The Misfit at No 10

State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook and Edward Heath: The Authorised Biography by Philip Ziegler

Books Literature UK Politics Westminster
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. 

That is surely true of Heath the politician. One may doubt its truth, though, about Heath the bachelor Prime Minister, whose enigmatic character continues to attract interest. For one thing, there was his unmarried condition, which at the time troubled so many in his party. (As was the case with the younger Pitt, homosexuality was rumoured — wrongly, says Ziegler, who supposes that Heath was simply asexual.) I remember the unimpressed comment made by one of Heath’s putative followers at the time: “So we have chosen a virgin to lead us.” The notion of a prime minister without a family was uncomfortable to many in those more family-conscious days. Even in today’s laxer climate, politicians are usually at pains to display their family arrangements. Bizarre as it might seem today, it is a fact that efforts were made in high Tory circles to provide a wife for Mr Heath. His response was icy.

What remains an unsolved puzzle is the reason for the disagreeable development in the character, or at least the behaviour, of Heath as his career advanced. He had been a bright and popular boy, obvious scholarship material at his grammar school, a well-liked and successful undergraduate at Balliol after a respectable wartime background in the army. 

He was President of the Oxford Union, he led a busy social life. He even had a girlfriend back in Kent (or at least a girl who thought of herself as such and wrote most affectionately to him. After he had dropped her she was not replaced.) Later, he was a popular young MP and a successful and admired Chief Whip. 

Yet by the time he reached the top, Heath had become a curmudgeon, notorious for his brutally bad manners. These were suffered especially by women unfortunate enough to be seated beside him at dinner (he might not utter a word to them throughout the evening), but also by anyone who could have expected normal courtesy from him. 

A long catalogue of snubs and graceless behaviour to colleagues and others accumulated and was much talked about. It was as if, once his huge ambition had been satisfied by high office, he regarded his lofty position as no more than his due, with no debt to anyone else. That sense of entitlement to power (and indeed to any perks and rewards that came with it) went far to explain why his own party fell out of love with him. He believed himself to be irreplaceable. “They are mad to get rid of me,” he kept saying after he had been dismissed as Tory leader. The pain was the greater of course because he had been ousted by, horror of horrors, a woman. Hence his pitiful conviction that he would be recalled to power, which eventually gave way to the long, undignified, pathetic sulk which ended his days. 

The familiar British argument about class has been invoked. I heard him confidently claim on more than one occasion that he belonged to the working class (although some say that strictly speaking he came from a “lower middle class” background). It has been suggested that his modest origins led to his being wounded by the suburban snobbery of the Tory party at that time, and that these experiences turned him into the ill-tempered boor he became. 

Perhaps there is a little in this, although it seems unlikely that Heath himself would have approved of the theory. He seemed easy about his background, often referring to it and making no attempt to disguise it. His Kentish vowels were spared “improvement”. More probably the changes in his nature sprang from deep frustrations or disappointments within him. His life seems to have been governed by an urge to control and manage, an urge too frequently thwarted, no doubt. (What distinguished man from animals, he once said, was man’s ability to control his environment). Added to that were an overpowering sense of his abilities, an indifference to normal human relations, and unquenchable ambition.

Heath was not the only prime minister of modern times to carry some such mixture of qualities, judging by all that has emerged about Gordon Brown’s unhappy record at Number Ten. Two of these misfits, surely, are more than enough.