Heath, Sir Edward

views updated May 14 2018

Heath, Sir Edward (1916–2005). Prime minister. Heath went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he secured an organ scholarship and became president of the Union. Music remained a lifelong passion. His first taste of national politics came in Oxford's famous by-election in 1938, when he campaigned against the Conservative Quintin Hogg ( Lord Hailsham).

The Second World War deepened Heath's conviction that European reconstruction and unity represented the greatest challenge facing his generation. He was among the impressive new Conservative MPs elected in 1950, joining the ‘One Nation’ group of Tories who took a particular interest in social policy. It was a style of progressive Conservatism to which Heath clung tenaciously throughout his career, even though the group's ideas revealed a more radical approach to welfare spending than Heath might now wish to concede. His maiden speech was on the subject of Europe—the most consistent theme in his career. Less than a year after entering Parliament, however, Heath was made a junior whip. This effectively silenced him as a parliamentarian. Appointed chief whip in 1955, Heath had to hold the party together during the Suez crisis in 1956. This he did with firmness and more charm than he tended to display in later years.

Heath enjoyed good relations with both Eden and Macmillan; under the latter his career prospered. After the 1959 general election he became minister of labour. In 1960, however, Macmillan decided to make Lord Home foreign secretary with a second cabinet minister (Heath) in the Commons. This proved a turning-point in Heath's career. In 1961 the government determined to seek membership of the Common Market and Heath had the delicate task of negotiating the terms of entry. Though the mission was doomed, Heath won widespread applause for his handling of the discussions.

The choice of Home as a short-term leader in 1963 suited Heath since he was himself not yet ready to stake a claim. In the last year of Conservative government, Heath, as president of the Board of Trade, surprised many by introducing controversial legislation to abolish retail price maintenance. It served, however, to underline his credentials as the most dynamic figure in the new generation of Conservative politicians.

As shadow chancellor in 1965 Heath further impressed. With his energy and commitment to the tasks of opposition he stood in marked contrast to his leading rival for the succession, Reginald Maudling. When Home suddenly resigned in July, Heath secured a narrow victory over Maudling—the first leader elected by a simple vote of Conservative MPs. Heath owed his election to the conviction that he was the man to take on Labour's Harold Wilson on his own terms.

Such expectations proved wide of the mark. Heath never had the subtlety or political skills to compete effectively with Wilson. His popularity lagged behind that of the prime minister even when the Conservatives were running well ahead. None the less Heath prepared assiduously for government. His approach was based on intelligence rather than intellect, pragmatism rather than ideology. A major policy review emerged in the document ‘Putting Britain Right Ahead’. Its themes survived largely unchanged through the rest of the decade. It spoke of encouraging a competitive economy, moving from direct to indirect taxation, greater selectivity in the social services, and taking Britain into Europe. Such objectives inevitably encourage comparisons with the Thatcherism of later years. But for Heath the new policies represented a practical approach to the modernization of British society with little if any ideological underpinning.

Heath's defeat in the 1966 election had been widely expected. But his comfortable victory in June 1970 surprised most commentators. Whatever Heath's true intentions, his government seemed more right-wing than any since the war. In particular it espoused an industrial policy which would break the post-war consensus of planning and intervention. The government was certainly beset by bad luck. The chancellor, Iain Macleod, died within a month of the election; Northern Ireland provided unlooked-for difficulties; world economic problems, especially the quadrupling of Arab oil prices in 1973, distorted domestic politics and fuelled inflation. None the less, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Heath's government was a failure. Its one lasting achievement was to take Britain into the EEC, though on terms which ensured that this would remain a contentious issue.

Rising unemployment initiated an abrupt change in policy by the end of 1971. Heath's government now became one of the most interventionist since the war. By 1972 he had re-embraced the notion of an incomes policy. Industrial relations policy proved a disaster. The much heralded Industrial Relations Act, designed to introduce a framework of legislation into the workplace, proved inoperable. The government finally collapsed in the wake of the miners' strike of 1973–4, to which Heath responded with a three-day week and finally a general election. The campaign was mishandled. Heath's inability to convey his sincerity, which had long worried many Conservatives, proved decisive. A minority Labour government took office after Heath failed to negotiate a deal with the Liberals.

Further defeat followed in a second election in October. By now Heath had succeeded—through electoral failure and personal tactlessness—in alienating many of his own backbenchers. Senior Conservatives began to question the overall approach of his policies. Challenged by Margaret Thatcher, he withdrew from the leadership contest after failing to win the first ballot in February 1975.

Heath never reconciled himself to these events, his anguish intensified by being replaced by a colleague for whom he had never had much regard. Time failed to heal or even soothe his wounds. He found it difficult to find anything creditable in Mrs Thatcher's Conservatism, especially when it was claimed that she was implementing the policies upon which he had been elected in 1970. Heath remained an MP throughout her premiership, increasingly surly and devoid of his earlier charm. He greeted her fall in 1990 with undisguised glee and sought unconvincingly to find merit in the government of John Major, even though this owed far more to Mrs Thatcher's legacy than to his own. When he retired in 2001 from his seat at Old Bexley and Sidcup, Heath was Father of the House of Commons.

He remains an unqualified enthusiast for the European ideal. Overall, however, Heath's career leaves a feeling of disappointment. A man of great energy and considerable ability, his performance was marred by major character flaws.

David Dutton


Campbell, J. , Edward Heath (1993).

Heath, Sir Edward Richard George

views updated Jun 27 2018

Heath, Sir Edward Richard George (1916– ) British statesman, prime minister (1970–74). He entered Parliament in 1950. In 1965, he became leader of the Conservative Party, succeeding Harold Wilson as prime minister. Heath secured Britain's membership of the European Community (EC) (1973), but poor industrial relations led to a bitter miners' strike and the introduction of a ‘three-day week’ (1974). Defeated in two elections in 1974, the following year Margaret Thatcher replaced Heath as Conservative Party leader. Heath remained an outspoken advocate of European integration even after his retirement from the Commons in 2001.


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