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Edward Heath (1916-2005) Our Conservative Prime Minister from 1970-1974

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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Edward Heath is said to have never forgiven Margaret Thatcher for taking the Party leadership from him in the mid-1970’s. I disagree; he was an ardent Tory and ended up Father of the House in 1992, such was his love of the Commons. He had to “resign” himself to Thatcher’s leadership from her 1975 election to 1989. As a Christian man he would willingly do that. He had a good innings as PM from 1970-74. He was a Conservative Politician of the highest order and he towed the line as all good Conservatives do.

1. Background

Heath was a whip under Eden in 1956 and also under Macmillan, I believe, from 1956 to 1959. He became Minister for Labour: 1959-60 in Macmillan’s Cabinet and had special responsibility for our bid to enter Europe in the Foreign Office from 1960-63. When Macmillan stood down in 1963 he became President of the Board of Trade in Douglas Home’s short administration: 1963-64. Home lost the autumn 1964 general election and stood down. Heath won the leadership election in July 1965 polling an overall majority: - Himself: 150 votes to Reggie Maudling’s 133 votes and Enoch Powell’s 15 votes amongst Tory MP’s alone.

2. Leader of the Opposition against Harold Wilson (Labour)

Heath’s character was always verging on austere and never lacking in probity. He was a serious politician who approached his politics with gravity. Wilson, by contrast, was the pipe smoking: “the pound in your pocket” has not been devalued (post devaluation) by the Exchequer and the “white hot heat of the technological revolution”. His phrases were simply ludicrous and his policies did not work, e.g. the price and wages freeze. He was lukewarm on the Common Market and sheepishly bowed to anti-European sentiment in his Parliamentary Labour Party. However, Wilson had a way of convincing the electorate and his Party. Heath was shown as stern and lacking in flexibility by comparison.

Wilson won two elections in 1964 (against Home) and in 1966 (against Heath) and was never thought likely to lose in 1970. Heath had been subjected to Enoch Powell MP who, whilst in the Heath Shadow Cabinet, made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968. Powell had gone too far in saying racial tension in England would spill over to serious bloodshed on our City streets. He was a senior and admired Conservative politician with an impeccable classical education and First Class degree. In fact he had been a Don at Cambridge University. He commanded considerable public support in the Country for this speech and his stand. He was the voice of the white English silent majority. Powell supported repatriation for West Indians and Asians and a stop to immigration from our former colonies. He was an orator par excellence.

Was Heath going to stamp out this divisive Powellism in a thoroughly non-Wilsonian manner? Yes, Heath rightly sacked Powell immediately from the Shadow Cabinet, risking a backlash against himself for repudiating the popular Powell and his big entourage in England, particularly the West Midlands where his constituency lay. The sacking could have cost him the 1970 election. Heath was the man of the moment and would not be deflected. He was anti-racist too.
He went on to win the 1970 summer election with a good working majority. You did not mess with Ted Heath was the message and the Country backed his Leadership. Heath won this 1970 election single handed. From the moment of Powell’s sacking this was decided. Heath judged the mood of the English people correctly and they gave him their whole hearted support for his stand against Enoch Powell, who never entered a ministerial post again. He had wrecked his own very promising career, but it took Heath to decide the matter. Heath never looked back.

3. Heath’s Premiership (1970-1974)

As we all know he did what Macmillan could not do and he navigated our passage into the European Community. That was his greatest achievement and it had to be done even though 45 years later it may be undone. To Heath the EC was his Mecca in the early 1970’s, but we will never know what he would say now. He did not, in his lifetime, appreciate the full consequences of the ECHR in restricting the independence of our High Court judiciary.

He had been to Balliol College at Oxford University and he was a lifelong Tory. To him the European idea mattered enormously. I concede his European fervour. I would like to argue out with him now the world wide impact of the Death Penalty and the sidelining of England & Wales in the EU presently. Would he see the sterile weakness of European politics with no military arm and no diplomatic prowess? Would he endorse English nuclear disarmament to fund much stronger conventional forces for our Country? Would he back the Anglo-American alliance? Would he recognise the meddling of the European Courts with our English Rule of Law based on the European Convention and the Directives coming from Brussels?

I think he would give me a hearing, see the wood for the trees and may be affirmatively answer some if not all these questions so vital to our Nation. He was said to be a bad loser, but he loved our Country as all good Conservative Party leaders always do. He did not wish to surrender and give away our hard won sovereignty. The European idea has been properly tried, but it has foundered on greed, exorbitant practices, and an overbearing Centre with un-Christian thinking in its leaders. Heath believed in Christianity as an Oxford University Balliol College Organ Scholar, lifelong bachelor and resident in the Close of Salisbury’s historic Anglican Cathedral at the end of his life. Above all Heath understood the niceties of British Politics. He was always a strong leader and had a great sense of duty to serve our Country and he born and bred in Kent as a “Man of Kent”.

4. Conclusion

With Heath you knew where you were. He was uncompromising in politics when he was Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition (1965-70). He tried to stop the bloodshed in the Irish Troubles and very nearly succeeded as PM at the Sunningdale talks. He was sincere and utterly without deceit and subterfuge. His conduct in opposition as Leader and when Prime Minister was of the highest calibre. Since 1970 only Margaret Thatcher comes close to him in his single-minded virtuous approach to governing Britain. They never joined forces and integrated their careers and followings sadly. We will remember Edward Heath for his shining integrity. You will not find a leader like him for centuries to come and I cannot think of a rival since 1750, when the role of Prime Minister first emerged. He was simply outstanding. His dedication to our Country was selfless and unflinching.