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Edward Richard George Heath

Edward Richard George Heath

Edward Heath (born 1916) was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1970 to 1974. His major achievement was to gain membership for Britain in the European Common Market.

The Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Richard George Heath K.G., M.B.E., was born in Broadstairs, Kent, on July 9, 1916, the son of a builder. He won a music scholarship to Chatham House (a grammar school in Ramsgate) and attended Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1939 he received a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics. Heath's political interests developed at Oxford. He was president of the Oxford Union and of the University Conservative Association. As a student he strongly opposed the aggressive foreign policies of Hitler and Mussolini.

Heath joined the army shortly after World War II began. In 1940 he was assigned to the Royal Artillery, where he advanced to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His distinguished war record included time spent on the Normandy front and in the crossing of the Rhine River. In the immediate postwar years he began to prepare for a career in politics. He worked successively as a civil servant in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, as news editor of the Church Times, and for a merchant bank in the City of London.

In 1950 Heath was elected Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Bexley, Kent, a constituency that (taking into account changes in boundary and title) he continued to represent into the 1980s. When the Conservatives were returned to power (over the Labour Party) under Winston Churchill in 1951, Heath was appointed to a junior position in the government. Two years later he was made government chief whip, a position he held until 1959. The chief whip is in charge of party discipline, and Heath's skills at conciliation served him well. He helped to preserve the unity of the Conservative Party during the controversial Suez invasion of 1956.

In 1959, with Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister, Heath was appointed Minister of Labor with a seat in the Cabinet. A year later he became Lord Privy Seal. Then from 1963 to 1964 he was secretary of state for industry, trade, and regional development as well as president of the board of trade. These were years of transition within the Conservative Party. An older generation of leaders, including Anthony Eden, Macmillan, and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was passing from the scene. Heath was among the younger politicians who were competing for the future leadership of the party. Though not an ideologue, he was identified with the moderate wing of the party on social and economic questions. Above all, he was a "European" who wanted Britain to join the Common Market. As lord privy seal, he conducted lengthy negotiations to that end, only to have President Charles de Gaulle of France exercise a veto in January 1963.

Heath was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1965 in succession to Douglas-Home. At 49, he was the youngest Conservative leader in a century; he was also the first to be chosen by members of Parliament rather than private consultation. Although he was defeated by Harold Wilson in the election of 1966, Heath worked hard to prepare his party for power, emphasizing personal initiative and a reduction of the role of the central government as elements of modern conservatism. In 1968 he dismissed Enoch Powell from his shadow cabinet as a "racist" after the latter made an extreme anti-immigrant speech.

In the election of 1970 Heath won the prime ministership with a narrow victory over Wilson. From the outset he turned his attention to the unresolved question of the Common Market. He and President Georges Pompidou of France reached an historic agreement in 1972, and the following year Britain entered the Common Market. This attempt at unity with the continent of Europe was almost certainly Heath's major achievement in politics.

On domestic matters, Heath pursued a "quiet revolution" involving fewer governmental controls, reduced taxation, and the reform of trade union law. However, by 1972 he had reversed some of his policies. The Industrial Relations Act, passed in 1971, was not enforced effectively, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, carried out a policy of increased expenditure to deal with rising unemployment. In February 1974, in the midst of a miners' strike that led to severe power cuts, the Conservatives were defeated in a general election and Wilson returned to power with the Labour government.

Heath fought and lost another election to Wilson in October, 1974. The following February he was replaced as leader of the opposition by Margaret Thatcher. After that he was on poor terms with Thatcher and lost much of his influence within the Conservative Party. He continued to be a vigorous spokesman for the Conservative "wets," who favor a consentual approach to social and economic problems and have generally been critical of Thatcher's policies.

Internationalist

Losing the General Election of October 1974 to Margaret Thatcher and the Party Election to Harold Wilson in 1975 did not remove Sir Edward Heath from political life, as he retained his seat in Parliament as the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. Thus, he was still a Member of the House and of the ruling Conservative Party. As such, he chaired important governmental committees which determined national policy. During the 1990-1991 war in the Persian Gulf, Heath was the British government's negotiator with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and succeeded in gaining the release of many British hostages.

Renaissance Man

Like the aristocrats of the past, Edward Heath cultivated his multiple talents to a high degree of skill. Not only was he an able negotiator and international statesman, but also a first-class recital and concert organist who conducted classical orchestras in Britain and on the Continent. He took up yachting when he was fifty years old and won the Sydney, Australia to Hobart, Tasmania Race, with his personal yacht. He was also chosen to captain the British Admiral's Cup Team in 1971 and 1979. He was a consummate politician, sportsman, organ virtuoso, journalist, writer and investment counsellor. He was truly a man of universal talents.

In April 1972, Edward Heath was appointed Knight of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II, i.e., an ancient British title which elevated Heath to the peerage (British aristocracy). He had already been decorated with the Order of the British Empire in November 1965, for meritious service to the nation. He was now addressed formally as The Rt. Hon. Sir Edward (Richard George) Heath, KG, MBE. In Parliament he was termed the Father of the House of Parliament and, as such, he presided over the internal elections.

Sir Edward Heath figures in history as the man who brought Great Britain back into the European community of nations as Britain had been so many centuries ago.

Further Reading

Margaret Thatcher's two volumes of political memoirs presented portraits of Edward Heath as her political opponent, The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995). For an encapsulated but detailed biographical listing of Edward Heath's achievements and positions held, Who's Who 1997: An Annual Biographical Dictionary, has all the facts chronologically arranged.

Although not an adequate biography of Edward Heath, George Hutchinson's, Edward Heath: A Personal and Political Biography (1970) provides an interesting portrait. The published accounts of Heath's tenure as Prime Minister have been generally critical. The best of these are Martin Holmes, Political Pressure and Economic Policy: British Government, 1970-4 (1982) and Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (1985). Edward Heath has written three non-political books, all of which are entertaining to read: Sailing: A Course of My Life (1975); Music: A Joy for Life (1976); and Travels: People and Places in My Life (1977). □

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