1990s >> 1990 >> no-1028-april-1990

Caught in the Act: Missing a stroke

Missing a stroke

Forty years is a long time and anyone who hangs on in a job that long can expect to get a gold watch which they think is a reward but which is actually a stark reminder that in a commodity-producing society our lives are tyrannised by time, not least by the need to give our employers full value for our wages by never being late for work. A recent, rather different recruit to the ranks of the long-serving is Edward Heath, whose 40 years as an MP were celebrated, a touch ghoulishly, by a lunch at London’s Savoy Hotel.

The 500-odd guests were presided over by Lord Home, whose brief and disastrous premiership more or less paved the way for someone with Heath’s background to become Tory leader. But Home is not one to bear grudges; after all he is an aristocratic Scottish landowner who went to Eton and played cricket for Cambridge University. Perhaps because he had to claw his way up from his origins as the son of a humble shopkeeper in the tumbling Kentish seaside town of Broadstairs, Heath does bear grudges, which means that Margaret Thatcher’s presence at his celebratory lunch could hardly have added to its warmth and gaiety.

Heath has never tried to hide his pique at Thatcher’s victory over him in the Tory leadership election in 1975. From his regular seat in the Commons he glowers and simmers, a persistent critic of a government which in theory he should support. This causes much resentment among Tories who are more loyal— or more ambitious. Says Teddy Taylor, the MP for Southend who has upset quite a few people in his time, “he is just enjoying himself because the government is in trouble” Well Heath doesn’t look as if he’s enjoying himself; after all it must be pretty stressful for a politician to try to resurrect themselves in a form which history would hardly recognise. But yes. the Edward Heath of 1990 who mutters rebelliously about our poverty, the current economic crisis and Thatcher’s head-on style of politics is the same man who was Prime Minister for over three years of muddle and conflict during the early 1970s.

Selsdon Man

In fact Heath was never really secure in the leadership for he was dogged by persistent doubts about whether he was sufficiently cunning to survive in the political jungle and to keep his party in the same state. His unexpected victory in the 1970 General Election meant that he was suddenly dominant in the Tory party—the more so because coming through all that internal enmity relieved him of the usual debts to supporters. Clearly, in his old age—he is 73—Heath has forgotten the policies he was pledged to when he came to power. The 1970 election had been preceded by the notorious mini-conference of Tory leaders at the Seldson Park Hotel, which marked the beginning of the end of ‘liberal” economics and the planning of an open assault on the trade unions’ power. This was called the emergence of Selsdon Man. an atavistic being who would soon be swept into extinction by progressive votes. While the Labour Party chuckled Heath replaced “liberal” Edward Boyle as shadow Education Minister with Margaret Thatcher.

But the voters found Selsdon Man rather attractive and for a while after the Tory victory in 1970 he ruled with his theories about the market economy and worker/employer confrontation. It was the government’s intention that there should be no more support for ailing industry; companies which were “lame ducks”—in other words, unprofitable—should not be kept going simply because they made something useful or because a locality depended on them for employment. They should be abandoned to die. The abolition of the Prices and Incomes Board set up by the Wilson government signalled that in future both sides in industrial disputes would be left to slug it out without any interference from the government (the Industrial Relations Act which became law in August 1970 did not count as government interference). The idea was that if the employers were thrown on to their own resources they would more keenly resist wage claims and this would eventually make British industry more efficient and competitive and profitable.


To some people this all sounded gloriously simple and intelligent—the kind of policy some Tories had been waiting for for a very long time. But as a rehearsal of Thatcherite politics it was a disaster, at times farcical. Heath’s ambition to take on the unions foundered when the Industrial Relations Court did what Parliament had told them to do and imprisoned five dockers who refused to appear before them. Quite apart from the dock strike and other protests which this provoked, this was extremely embarrassing for the government who escaped from their predicament by discovering an obscure functionary called the Official Solicitor to challenge the court’s decision. Having succeeded in this, an equally obscure person called a Tipstaff went along to Pentonville prison and knocked three times on the door—or whatever Tipstaffs do when they want a door to open to relieve a government of an embarrassing blunder—and got the dockers released. Whereupon the Industrial Relations Court subsided into death.

Even more farcical were the government’s attempts at controlling the economy—at one time tightening the screw, at another time loosening it only to frantically tighten it again. A recession came rumbling in. unemployment rose towards the million mark and prices—which Heath had said could be reduced “at a stroke” continued to rise The panic at Westminster became obvious for all to see when the government performed its U-turn, implementing policies which it had so recently opposed on the argument that they were destructive of the economy of British capitalism. Huge sums of money were made available to industry in investment grants with two world- class lame ducks—Rolls Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders—being especially grateful to be allowed to walk again. A statutory restriction on prices and incomes was introduced and a Price Commission and a Pay Board were set up to ensure the government intervention in pay negotiations which Heath had said had been so damaging.

Three Day Week

The curtain began to come down on this rollicking farce with the Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil states making hay while their skies were unclouded by competition from the North Sea, restricting production and hiking up the price of what exports they allowed. For British industry the crisis was aggravated by their deliberate policy of relying on oil rather than coal, which was always under threat from those nasty disruptive miners . . .  At the end of 1973 the government were in conflict with, apart from the miners, the electricity supply workers and the train drivers. Their response was the measure for which Heath will always be remembered: the Three Day Week and its restrictions on power consumption. As a way out, Heath chose to fight a General Election on the theme of Who Runs Britain—the Unions or the Elected Government? His defeat was by the narrowest of margins but. more importantly, his most cherished policies, through which he was to go down in history as the Saviour of the Nation, had been ignominiously abandoned.

No one can argue with Heath about the waste of the past ten years except that there is nothing better to say about his own time in power, which exposed his claim to be able, not only to control capitalism but to do it At A Stroke.