More charming than a tank
THE COURSE OF MY LIFE by Edward Heath Hodder & Stoughton, .£25, pp. 560 The Course of My Life is both Sir Edward Heath's autobiography and his political testament. In trenchant and often witty language, he describes a life of drama, triumph and sorrow. The book is an important source for future historians — of political attitudes in the 1930s, the second world war, Westminster politics and British government from 1945 until the present day, the development of the European Union, Northern Ireland, and aspects of international affairs such as China, the Middle East, and international develop- ment in which Heath has played a signifi- cant role. It is a seminal text on two separate over- overlapping themes in 20th- century British politics, namely One Nation Conservatism and Britain's relationship with the European Union. It tells the life story of one of the most remarkable Englishmen of our age, as seen through a clear and rarely jaundiced eye. It is highly stimulating.
Heath's passion for politics began early. During school holidays in Broadstairs, he sat outside an ice-cream parlour talking earnestly with friends about the issues of the day. The practice continued at Oxford, in the rooms of the Master of Balliol, A. D. Lindsay, and in Heath's own rooms. He stood in a mock general election at school, attended a TUC conference at Margate before going up to Oxford, where he plunged with excitement into university political life. The influence of Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and Harold Macmillan's The Middle Way provided the philosophical basis for the One Nation Group which he helped to form as a young MP after the war.
An early political experience was the Oxford by-election of 1938, when the Labour and Liberal candidates stood down to enable A. D. Lindsay to campaign against Quintin Hogg as Independent Pro- gressive candidate on an anti-Munich tick- et. Heath quotes with approval a letter from Harold Macmillan to Lindsay:
If I were a voter in the Oxford constituency, I should unhesitatingly vote and work for your return to Parliament at this election — the times are too grave and the issue is too vital for progressive Conservative opinion to allow itself to be influenced by party loyalties or to tolerate the present uncertainty regarding the principles governing our foreign policy.
Heath is open and sanguine about his disappointments and mistakes. The disap- pointments include the French veto of the first British application for membership of the EC, the loss of the February 1974 general election, his loss of the Conserva- tive leadership, the absence of an offer of a senior Cabinet position in 1979, and the loss of the election for the chancellorship of Oxford University to Roy Jenkins. His account is generous and dignified in each case. Of the mistakes in government to which he refers, only the Industrial Rela- tions Act, which sought substantial change at one attempt rather than by a more grad- ual series of measures as proved successful in the 1980s, seriously affected his govern- ment's political fortunes.
Some of his judgments will command little assent: I consistently campaigned for greater demo- cracy in Hong Kong. I just felt that direct elections should have been introduced earlier as a genuine measure of democracy in which we really believed, not as a last-minute act of
defiance by a Governor with no cards to play.
The paucity of the cards in the 1990s did not affect the genuineness of the democra- cy or the sincerity of the belief.
Heath expresses justified exasperation with those who have subjected him to 'foul- mouthed accusations and historical distor- tions', and demolishes with a timely recital of the evidence the canard that Parliament and the British people were somehow deceived into joining the European Com- munity in the belief that it was merely a free-trade area. He traces his belief in European Union from the horrors of the war, and affirms his conviction that enthu- siastic rather than reluctant participation in European deliberations is vital to the national interest. He also reflects that the One Nation approach, inspired by Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, self- evidently commands widespread support in the country (if not always, as he sees it, in the Conservative party).
Sir Edward regards the 1980s as an aber- ration in the Conservative party's political development. He disagreed, inter alia, with utility privatisation, rate-capping, abolition of the GLC, the community charge and uniform business rate, the right of schools to opt out of local authority control, the internal market in the Health Service, the War Crimes Bill, the government's reluc- tance to join the EMS at its outset, the decision to allow the USA to use Fills stationed in England for the attack on Libya in 1986, as well as what he condemns as 'one-club golfer' (interest rates being the club) economic management by the Trea- sury.
If the most successful political party in the democratic world vacates its traditional ground, it must expect its opponents to occu- py it pretty quickly, presumably, unable to believe their good fortune. Thanks very largely to divisions on the left, the Conserva- tive party survived in power through four successive elections. The party's victory in 1992 was very much John Major's victory, but he had to contend with an impossible legacy, of a profoundly divided parliamentary party, unpopular policies, and a deeply tarnished national image. Now that the centre-left is united again, and so determined to carry on governing, it is only if we return to, and reclaim, our political roots that we shall ever regain the trust of the people.
He believes it is his duty to air publicly any substantial disagreements with his succes- sors rather than, as he puts it, 'stirring up trouble for them in private' by off-the- record briefings and coded criticisms. At least one of his successors interprets an ex- prime minister's duty differently.
Heath illuminates the texture of his life and times through a revealing choice of anecdotes. After the war, a brother officer decides to begin his contribution to the reconstruction of Hanover by reopening the racecourse. Heath rebuilds the opera house. Churchill is tearful on seeing Ernest Bevin, his powers visibly failing, approach the dispatch box for the last time as foreign secretary.
Anthony (later Lord) Hurd refuses a knighthood for which Heath has recom- mended him on financial grounds, because the editor of the Times, for which Hurd wrote a weekly article on farming, had said, 'You have two choices. Either you turn down this knighthood or you leave the paper.'
After de Gaulle's veto of the first appli- cation for membership of the European Community, a former French ambassador to Britain mumbles into his cognac, 'Such a pity! Oh, such a pity! Such a pity that Macmillan went to sleep when de Gaulle was talking to him after lunch at Rambouil- let. It might all have been so different.'
On Enoch Powell, with whom he had established the One Nation Group:
I informed him [on the telephone] that I con- sidered his speech to be racist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions. I was, therefore, dismissing him from the Opposi- tion Front Bench after discussions with the shadow Cabinet. Powell accepted this with- out protest and rang off. We never spoke again.
At No. 10:
I saw Amin down to the front door and promptly at 11.00 pin he left the house. The rest of our guests followed and then, in our usual way, Alec [Douglas-Home] and I went upstairs to relax and waited for Robert Arm- strong to bring the whisky.
With Willy Brandt, whom he admired, Heath was disconcerted by the long silences, unsure whether to interrupt at the risk of disturbing some vital train of thought (a dilemma shared by others faced by Heath's own predilection for compan- ionable serenity). Typically, when Brandt was incapable of bringing his Commission to any conclusions after its peripatetic deliberations on world development, Heath (with Brandt's assent) took the chair and achieved agreement to a report which, rad- ically emphasising sustainable development rather than temporary famine relief, estab- lished the currently accepted wisdom of development economics.
The Heath who emerges from The Course of My Life is more complex than the stereotyped public persona. He came from an exceptionally loving family. Two of the most moving passages in the book are that about the death of his mother and a letter he wrote but never sent to his parents in 1943, when he believed he was dying of what turned out to be acute appendicitis. Heath worked exceptionally hard from early childhood, impelled to fulfil his par- ents' ambitions for him and to justify their sacrifices. Immense assiduity — cycling miles as a teenager to hear economic histo- ry lectures at the Workers' Education Association, zealously devouring paper- backs on politics, philosophy and eco- nomics at Oxford — led him to push himself (and others) to the limit through- out his career. Balliol Organ scholar, Presi- dent of the Junior Common Room, Chairman of the Oxford University Con- servative Association, President of the Union, where his first act was to commis- sion management consultants to sort the place out, Colonel of the Honourable Artillery Company, making sure that his regimental football team won the British Army of the Rhine championship after the war, Chief Whip, Prime Minister, world- champion yachtsman, having taken up the sport at an age when most people retire, successful conductor — there is a pattern of relentless thoroughness which is reflect- ed in the book. All records have been kept, every opinion put in its historical context and lucidly argued. Travel, music, garden- ing, conversation, campaigning, all are enjoyed and taken at a tremendous pace.
Heath quotes a piece about himself in Isis when he was prominent at Oxford:
Teddy Heath was born in the summer of 1916, some two months before the Tank. Lacking the thickness of skin of this early rival, he soon outstripped it in charm of man- ner, and has since proved its equal in ability to surmount obstacles.
The years have seen a thickening of the skin and a less indiscriminate application of the charm of manner.
Heath recounts his youthful invitation to Bernard Shaw to speak in a debate at the Oxford Union, which Shaw declines on a card bearing the printed words:
Mr Bernard Shaw is obliged by advancing years to discontinue his personal activities on the platform and he begs his correspondent to excuse him accordingly.
There is no danger that Sir Edward will cause such cards to be printed.
Sir Alastair Goodlad's last government office was Chief Whip, 1995-9Z 'If the market turns down. . . Mrs . . don't panic.'