2 NOVEMBER 1974, Page 8

Conservatives (1)

The failure of Edward Heath

Lord Coleraine

Lord Coleraine is the son of Andrew Bonar Law, who was Leader of the Conservative Party before the first world war and Prime Minister after it. He was the beneficiary of the first meeting of the 1922 Committee which overthrew Lloyd George as Prime Minister in a Conservative-Liberal coalition and, incidentally, brought down the then leader of the party, Austen Chamberlain.

The real charge against Mr Heath as party leader is not that he lost three but that he won one election and that, having won it, he squandered the moral, intellectual and political capital of his party. He tore up the programme on which he had been elected and threw it to the winds. The degree of miscalculation which allowed him to combine a statutory prices and incomes policy with a free-wheeling printing press, showed that he understood not at all the nature of the problem facing him. And throughout his period of office he took care that none of the younger members of the party should be given office unless he shared his leader's views or was prepared to subordinate his own to them.

Thus Mr Heath was greatly discredited at the beginning of the October campaign, and his party altogether disheartened. More than that, because of his tight and jealous hold on the reins of power, the Labour 'team' outshone the Tory by as much as Mr Wilson outshines Mr Heath. In the circumstances there was no conceivable chance of the Conservative Party winning the election. It was a sitting duck. They may be right, therefore, who claim that Mr Heath's style of leadership during the election saved the party from an even more humiliating defeat. Perhaps the only chance for a sitting duck is that it should merge with the landscape — or plead for mercy. Mr Heath's appeal for a coalition government, of which the first task, it seemed, would be to conjure policies out of thin air, combined both of these expedients. But it is not sensible to say, as some do, that the economic catastrophe which doubtless faces us will prove that Mr Heath was right. He cannot have been right himself to have adopted policies which could only lead to catastrophe. For whatever of ill is yet to befall us Mr Heath himself bears a very heavy load of responsibility.

One would suppose that by now everybody, critic or supporter, would agree that Mr Heath has failed as a national leader, and that he is almost totally deficient in those qualities which make a party leader. Wherein do these deficiencies lie? Not in character, for no one questions Mr Heath's character any more than his good intentions. Not in intellect, for intellect is not of primary importance in this context. It is a matter of temperament. Mr Heath seems to be temperamentally incapable of accepting the constraints which are necessarily placed on a parliamentary leader. In particular, while he delights in giving orders to his followers, he seems to be totally unaware of the need to understand them.

Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, once remarked that there must be a mutual loyalty as between a party and its leader. Certainly, he said, a leader expects loyalty from his party, but he, on his side, owes it an equal loyalty. This is a truth which Mr Heath seems quite unable to grasp. Ever since he assumed the leadership he has given the impression of a man who has succeeded to an estate. But the leader has no such proprietary interest in his party. He has no freehold. He does not even have a lease for a term of years. At best he is a tenant at will.

Two incidents, altogether trivial in themselves, are yet highly significant. During the election campaign Mrs Shirley Williams flatly contradicted her leader at a press conference in order to assert her unshakeable loyalty to the idea of the Common Market. Mr Heath at once seized upon this point, as he was entitled to do, as the symptom of a deeply diirided party. But when he was asked whether there was not a similar division in the Conservative Party he contemptuously replied that there was no comparison between a Cabinet openly divided on an issue of this kind and the opposition of "a handful of backbenchers." Surely Mr Heath must have known — and if he did not know somebody should have told him — that it is not a question of a handful of backbenchers: in fact there is division in the party over the Common Market as deep as that between Tariff Reformers and Free Fooders in the early years of the century. And he ought to have understood, as he did not, that it is the duty of a parliamentary leader to bind the wounds within the party, not exacerbate them with the salt of contempt. I have no doubt that this unguarded comment lost him much support.

Another incident, of no importance whatever in itself, but again significant and revealing. On election night Lord Boothby, interviewed on television, declared that defeat would mean the end of Mr Heath's leadership. Later in the evening Mr Heath was asked to comment. A wiser man would have been content to say that Lord Boothby, like anyone else, was entitled to his opinion. Mr Heath tartly observed that Lord Boothby was a member of the House of Lords, and that everyone knew that the House of Lords was of no political importance. That is a perfectly respectable view which many people hold, but there is at least one person who ought not to express it publicly. That person is the leader of the Conservative Party.

But it would be unfair to cast the whole blame for the Conservative defeat upon Mr Heath's shoulders, or even the major part of it. The fact that the party secured a lower proportion of the votes cast than in any other election this century is the cumulative and fully merited retribution for twenty-five years of error. Ever since its victory in 1951 the Conservative Party, without a philosophy of its own, has moulded itself upon the pattern of its opponents'. And this is true of the whole field of policy, economic, social, foreign and colonial. The leadership always supposed that by reflecting the current fashion, whatever it 'might be, it was consolidating and expanding its electoral base. Of course it was doing nothing of the kind. It was only dismaying its friends without placating its enemies. Again we may call Lord Salisbury in evidence. On the familiar contention that you can afford to give offence to your friends because they have nowhere else to go, Lord Salisbury made this comment: "You may say that they cannot vote against you, but they won't trouble to vote for

you, and they won't work for you, and you'll find it out at the polls." That was eighty years ago, but, as Churchill once observed, all wisdom is not new wisdow. And certainly it is as true in 1974 as it was in 1892.

It would seem to be of the first importance, therefore, that Mr Heath's successor should be someone who is not ashamed of being a Conservative; who is aware that there is a distinctive Conservative philosophy, and is capable of expounding it; and who, like Mr Enoch Powell, has no responsibility for the errors of the past or, like Sir Keith Joseph, has recognised, repudiated and repented them. In the eyes of those whose politics are founded not on the market but on market research (and they comprise the bulk of the Shadow Cabinet and Its satellites), Sir Keith has made two cardinal mistakes. He has been careless of his image and, because of this, he has spoken the truth. In Smith Square such sins are not easily forgiven. But is it not possible that the British people are getting a little tired of Smith Square (of both sides of it), and that they will come to respect a man who is less concerned with his image than with truth, and who is willing to admit error?