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Edward Heath: A sense of entitlement to power 

Dominic Sandbrook specialises in writing the history of our recent past. He has already dealt with the Fifties and the Sixties. His latest volume takes up the story from 1970 to 1974 — as disturbed and disturbing a time as anyone alive today can remember, short of war. Survivors from those days will recognise all too well the prevailing sense of uncertainty and (for many) dismay that he recreates. State of Emergency is an apt title, for there were five occasions (an unprecedented number) on which Edward Heath's government officially declared that a "state of emergency" existed. They were uneasy times indeed.

As Sandbrook has shown in earlier volumes, he can distil a vast amount of evidence into a thoroughly readable narrative. He likes to draw upon a great variety of sources, from government papers to TV sitcoms, from political memoirs to efforts by journalists to define the strange things that were happening in the world around them. The result is a recognisable account of a remarkable period. 

It might have been tempting to limit his narrative to the politics of the time (enough material there for many a volume) or to the tempestuous industrial relations that blighted Heath's years as prime minister. Sandbrook has the more interesting aim of chronicling the action on a wider stage. Thus, he ranges around the social developments that in most cases still affect our lives today. These (to name a few) include the pornography boom, the rise of football hooliganism, the dire effects of property development on cities, the influx of the expelled Ugandan Asians and the growth of the women's movement. In doing so, he recalls a variety of persons who once made headlines: Mary Whitehouse, for example, and her arch-enemy at the BBC, Hugh Carleton Greene; and Lord Longford, Brian Clough, John Poulson, Lord Lambton, Tiny Rowland, Jim Slater and many more. 

But no review of the period can for long depart from its defining themes of industrial conflict and economic crisis. It was the conjunction of these that produced the disastrous imposition of a three-day working week upon industry (those parts of it, at least, not already closed down by strikes). In Sandbrook's orderly account, the union bosses stand out as men conscious of their power: men to be reckoned with such as Joe Gormley, Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and, even at that date, the youthful Arthur Scargill. As to the politicians, who so often were their opponents, these do not emerge from the tale unscathed either. There is poor Reggie Maudling, his charm and talents washed away by drink and greed. Anthony Barber, Heath's Chancellor, author of the notorious "Barber Boom" and the subsequent inflation, appears as a man out of his depth. Enoch Powell played the roles of hero or villain, according to taste. Willie Whitelaw, the shrewd Wykehamist with a bluff country-squire persona, is seen reduced to near-despair by the torments of Northern Ireland. It is a gallery of men who were severely tested by a time of tribulation — household names then, if only half-remembered today.

But the principal character in the political drama was Edward Heath. He had won an unexpected triumph in the 1970 general election, only to have power snatched away from him after he had occupied Downing Street for a mere three years and 259 days. And what a strange, not to say baffling, figure he was, inspiring admiration in some and loathing in others, but a puzzle to almost everyone. 

Sandbrook observes, with justice: "Whatever Heath's weaknesses — his atrocious communication skills, his impatient dismissal of tradition, his inability to understand the passions of others, his curious lack of political sensitivity, his towering personal rudeness — they were dwarfed by one flaw he could do absolutely nothing about: he was extraordinarily, incredibly unlucky." No prime minister since Ramsay MacDonald, he rightly observes, had been dealt such a terrible hand. Things seemed to be falling apart on all sides. The fearsome economic blow from the 1973 oil price shock was only one of his many setbacks. But the deeper causes of his personal failure lay within the man, not the world around him.

The character of Edward Heath has come under renewed scrutiny since the recent publication of the "authorised" biography by Philip Ziegler (in itself a revealing and elegantly-written work). What he achieved in politics cannot be dismissed lightly, for as Ziegler writes, he changed the lives of the British people more fundamentally than any prime minister since Churchill. He took us into Europe, with incalculable long-term consequences, and by abolishing resale price maintenance he cleared the way for the invincible advance of the supermarkets and thereby transformed the urban scene. "Yet Heath today is largely forgotten," says Ziegler. 

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