Book review: Edward Heath: A Singular Life

Edward Heath: A Singular Life by Michael McManus

Poor old Edward Heath. This year is the centenary of his birth and how has Britain chosen to honour it? By rejecting the one crowning achievement of his premiership:by choosing to reject our membership of what is now known as the European Union. As Gyles Brandreth (who was once sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for his posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations made against Heath, that he had sex with underage boys in retirement. Despite the fact these seem to have very little foundation, (Heath seems to have been homosexual by inclination but not in practice) the damage to Heath’s reputation seems to have been done. Thankfully, he never knew of them, having  died in 2005.

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This is a slightly odd book. There seems to have been a  proofing error in it (one chapter is described as covering “1950-1959” when it actually covers “1950-1970”). It claims to be “not a biography” when to all intents and purposes, it is. McManus’s website describes as “an acclaimed collection of essays, tributes and anecdotes about the former Prime Minister”. It isn’t. It is a biography featuring extensive quotes and recollections of Heath. As the introduction explains, something was lost in the journey from conception to completion.

This is still an excellent read, however, providing a real sense of Heath’s character over the years. It is easy to forget just what a supremely able person he seems to have been in his early years impressing many with his qualities diligence and leadership both during the war and as a rising MP. He practically kept the nation going as Chief Whip during the 1956 Suez Crisis with the real premier Sir Anthony Eden often overseas or ill or both.

heath2Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in him, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing a lot to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly to isolate Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following the racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. But on the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and derailed by inflation and industrial action. Having been brought down by the two General Elections of 1974, having come to power after a surprise election win in June 1970, he was overthrown as Tory leader by his old Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

Heath’s defensiveness in the face of media attacks plus his odd manner and sense of humour gave rise to the rather stuffy awkward image of Heath which prevails to this day: that of the “incredible sulk”.

It is not wholly unjustified. But his morally courageous attacks on the excesses of Thatcherism in later life, demonstrate that he was perhaps a better man than he was a Prime Minister.

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