Edward Heath and Anthony Eden are perhaps the Prime Ministers whose reputations are most in need of rescuing. Fortunately, for the purposes of the centenary of his birth, Edward Heath is the most rescuable.
His career spanned over 50 years, including terms as Chief Whip, Britain's lead negotiator in the 1960s bids to enter the European Economic Community (EEC), Prime Minister for 4 years and Conservative Party Leader for 10 years. However, after losing out to Margaret Thatcher in continuing as Tory leader in 1975, Heath moved further out of touch with his party, as his one-nation Conservatism of compassion for the working-class and immigrants (accompanied by interventionist economic policy), was replaced by the emerging free-market economics that defined Thatcher’s leadership.
Heath was born in Broadstairs, Kent, in July 1916. The Victorian seaside town had been largely shielded from the post-war depression that had hit most of the country. ‘Teddy’ Heath, as he was known, enjoyed a childhood that although was not privileged, was largely pleasant. His autobiography The Course of My Life, published when Heath was in his 80s, sees him recall a childhood involving long walks along the Kent coast, swimming at the various beaches that are dotted around Broadstairs, and of course his lifelong love of music. His Father, William Heath, was a builder, whilst his Mother was a lady’s maid, both working tirelessly to provide for young Teddy and his brother, helping him gain an organ scholarship at Oxford University.
Heath's involvement in the Oxford Union saw him rise to become its president - an achievement credited to his victories in debates on appeasement, in which he followed a Churchillian line against the government, and an experience Heath shared with the future Labour leader Michael Foot.
It was during his time at Balliol College that Heath visited Spain during the Civil War, and Nazi Germany in the build up to World War Two. His travels around Europe in a period where political divisions had cause internal war in Spain and the rise of a belligerent and militant Fascism in Italy and Germany, began the process of formulating his views on the future of Europe.
Heath often recalled a reception provided for him and his travelling companions by the German Government, where he met Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler amongst others. His almost comic recollection of limp handshakes masked the fear that he expressed to the broadcaster Michael Cockerell, in the seminal 1998 biographical documentary A Very Singular Man. Whilst sitting on the steps of the Nuremberg rally sites in almost the exact same position where he had literally brushed shoulders with Hitler 50 years previously, Heath spoke of his belief that Hitler's obsessive control of the masses meant that he would have to be stopped militarily, rather than diplomatically, and that once the conflict had ended, the Europe would have to bind together to prevent this happening again.
Becoming MP for Bexley in the 1950 General Election, Heath was subsequently made junior whip under Churchill’s government, rising rapidly to become Deputy-Chief Whip under Eden, and then Chief whip under Macmillan. In this role Heath held the Party together during the Suez debacle, and revolutionised the Whips Office by creating new systems to persuade, encourage, and support members.
His appointment by Harold Macmillan to be Britain's lead negotiator in the bid to enter the European Economic Communit set Heath on the path to Britain's entry into the EEC in 1973. His great attention to detail during the negotiations saw him gain the nickname of 'Grocer Heath'. Although largely mutually beneficial, Heath’s negotiations with the other European nations were vetoed by the French President. It was only after Pompidou's ascension to the Presidency that Heath, now as Prime Minister, could do business with France to guarantee Britain's entry into the EEC.
During his time as Prime Minister Heath negotiated on behalf of Britain with Saddam Hussein, built a friendlier relationship with China, and became Father of the House until his retirement as an MP in 2001.
His now infamous remark of 'Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice' when Margaret Thatcher resigned is often said to characterise his view of the former Prime Minster, but after her removal by Tory MPs a reconciliation did occur, with Thatcher paying Heath a most generous tribute after his death. Andrew Marr predicted a 'great elephantine harrumph' descending from Heath in the afterlife, as Marr comically suggested that former PM would have liked to pay a slightly less generous tribute to the late Margaret Thatcher.
Heath's life defined an almost unrecognisable transformation in politics - from Winston Churchill to Tony Blair; from the Tory aristocracy of Macmillan and Douglas-Home to William Hague and David Cameron; from the British Empire to membership of the European Union, the constant was Edward Heath.
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