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 once happened to be sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for the former prime minister’s posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations emerging against Heath: specifically 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 now 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, when the real prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden was often either overseas or ill or both.

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Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in Heath, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing much to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly, quickly isolating Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following his racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. On the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and quickly derailed from its initial ambitions 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 rather 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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A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed  like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal with literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.