies mollified him.

What follows is the view of an historian with a particular interest in the history of the Conservative Party.

*****

Naturally, Heath relished his remarkable triumph in the General Election which took place 48 years ago on 18 June 1970, the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. He was entitled to do so. It had been another close-run thing. Throughout a gruelling campaign, his confidence in victory had never wavered. None of his senior colleagues shared it. An NOP poll, just six days before the nation voted, put the Tories 12.4 per cent behind Labour, the lowest point in a consistently hostile trend. A date was fixed for a post-election meeting at Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s country house in Scotland to discuss arrangements to choose a new Tory leader.

Nothing seemed to go Heath’s way. Even his lighter-hearted moments during the campaign were known only to a few. A postcard addressed to him at the BBC’s Election Forum read: “Dear Daddy, When you get to Number 10 will you do the decent thing and invite Mummy and me to tea?” Heath’s shoulders shook with his famously silent mirth. But the joke was used only in rehearsal, and not when the programme was broadcast.

A little judicious levity would not have come amiss in this arduous campaign at which Heath promised the country a new style of government in order to end what he regarded as the tawdry conduct of public affairs by Harold Wilson. Heath was scathing about Wilson’s “cheap and trivial” approach to politics. He told the electorate in 1970 that “we must create a new way of running our national affairs.”

Heath and Wilson disliked each other heartily—more so perhaps than any other two prime ministers of different parties in modern times, apart from Gladstone and Disraeli.

The two were Oxford contemporaries in the 1930s. Heath did not distinguish himself academically, partly because he was already much preoccupied with politics. Wilson won glittering prizes. But, in Hilaire Belloc’s words, “the thing of ultimate effect/ is character not intellect.” Heath possessed a formidably determined character; at this point in his career he was convinced that the possibilities of defeat did not exist.

By 1970 the two men had developed markedly different approaches to politics. As Bernard Donoghue reminded us in his wonderful recent lecture in this series, Wilson had to devote much time to calming his party’s internal discontents (when he wasn’t being bullied by Marcia Falkender). Heath, the remarkably successful Tory Chief Whip of the 1950s, had ceased to be much interested in questions of party management—something for which he was ultimately to pay a high price. No other modern prime minister has put country before party to quite the same extent as Ted Heath. It was a cardinal feature of his style as Prime Minister.

It was Wilson who commanded the opinion polls throughout the campaign. His success seemed certain. Never has an almost universal political prediction been more thoroughly confounded. Returning to London with Heath on 18 June from his once marginal Bexley seat, Douglas Hurd, who would shortly become his Political Secretary, recorded that “the car radio persisted in telling us extraordinarily good news. The Conservatives were winning the election handsomely. Extraordinary news to me, but not to Mr Heath.”

To him, a parliamentary majority of 30 was the just reward for all his intense work over the past five years, during which he had reshaped Tory policy in certain fundamental respects after the most far-reaching policy review in British history. Everyone else was dumbfounded by the result.

*****

Heath was certainly not a man who sought to arouse intense party passions, but the radical policies that were at that point associated with him—summarised in Harold Wilson’s famous jibe about Selsdon Man—gravely offended some of the more fervent Labour supporters. As Heath walked towards Conservative Central Office in Smith Square to celebrate victory, one of them crushed a lit cigarette into his neck.

Much political brutality was to follow in the years ahead, but he was to be spared  further grave physical discomfort, much though the IRA would no doubt have liked to inflict it as he searched for a new political dispensation in Ireland that would isolate the terrorists and secure peace with justice in Ulster. Wholly unforeseen in June 1970, It would absorb more of his government’s time than any other subject.

The manner in which he conducted Ulster policy exemplified his style of government. He believed a radical solution had to be found as swiftly as possible to a singularly grave problem. In the space of 18 months he dismantled Northern Ireland’s devolved government and then reassembled it in a different form. His Northern Ireland Secretary, the much-loved Willie Whitelaw, established the principle of power-sharing between the two communities as the basis on which government must rest. That was right.

But Heath also pressed Ulster’s Unionists to accept a Council of Ireland on which representatives of the Irish Republic would serve even while their country maintained its constitutional claim over Northern Ireland. That scuppered power-sharing for years to come. A skilled political tactician would have seen that the Unionists could not be pushed so far so quickly. Committed firmly to the overall national interest and impatient for reform, Heath was unable to see the fatal flaw in his Ulster policy.

*****

Heath’s dominating conviction was that Britain must undergo sweeping change. The new style of government, hard-nosed and unsentimental, on which he embarked in June 1970 was to act as a great, self-consciously modernising force in British life. Douglas Hurd summed up its central purpose: “to free Britain from the constraints which had held back her economy since the war so that she could achieve those levels of stable growth which were already becoming normal in Germany and France.”

Heath arrived in Downing Street better prepared for government than any of his Tory predecessors. He bristled with policies that had been worked out in detail for him by the Conservative Research Department. No previous Tory leader had involved himself so fully in policy work apart from Neville Chamberlain, the creator of the Party’s Research Department — a parallel Heath would not have relished, for he retained the grimmest memories of the Britain of his youth in the 1930s and held Chamberlain largely responsible for them. They inspired his search for sustained economic growth so there would always be jobs for all, and for European integration so that never again would war be fought on its soil.

Radical 1970 manifesto commitments were at the forefront in the first two years of this new style premiership: a comprehensive legal framework for trade unions; tax cuts (with a switch from direct to indirect taxation); control of public spending, including the withdrawal of public subsidies from “lame duck” industries; and no return to incomes policies.

In other ways too, policy was set on a course that foreshadowed the future. The Heath government pioneered the sale of council houses to their tenants, though the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, did not think much of it at this point. The champions of the policy were two ministers who rose to prominence with Heath’s full approval, Peter Walker and Michael Heseltine. Walker also forced local councils to raise rents to an economic level, provoking the first clashes with central government.

It would be stretching a point to say Heath pioneered privatisation: the 1970 government only “hived off”—as the phrase then was—a few very marginal assets from the public sector like British Rail hotels, the Thomas Cook travel agency and the Carlisle pubs (anomalously nationalised in 1917); and then embarrassed itself by nationalising Rolls Royce and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. But the idea of privatisation was very much in the air. The word itself was first drawn to the attention of Conservatives in a party pamphlet by David Howell, the future Lord Howell of Guildford, published a month before the 1970 election. He described it as “hideously clumsy”, insisting that “something better must be found.” It never was.

*****

It is unlikely that Heath, who was rarely troubled by self-doubt, lost any sleep over his sharp change of economic policy in 1972, the famous u-turn. He followed the glorious Tory tradition of pragmatism, amending policy as circumstances required. He would have shrunk in horror from the suggestion that Toryism represents some kind of ideology (and he was right).

In 1972 he took the Party where most of its members wanted it to go. The Tory press spoke for them. Just before unemployment hit the symbolic taboo figure of one million in January 1972, The Times – edited by William Rees-Mogg – thundered that it was “morally, socially, economically and politically intolerable that unemployment should remain at its present level” and demanded immediate action to bring it down.

That meant an active industrial policy and a return to incomes policy. The notion that such a course would make things worse was at that point a heresy held by a handful of economic liberals.  It was to be a couple of years before they began to come in from the cold, and seriously challenge the orthodoxies to which Heath, Rees-Mogg and others had long adhered. The fact that his arch Tory enemy, Enoch Powell, espoused free market doctrines made him the more determined to resist them.

Ted Heath’s manner was abrasive and prickly, but his instincts were consensual. When a group of trade union leaders came round for supper with him at his Albany flat, they had little difficulty in getting him to bash out The Red Flag on his grand piano. He had a particular regard for Jack Jones, whom he had met in 1938 in Spain where Jones was fighting for the Republicans. What was new about his style as prime minister in the economic sphere was a determination to harness the power of greater competition and free enterprise to make the existing mixed economy and welfare state work better in order to produce greater wealth for all. He was more inclined to blame dud or greedy employers than the trade unions for economic setbacks. Heath and the miners were not natural foes.

There was one great constant: Europe. It is unlikely that anyone else could have secured British membership of the then European Economic Community. He had the command of detail and negotiating skill that those now charged with extracting us from the European Union conspicuously lack. Single-handedly, he ended France’s veto through his discussions with President Pompidou in 1971. His decisive style as Prime Minister was most clearly seen in this historic achievement.

The European Union has fostered partnerships between Britain and other member nations in vital areas, such as the environment, energy, security, and scientific research. It is unlikely that they would have come into existence if we had had stayed outside the EU. They are the truly invaluable elements of Heath’s legacy to his country which surely must be preserved in the changed circumstances created by a controversial referendum, a device which he always opposed.

*****

Many harsh things have said about Heath, particularly in his own Party, which is inclined either to praise its leaders extravagantly or to condemn them unreservedly. It has to be said that he furnished his critics with considerable material, especially during the turbulent last year of his premiership when he gave the impression of lacking any firm sense of direction.

How should this unusual, often infuriating Tory leader be remembered?  He was, as he said he would be in June 1970, an intensely serious prime minister who studied the issues in detail before taking decisions. He dominated his government by force of character and intensely hard work. He arrived in office with clearly defined, ambitious policies to modernise Britain.

Many were radical, designed to make substantial improvements in the post-war political settlement. These elements of the Heath era have led some to see it as a kind of dry run for Thatcherism. This view gained some support occasionally from Margaret Thatcher herself: she expressed it, for example, in discussion with Telegraph journalists in the late 1990s.

The reality was a little different. The Heath era is perhaps best seen as a remarkable attempt to reform Britain in a number of far-reaching respects, while preserving the political consensus established after 1945.  It was therefore unable to resolve many of fundamental issues that an impatient, reforming prime minister placed before the country. His successor, just as impatient but with no interest in consensus, fared much better.

It is not altogether surprising that this determined, patriotic, sensitive man never came to terms with the loss of the Conservative leadership. He became the most celebrated crosspatch of the century. It was only in his loyal private circle that the great sulk was turned to impish effect. Speaking at the wedding of a devoted assistant, the daughter of the Countess of Mar, he said: “ I think so highly of her that I have introduced her to the all the most important people in the country, absolutely all of them—with just one exception.”

William Waldegrave, who worked for Heath when he was prime minister, has described him as “almost great”. In the longer of perspective of history he may well come to be remembered as a man who came close to greatness.

44 comments for: Alistair Lexden: Heath, the “almost great” Prime Minister who became the crosspatch of the century

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