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Edward Heath

Prime Minister 1970 - 74

Edward Heath has generally not been judged kindly as a prime minister. Nevertheless in many ways it would be difficult to deny his excellent leadership qualities. Rational, organised, conscientious and extremely hard working, he was a respected army officer during World War Two, and then a promising civil servant after the war. When running a small team with clear goals the evidence is that Edward Heath was a superb leader. But problems seemed to come when these undoubted leadership skills were applied to the vague job of being a British prime minister. Edward Heath reminds me of Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's 20000 Leagues Under The Sea. Heath showed his true qualities as a world class ocean racing captain, on his yacht Morning Cloud. Similarly Nemo was at his best with his loyal crew in the small world of his submarine called Nautilus. Generally on a sea voyage there is a clear goal, a definite port to steer towards. But a prime minister has a more difficult course to steer. As Plutarch has said of politics. "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, something to be done with a particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life" (attributed to Plutarch in The Great Quotations by Georges Seldes P 570). Leading a small team to a clear goal, Heath was an excellent leader. But politics is not like that. Nemo forbade any books on politics in his library on Nautilus. Perhaps this reflected the fundamental difference between a sea voyage with an end in view, and the endless voyage of politics.



Edward Richard George Heath was born in Broadstairs, Kent, on 9th July 1916. He was the son of William Heath, a carpenter and builder, and Edith, a maid. Seven years of Edward's early childhood were spent in Crayford where his father was sent to undertake war work in an aircraft factory during World War One. The family then returned to Broadstairs, where Edward spent the rest of his childhood as the family's prized possession. Obvious intelligence was rewarded with everything that a successful family building company could provide. Edward was excused all household chores, so that he could get on with his school work. He did not run around and play, like his younger brother John - who did have to do household chores. At school Edward was a model pupil, winning a scholarship to Chatham House, a respected grammar school in Ramsgate. After a few more years as a model pupil and a somewhat disciplinarian head boy, the next move was to Balliol College, Oxford, in October 1935. At Oxford, unlike fellow student Harold Wilson, who was dedicated to his studies in economics at Jesus College, Heath was already clear that he wanted to go into politics. Even at this early stage his talents as an administrator were clear. He ran the music society, and busied himself with arrangements for the smooth arrival of new students at Balliol. As an organ scholar he played the organ in Balliol chapel and helped renovate the instrument. Meanwhile he advanced his political career in the Oxford Union, speaking there many times, and becoming president in his fourth year. There was also a great deal of foreign travel, much of it designed to understand better the threat that Germany was posing in the 1930s. Heath was an early opponent of negotiation with Hitler, at a time when such views in Oxford, and in the country generally, were very unfashionable. Heath was at the Nuremberg Rally in 1937, and was actually in Poland in August 1939, a month before the German invasion. Only a dash for the border allowed escape into France before the borders were closed. He returned to England from this trip on 1st September 1939, the day the German invasion of Poland began.

When Britain declared war Heath immediately joined up, and served throughout the war in an anti-aircraft regiment. Until 1944 postings were in various locations in Britain. Then after D Day in June 1944, the regiment followed invading allied armies into Europe, and were among the first allied troops entering liberated Antwerp. Heath did well in the war, in his element, leading a small team over which he had total control. The war was followed by a spell at a merchant bank, and in the Civil Service, which once again went very well. Then in 1950 Edward Heath stood as MP for Bexley, and won with a small majority. The following year Heath's mother, to whom he had been exceptionally close, died. This event seemed to galvanise Heath into ever more concerted efforts to further a great career. Joining the Whips Office, he took quickly to the whip's job, to cajole, persuade and even threaten MPs to vote as the party wanted. Following the war people were used to a disciplinary approach, which suited the new whip. The focus of these years is revealed by the following late night exchange with Ned Carson, MP for the Isle of Thanet:

"Why don't you get married and go home and let me get to bed?!" He looked up slowly with a very blank face and answered simply:

"I don't want to get married." (Marian Evans Ted Heath. A Family Portrait P90)

Heath became chief whip in Anthony Eden's government, and was credited with helping to hold the Conservative Party together through the Suez Crisis of 1956. When Eden was replaced by Harold Macmillan, Heath became minister for labour, and then deputy foreign secretary, with special responsibility for European relations. It was his job to try and negotiate Britain's entry into the European Union 1962 - 63. Once again he was in his element as a leader of a small team with a clear job to do. It was only the veto used by French leader Charles de Gaulle which blocked Britain's entry into Europe. This setback, however, was not seen as any reflection on Heath, and his upward career progression continued. After Macmillan succumbed to ill health and the scandal of the Profumo Affair, Sir Alec Douglas Home took over as prime minister, with Heath becoming president of the Board of Trade. When Douglas-Home was defeated by Harold Wilson's Labour Party in the 1964 general election, Heath was immediately in the running to replace Home as Conservative Party leader. Heath did not have a good image with the public, who were unimpressed with his unemotional performances on television. Nevertheless he had a sense of efficiency and competence, and a humble background made fashionable by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. These factors combined to persuade the Conservative Party that they should elect Heath as their leader.


Yachts in the Sydney to Hobart race 2004 - Heath won this race in 1969. Image is copyright free

Heath was then off on his vigorous course to get the Conservatives back into power. Policies were designed around a familiar message of getting government off people's backs and allowing individual enterprise to bring prosperity. Later all this would change. When Edward Heath led the Conservatives to victory in the general election of 1970, scaled back government was quickly dumped in favour of interventionist government, controlling incomes to reduce inflation, and using public spending to create jobs to help unemployment. Heath would never see this as a u- turn, no matter how many times the accusation was made. Heath simply saw himself changing the way he wished to reach his goal. And this goal, in the absence of any definite home port, he defined as "freedom". Freedom was important to Edward Heath. He seemed to avoid marriage to maintain his freedom, and said on Desert Island Discs in the 1980s that freedom is "what I've always stood for in my political life" (quoted in Edward Heath by John Campbell P748). But freedom is indefinable. You can reduce the involvement of government in society to give people "freedom", or you might think that leaving people in poverty and unemployment without help is a limitation of their "freedom". These contradictions are reminiscent of scenes in 20000 Leagues Under The Sea when Nemo gives his unexpected guest, Professor Arronax, the freedom of the ship. Arronax is not impressed with this kind of liberty, on a submarine a few hundred feet long, and about twenty feet wide:

"I ask you what you mean by this liberty?"

"Just the liberty to go, to come, to see, to observe even all that passes here save under rare circumstances - the liberty in short, which we enjoy ourselves, my companions and I."

"Pardon me sir," I resumed. "but this liberty is only what every prisoner has of pacing his prison. " (Chapter 10)

Heath faced the same contradictions as Nemo. He began as prime minister with one sense of freedom, and ended up with another. As prime minister he was no longer on a journey commanding a small team with a clear goal. It was all so much more vague than that.

Edward's Heath government, 1970 - 74 was a turbulent one. The aim to reduce government's involvement in the economy began to lose focus when Rolls Royce ran into difficulties in its aero engine operation, and had to be bailed out with government money. After this Heath's administration increasingly became one of intervention. This change of policy seemed essential with the rapid rise of unemployment, which climbed to over one million in 1972. Then war in the Middle East in 1973, pushing oil prices up dramatically, had a severe impact on the economy, and persuaded the government of the need for yet more intervention. Efforts to hold back pay rises to control inflation led to huge conflicts with unions, particularly miners' unions. Meanwhile in Ireland there was a worsening of tension between religious communities, and between those who wanted a united Ireland, and those who wished to maintain Ulster's independence. Disastrously in January 1972 thirteen unarmed protestors were shot by paratroopers in Londonderry. Unrest became so serious that Ulster's government at Stormont was suspended, replaced by direct government from London.


The Medway at Upnor, where the first Morning Cloud was built

Through all of this Heath had his music, and his sailing. Heath was an excellent sailor. His active interest only began in 1966 with lessons in a dinghy at Broadstairs. Remarkably, within five years he was captain, on merit, of Britain's Admiral's Cup team. His yachts, all called Morning Cloud, were his Nautilus. But just as Nemo is isolated in Nautilus, all of Heath's achievements in Morning Cloud did not impress the wider world. Yachting was considered a rich man's sport, and Heath never gained the recognition he deserved for being a conscientious prime minister and a leading sportsman at the same time. The qualities of leadership and focus on a clear goal in yachting could not translate across to politics. Heath successfully achieved his dream of entry into the European Union in January 1974, but this triumph was barely noticeable in the gathering economic crisis. The miners were asking for a pay increase which the government said could not be afforded, and in January 1974 the ensuing dispute led to a three day week, to conserve coal stocks at power stations. Neither side would back down, and eventually Heath was forced to call an election for February 1974. In his campaign the prime minister resolutely refused to portray the miners as the enemy, feeling that reconciliation was the only way forward. This approach arguably cost him the election. The final result was close, and for a few days it even seemed that Heath would be able to cobble together a coalition with the Liberal Party to keep him in office. But once it was clear this wasn't going to work, Heath resigned, and Harold Wilson returned to Number 10.




1974 was a terrible year for Edward Heath. As well as losing the election, a storm in September was to sink Morning Cloud III in the English Channel with the loss of two of her crew. He was also nearly blown up in an IRA bomb attack on his house. Then in February 1975 the Conservative leadership was lost to Margaret Thatcher. Long years in a kind of exile then began. Initially Heath hoped to challenge Mrs Thatcher, but her election as prime minister in 1979, and her popularity following the Falklands War in 1982, soon sunk any chance of that. Heath stayed in the House of Commons, sitting close to the front bench, which he would regularly berate for what he considered their heartless policies. He moved to a beautiful house, called Arundells, in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1985, and lived a generally happy bachelor life there, entertaining friends and celebrities. Arundells is memorably described by John Campbell was a "bachelor's love poem to himself" (Edward Heath P744), full of momentoes of his careers in sport and politics. Although he often had company, Heath continued to live alone. After giving up sailing following the disastrous Fastnet Race of 1979, music was his main solace. Like a melancholy Captain Nemo he would sometimes play the organ in the vast space of Salisbury Cathedral. Back in London Heath continued to fulminate against government policies which he himself in the early days of his government had supported.

Captain Nemo's motto was "mobilis in mobili" which means moving in a moving element. This describes a sea voyage, and it also describes Edward Heath's political life, where he put so much energy into his voyage, over a shifting sea of politics, which demanded that he change his course from one direction to another. He died on 17th July 2005 and is buried in Salisbury Cathedral, close to Arundells where he spent his last years.