2000s >> 2001 >> no-1162-may-2001

Greasy Pole: Ted Heath-A disappointed man

So. Farewell then, Ted Heath. You are leaving Parliament at the next election. Long-serving MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, Father of the House, ex-Chief Whip, Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury. We shall miss you sitting in your traditional seat below the gangway. All true-blooded English people know how important traditions are when it comes to Parliament. Where would we be without the Despatch Box and the Mace and the MPs using parliamentary language instead of swearing at each other. It was symbolic of our grand old country that you had exclusive use of that seat, where you could sit glowering and sounding off with opinions, like you did recently when you were overheard to say that William Hague is “a ghastly, vulgar little man”.

It is 50 years since the young Ted Heath, thrilled to bits, was welcomed to Westminster by the policeman at the door. He had been in the Army and at Oxford and then in the Civil Service. But his ambitions were always for a career in politics and at the appropriate time he set about wooing constituencies in his home county of Kent. Three of them turned him down (one told him bluntly that they were only interested in someone who would be in the Cabinet and clearly that wasn’t him) until he was successful at Bexley.

If any of those committees had doubts about him being a bachelor, at a time when having a wife was supposed to be pretty well essential to a man’s successful career in politics, they did not give voice to them. In fact there had been a woman in Heath’s life – “…a delightful girl… we shared many interests…” But soon after the war “…she suddenly let me know that she was marrying someone else. I was saddened by this”. Such a defended attitude would have been useful to him in later years, when his sexuality was not only a fertile source of malicious ribaldry but at times almost a political issue in itself.

Barely a year after he got into Parliament Heath was invited to become a Whip – his first move up the greasy pole. He had some doubts about this; it was promotion of a sort but it did not necessarily lead in the direction he wanted. The whips were under a pretty strict discipline; for one thing they were not allowed to speak in the Commons which, if the Tories won the election as they were expected to, was likely to hamper his prospects. Reassured by Churchill that such devotion to duty would not go unrewarded Heath took the job. He probably had no difficulty with the necessary personality change; no longer the convivial new Member with many friends, he appropriately displayed all the open-handed charisma of a Trappist monk. His preoccupations were party management, unity and the discipline needed to wage the phony war against a Labour government tottering towards its end.

As the years went by his personality hardened, he became more and more private and awkward, unable to reel off the small talk so essential to politicians, royals and other redundants. He developed a tendency for gratuitously offending or insulting other people, treating his critics with contempt and operating on the assumption that he owed nothing to his supporters. It was not the most likely way of nurturing a political career. A typical example was his reaction to the standing ovation which predictably followed a rousing conference speech by Iain Macleod who was his Shadow Chancellor. As Macleod basked in the Tories’ adulation Heath sneered to those around him “Well, I’m sure you understand economic policy a lot better now”.

Ironically, although this attitude was not well received among the party activists in the constituencies or to MPs doing a bit of quiet back-biting in the Commons Smoking Room, it favoured Heath at a crucial time. His predecessor at Number Ten, Alec Douglas-Home, had emerged as Tory leader after a spell of savage infighting which the retiring Premier MacMillan described as “the customary processes of consultation”. Home was a landed Scottish toff, easy meat for Harold Wilson in what passes for debate in the Commons. His victory upset a lot of hopeful contenders like Butler, Macleod and Hailsham. Heath supported Home and it was rumoured that this was designed to keep those rivals out of the job on the assumption that Home would not last long, allowing him to try for it later. It was only necessary for Home to lose one election – which he obligingly did – for the party to begin to look for someone of a completely different style and background to replace him.

In that situation the choice rested between Heath and Maudling and after the first leadership ballot Maudling withdrew. The Tories heaved a sigh of relief. Heath was the very model of a self-made man – the son of a small builder, who won a scholarship to grammar school and then went to Oxford where he became President of the Union. There was not a whiff of the grouse moor about him. What did it matter if he couldn’t glad-hand it in the bar, didn’t have a wife to embrace him after a conference speech. He was the future, a professional who would repair the damage done by the aristocratic amateurs.

It all seemed to be coming right when, against many expectations, the Tories won the 1970 election. This was supposed to be a new beginning for British capitalism. No more propping up “lame duck” industries with government subsidies, no more privileged access to Number Ten for the unions, and eventually no more attempts at controlling wages and prices either. It was all very simple: the market would be set free to rule how the economy would be run, everyone would be swamped in prosperity and the Tories would be in power for ever. Except that it was not that simple and Heath’s government was quickly exposed as no more able to deal with the crises of capitalism than those of the aristocrats. Under pressure, Heath’s personality was not so rigid as to prevent him modifying or abandoning the policies which had got him where he was. But it did stop him responding to the situation with the kind of nonchalance which had been so useful to people like Macmillan.

All that was needed was for Heath to lead the Tories to a couple of election defeats for the party to turn against him and, much as they had with Macmillan and Home, to decide that they needed a leader of a different style. “I don’t think,” said Willie Whitelaw some years later, “I’d realised quite the extent of the feeling against him in the parliamentary party. They’d had enough of him”. The time was ripe for the emergence of Thatcher, although before she became a real prospect she needed a little luck in the shape of a suicidal speech from Keith Joseph in which he effectively knocked himself out of the running. The Daily Mail thought that “…near panic has broken out amongst the party’s top people ” at the gathering momentum of Thatcher’s campaign. In the end only Whitelaw came within shouting distance of her.

Heath did not go along with the political convention about congratulating a victorious rival and assuring them of your undying support. He submerged himself in a deep, unrelenting sulk. When Thatcher came to see him, soon after her win, to ask his advice about handling the press he more or less told her to work it out for herself. He might have been persuaded to take the job of Shadow Foreign Secretary but Thatcher gave that to Lord Carrington. He later contemptuously refused her offer of ambassador to the USA, regarding it as the snub it probably was; if anyone knew about snubs he did. After the 1979 election there were plenty of raucously triumphant Tory backbenches eager to patronise or insult him. His bitter jealousy erupted when Thatcher herself became a victim of yet another urge to change the style of the leadership. He also tried to establish a role of significance in capitalism in his dotage, to show the Tories what they had been missing – for example flying to negotiate with Saddam Hussain during the Gulf War, but his standing did not improve. As he leaves Parliament, that is where he is at.

So. Farewell, Ted Heath. No doubt there will be the customary events to mark your passing from the parliamentary scene, when the commentators and the hangers-on will do their best to celebrate your career. The truth is that the only thing special about you was your iceberg personality. But it is not all so bad. You come out of it as a rich man, living in one of the loveliest city houses. That is much, much more than can be said for the people who were misled into voting for you.


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