SIR EDWARD HEATH

by
02 November 2006

SIR EDWARD HEATH, who died on Sunday, aged 89, served as British Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974. He had been a new kind of Tory leader, from humble rather than patrician origins, when in 1965 he was elected to succeed Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

A happy childhood in Kent, with a grammar-school education and musical interests fostered by his parish church, helped shape him as a would-be moderniser who retained a genuine sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men.

Despite his political reverses during his short time in the highest office of state, he was a man of consistent vision, whose proudest achievement was to take Britain into the Common Market in 1973.

Born in Broadstairs in 1916, he was the first-born of Edith, a former lady’s-maid, and William, a carpenter who eventually owned his own building firm. Edward was educated at the local church primary school before attending Chatham House Grammar School. His mother sent him for piano lessons, and he learnt the organ. By 15 he was conducting the school orchestra. He belonged to a children’s club at St Peter’s, Broadstairs, and went to tennis parties in the vicarage garden, and took his confirmation seriously.

In the 1930s, he was secretary of his school’s debating society, and won a mock general election as a National candidate. A prefect and prizewinner, he set his sights on Oxford and Balliol, where in 1935 he went up to read philosophy, politics and economics.

His parents’ considerable financial sacrifice was eased by his winning the Balliol organ scholarship, which meant playing for early-morning services in chapel every day. Apart from many musical and dramatic activities, he took a full part in university politics. He met Winston Churchill for the first time in 1936, visited Spain, and spoke against the Munich agreement in 1938. He became President of the Oxford Union in 1939 on an anti-Fascist ticket. That summer he visited Poland and Germany with a friend, making his way back to Dover on a crowded ferry only two days before war broke out.

He volunteered for the Army, but before being called up was allowed to make a debating tour of 26 American universities, having been briefed by the Foreign Office not to mention the war. A few months later he began his service as a second-lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. After seeing action in Normandy in 1944, his battery crossed the Rhine and went on to Hanover. He was mentioned in dispatches, awarded the MBE, and by the end of 1945 was a lieutenant-colonel. He liked the army so much that after the war he remained a Territorial.

On demobilisation, he put aside thoughts of a musical or legal career in favour of politics, but first joined the Civil Service. He was assigned to the Directorate of Long-Term Planning and Projects in the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Then in 1947 the Conservatives adopted him as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Bexley. He was 31. Six weeks after leaving the Ministry, he joined the staff of the Church Times, where he remained as news editor until he was taken on as a trainee by the merchant bankers Brown, Shipley & Co., despite the fact that he was known to be a short-term prospect.

He won his seat in the 1950 general election with a majority of 133. His maiden speech, on the Schuman Plan, marked him out as having European interests.

He became associated with Tory “new thinkers” such as Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling, and Enoch Powell, who published a pamphlet, One Nation: A Tory approach to social problems, in 1950, setting out housing, education, the care of the old, the reform of industrial relations, and the preservation of the countryside as priorities. In 1951 he became an Assistant Whip, and he was promoted to Chief Whip the following year. He had a reputation for taking pains, and kept his head during the Suez crisis, thus winning himself considerable influence in the party in its aftermath.

To Macmillan, who succeeded Eden, Heath gave close and loyal support; and after the 1959 election he was made Minister of Labour. During his nine months in this post, his mediation helped avert a railways dispute, before he was made Lord Privy Seal at the Foreign Office, where he was to be responsible for European policy.

For the long negotiations for entry into the EEC, he devoted himself to mastery of detail about industries and food prices. “Europe must unite or perish,” he warned. He was nicknamed “The Grocer”. But the task was made more difficult by the divisions in both main parties and among the British public, and by President de Gaulle. The breakdown of negotiations in 1963 was a personal blow. But the blame fell on the French, not on Heath.

Heath accepted office from Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development, and as President of the Board of Trade. He worked for the abolition of resale price maintenance, which had enabled a manufacturer to fix the price at which goods could be resold; and he was prominent in the run-up to the 1964 election. After the Labour victory, he succeeded R. A. Butler as chairman of the party’s Advisory Committee on Policy.

Douglas-Home resigned as party leader in 1965, and, after an election by the parliamentary party which replaced the secretive “customary processes” for the first time, Heath succeeded him. Despite a dramatic defeat for Labour at the Leyton by-election, the 1966 general election brought a Labour landslide. Yet, conceding defeat with a good grace, Heath survived as leader. But he faced huge challenges: serious divisions in the party over Rhodesia, Harold Wilson’s greater prowess in debate, and the disloyalty of Enoch Powell, on the Tory party’s right, whose notorious “rivers of blood” speech at Birmingham gave Heath the excuse to sack him.

THE 1970 Conservative victory surprised almost everyone, except perhaps Edward Heath himself. He was not a gifted speaker. The polls came out repeatedly against him, and his campaign seemed lacklustre until the 11th hour.

The Shadow Cabinet had issued a policy document from the Selsdon Park Hotel, and Harold Wilson glossed it as prehistoric in its attitudes — “Selsdon Man”. But Heath was using free-market rhetoric that looked forward to Margaret Thatcher’s laissez-faire approach in 1979. Lame ducks in industry were not to be supported indefinitely by subsidies; people were to stand on their own two feet.

As it later turned out, he would in fact do a series of policy U-turns. Beginning with the state rescues of Rolls-Royce and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, he became increasingly interventionist, and poured public money into regional investment to create jobs and prop up faltering companies.

His Government had began in proto-Thatcherite vein by refusing to intervene in a docks strike, and abolishing the Prices and Incomes Board, which had been used to restrain inflation. Public spending cuts were made, modest by more recent standards, but causing anger when they led to the abolition of free school milk. The other side of the coin was a reduction in standard-rate income tax.

The aim was to increase national efficiency, if possible on the basis of consensus, but by freeing the managers of industry to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Heath believed that this would be strongly stimulated by entry into the Common Market, and this was bought at the price of a cooling off of the special relationship with the United States. A key aim, for which he had carefully prepared in Opposition, was a “quiet revolution” in government, since he believed that Ministers spent too much time on day-to-day affairs rather than strategy. A White Paper, the first serious review since 1918, looked at all the ministries and departments.

His economic policies took a blow almost immediately with the death of his Chancellor, Iain McLeod. The shift to indirect taxation could not happen overnight. The trade unions, which had exercised some restraint on wages in Wilson’s last year, began to try to make up lost ground. Inflation rose from five per cent in 1969 to double figures by mid-1971.

Heath’s exhortations to employers seemed to fall on deaf ears, and the economy declined to grow. Unemployment passed the million mark, and Heath, like his predecessors, was not prepared to sacrifice jobs for the sake of bringing down inflation.

Relations with the unions were disastrous. The dockers’ and power workers’ strikes led him to declare two states of emergency during his first six months. The power workers plunged parts of the country into darkness, and won a pay award worth 15-19 per cent.

In the winter of 1971-72, the miners struck. The Government had underestimated the impact that the flying pickets, organised by Arthur Scargill and Jock Kane, would have on fuel distribution. Thousands of them descended on a coke depot at Saltley Gate, and got it closed by the police. Power was soon in desperately short supply. The use of electricity to heat shops, offices, and places of entertainment was outlawed; householders were asked to heat only one room; and much of industry was put on a three-day week. The miners won substantial pay increases and a con-siderable package of fringe benefits.

The Industrial Relations Act, a key part of Heath’s manifesto, aimed at establishing a modern legal framework for industrial relations, and preventing wildcat strikes. The unions, angered by the lack of advance consultation, sabotaged it by refusing to register with the Industrial Relations Court. Within six months, they had made it unworkable. Heath then made a further U-turn by bringing in a statutory incomes policy.

In October 1973, the Middle East War led to a massive inflationary increase in the price of oil. The miners began to take action in a new dispute over wages. To conduct the negotiations, William Whitelaw was called back from running Northern Ireland, where deepening violence, which spread to mainland Britain, had forced Heath to suspend the Parliament at Stormont and govern by direct rule. Having supported the Northern Ireland government’s internment of suspects without trial, he was forced to order that intensive questioning of IRA suspects should cease, after it was revealed that the interrogation techniques used fell barely short of torture.

Petrol rationing was introduced, and the nation was put on a three-day week. Television closed down at 10.30 p.m., there was a 50 m.p.h. speed limit on the roads, and the public were asked to clean their teeth in the dark. In spite of a patriotic appeal addressed to them through Joe Gormley, the miners voted for a complete stoppage.

Heath, exhausted and looking on the devastation of his economic policy, called an election for February 1974 on the issues of the miners’ pay claim, the control of inflation, and the use of union power. The result was inconclusive, and when his negotiations with the Liberals to form a coalition failed, he resigned as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by Wilson, who formed a minority Government.

Heath continued as Conservative leader until Margaret Thatcher ousted him. Relations between them were bitter for the duration of their political careers. His Commons career outlasted hers: he stood down from Parliament in 2001, by which time he was Father of the House, and his reputation had begun to recover, assisted by the discrediting of doctrinaire economics and an outbreak of sleaze, a political phenomenon of which Heath, in spite of his failures, could not be fairly accused.

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Dr Bernard Palmer writes:
EDWARD HEATH was a member of the editorial staff of the Church Times for nearly two years. This will come as a surprise to many readers, as he hid this particular light under a bushel: successive Who’s Who entries, for instance, are silent on his connection with the paper. But he bore it no ill-will. He kept in touch with successive editors, and even turned up at parties held in the paper’s former London offices in Portugal Street to mark particular Church Times milestones.

From the beginning of February 1948 to the end of September 1949 he held the post of news editor. He wanted a temporary berth that would provide him with a regular salary, and, barring accidents, a general election was still at least two years away. So he applied to the Oxford University Appointments Board, which referred him to the Church Times.

The paper, by a happy coincidence, was looking for someone to take charge of its newsroom. After the sudden dismissal of Canon Leonard Prestige as editor and the departure of a senior reporter, it was short of staff. Heath, with his distinguished war record, Oxford background, and general air of authority, seemed to the new editor, Humphry Beevor, just the man for the job.

It was true that, apart from occasional pre-war articles in Isis, he had no previous journalistic experience; but lack of such experience had never proved a bar to employment on the Church Times in the past. It was felt, no doubt, that he would soon settle into the CT’s ways, and master the technicalities of his new profession. So he was offered the job at a salary of £650 a year — £200 more than he had been getting as an assistant principal in the civil service.

He fitted easily into the leisurely tempo of the Church Times newsroom of those far-off days. He would arrive about ten, inspect the diary, and decide with his two juniors which of them would attend which engagements. He was quick to learn the niceties of journalism: no one ever needed to tell him anything twice. When he had personally to report major events such as the 1948 Anglo-Catholic Congress, he turned in workmanlike summaries of what he had heard. These reflected his ability to master the most abstruse theological arguments in the same way as he was later to get to grips with political issues. (“What is all this about Reservation?” he once enquired.)

Occasionally he came unstuck. Thus, when faced with a heading to a report on the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa containing the (to him) unfamiliar initials UMCA, he altered them to YMCA — to his subsequent embarrassment.

What spoiled the atmosphere of the Church Times for Heath was his failure to get on with the editor. Politically, they were poles apart: Heath to the right, Humphry Beevor to the left. Heath was an ex-soldier of steady disposition; Beevor was an ex-naval chaplain, a man of brilliant intellect, but also a man of moods who would rush into the newsroom in a passion about some small detail that had gone wrong.

On one occasion there was a fearful row. The editor wanted to consult Heath in the middle of the afternoon, when he happened to be out having his hair cut. His colleagues covered up for him as long as they could, but eventually the truth emerged and the errant Prime Minister-to-be was well and truly put on the carpet.

With other members of the staff Heath’s relations were much happier. The occasional hint of ruthlessness was masked in his Portugal Street days by his friendliness, lack of side, fairness, and generosity. On Wednesday afternoons, he would make up the pages with Rosamund Essex, the assistant editor, in the top-floor caseroom; and, in off-moments, they would talk about themselves and their interests — in Heath’s case, the Territorial Army, to which he devoted much of his spare time. Standing in his shirt-sleeves and often running with perspiration, he would let his rumbustious laugh echo among the Linotype machines.

He wrote very little for the paper apart from news reports, his work being a mixture of administration, reporting and sub-editing. He had no natural flair for journalism, and regarded his job merely as a stop-gap before his becoming an MP. It provided him with a convenient base from which to pursue his political interests and, in off-duty moments, compose his constituency speeches. An admiring secretary remarked more than once, “That man will be PM one day!” But others in the office thought him not sufficiently devious to be a likely candidate for Downing Street.

AS PRIME MINISTER, Heath’s main ecclesiastical duty was to recommend candidates to the Queen for nomination as bishops and deans. Although the details were handled by his secretary for appointments (first John Hewitt and then Colin Peterson), Heath took the closest possible interest in the filling of each vacancy as it arose. The secretary was never allowed to be the tail that wagged the dog.

In the case of bishops, Heath always considered both the requirements of the diocese and the need to preserve a balance of churchmanship on the episcopal bench. From 1972 onwards, he insisted that the authorities of a vacant diocese filled in a pro-forma setting out their particular needs. In the course of a long telephone conversation prompted by my forthcoming book High & Mitred, he told me that the completed pro-formas always showed a remarkable similarity. Every diocese wanted a man between 44 and 48, married with four children (preferably two at university and two still at school), and with a knowledge of both agriculture and industry.

A number of Heath’s choices proved real winners. Among first appointments, he nominated Kenneth Woollcombe to Oxford, Maurice Wood to Norwich, and John Habgood to Durham. His translations included Gerald Ellison from Chester to London, Graham Leonard from Willesden to Truro, and George Reindorp from Guildford to Salisbury. He particularly liked outgoing personalities like Reindorp, whom he had sat next to at the Church Times centenary dinner in 1963, arriving late, hot-foot from the EEC negotiating table in Brussels.

Two of his nominations proved controversial. Wood’s appointment to Norwich in 1971 was attacked on the grounds of his strong Evangelicalism, but in this instance Heath’s eye was on the wider church horizon; he was concerned to maintain the episcopal balance of churchmanship, and with the need for the Evangelical voice to be represented on the bench.

Even more contentious was his decision, two years later, to nominate Ellison of Chester rather than Leonard of Willesden to the see of London, in spite of the fact that Leonard, but not Ellison, had been on the list of three names put forward by the vacancy-in-see committee. Heath agreed with Archbishop Ramsey that Ellison’s experience of the House of Lords would make him a better Bishop of London, but that Leonard might well be translated to Truro, a see that would shortly become vacant. Eight prebendaries of St Paul’s issued a formal protest at the meeting of the cathedral’s greater chapter held to elect Ellison; and an article in a radical quarterly inveighed against a “Crown patronage office supremely confident in its skill at the Establishment game”.

Heath remained unshaken by such criticisms. He told Archbishop Ramsey when he became Prime Minister in June 1970 that he intended to do what he could for the Church, and he discussed with Ramsey the type of bishop he thought the Church needed. Although the Archbishop’s politics were not those of the Prime Minister, Ramsey warmed to him over the years. “I felt him to be a man of integrity,” he once remarked, “an impression which I repeatedly got.” Heath even took an interest in minor ecclesiastical details. When the title of Winchester’s new suffragan see was under discussion, he ruled out the authorities’ preference for Silchester as being too antique-sounding, and successfully advocated the more down-to-earth Basingstoke.

One of Heath’s innovations was a series of dinners at 10 Downing Street to which the bishops of the Church of England and their wives were invited. The purpose of the meals was to enable the Prime Minister to meet the bishops on a personal level. When he had worked his way through the Anglican bench, he thought that it would be a good idea to invite the Roman Catholic bishops to a similar function.

His secretary for appointments, John Hewitt, was less enthusiastic, and kept on reminding Heath that the Queen was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and that he was the Queen’s first minister. Eventually Hewitt was won over, but only after it had been agreed that Archbishop Ramsey should be present at the feast as a kind of counterweight to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The problem of which prelate should say grace Heath solved in typically Heathian fashion by saying it himself.

HE SPENT much of the closing phase of his life in a Trollopian setting worthy of Harold Macmillan: the cathedral close at Salisbury. In 1985, through the good offices of the local MP, Robert Key, who had grown up in the Close (Key’s father became Bishop of Truro), he acquired an exceptionally beautiful old house, Arundells, fronting on the Cathedral. The house is set in an extensive garden overlooking the confluence of the rivers Avon and Nadder; and lunchtime visitors would often be invited out to enjoy a glass of champagne in such a perfect rural setting.

To Heath, Salisbury was supreme among English cathedrals, giving out a sense of continuity which appealed to him as a Tory. Living under the shadow of a cathedral also enabled him to revert in a sense to his childhood roots. His mother had been a devout Christian with a high sense of morality and public responsibility, and had instilled her firm religious values in her son. Heath’s own deep and genuine faith was rooted in a love of church music. As a boy he had sung in the choir of St Peter’s, Broadstairs: matins and evensong every Sunday, with practices on Tuesdays and Fridays. After his voice had broken, he played the organ and conducted the choir himself.

At Salisbury, in his old age, he found himself at home again in a supremely Christian setting. He proved a great benefactor to the Cathedral. Through his contacts in the worlds of music and finance, he was able to arrange fund-raising concerts in aid of the Spire Appeal in the 1990s which between them brought in a quarter of a million pounds. But his sponsorship efforts were not confined to great occasions. When the tiny parish of Milton, in the Avon Valley, was struggling to raise £6000 to have its organ restored, Heath went out to the village and posed at the console for a photocall for the local press and the parish-appeal leaflet.

He would often be seen in sports shirt and yachting trousers wandering round the Close with his friends. If a bishop, say, rang him up for advice on some public matter of the moment, such as possible Christian responses to the Gulf War, he would say, “Come round” — and happily spend the best part of an hour answering his caller’s questions.

Those who have known him at Salisbury pay tribute to his humanity, humility and humour. And a researcher on his staff praised him as “the nicest person to work for you could possibly have”. His religion was not something he cared to display to the public gaze; but it was there in the background all the time, influencing his actions in love of neighbour as well as of God. In the words of one of his biographers: “In his deeply private way, his belief remained one of the fixed decencies of Heath’s life.”

Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times

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