“Edward Heath, the authorised biography” by Philip Ziegler was published by Harper Press in 2011, but it is even more relevant today, as the UK contemplates whether it should undo the major work of Ted Heath’s career, that of bringing the UK into membership of the European Common Market, now the European Union.
I only met Ted Heath once, in 1997 in the European Parliament, when we both received the Schumann Medal from the European People’s Party. In my case, it was in recognition of the success of the Irish EU Presidency of 1996.
In his case, it was for something much more significant, and more difficult, reversing the post war isolation of the UK from the task of building an economic base for a peaceful Europe.
In fact Ted Heath had made his maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1950 in the Schuman Plan for unifying Europe’s Coal and Steel industries, in which the then UK Labour Government had refused to take part. He wanted the UK to take part.
I was delighted to meet him, as I had long admired him, not only because of his stance on Europe, but for his pragmatic and non ideological approach to politics.
As Prime Minister, while he favoured competition and trade union law reform, Ted Heath attempted to reach understandings on incomes policy with trades unions and employers, an approach that was reversed by his successor Margaret Thatcher.
She relied on reducing the money supply to bring down inflation, while he hoped it could be achieved by agreement. Her policy worked, but the social cost was high. His policy did not work because some key Unions, notably the miners, refused to cooperate, and the TUC was unable or unwilling to get them to change their minds.
Unlike Margaret Thatcher and all his other successors as Prime Minister, Ted Heath had served as a soldier in World War Two. This direct experience of war, and a pre war visit to Nazi Germany, led him to put great emphasis on the need for Britain to positively contribute to the building of a structure of peace in Europe, as a participant not just as a bystander.
This biography reveals that, when in 1970 he eventually succeeded in overcoming the French veto on UK membership of the Common Market, Heath expected to be pressed to join the proposed common currency as soon as it could be set up. He was for the idea himself, but felt it would not be popular in the UK. By the time the UK eventually joined in 1973, the volatility caused by the oil crisis and the fragility of sterling would have precluded the UK from joining the single currency, if it had in fact been launched then.
This biography explores Ted Heath’s difficult and solitary personality. While he had some very close friends, he never married, and was not gregarious.
He never accepted his ejection from the Conservative Party leadership and this meant that he never regained much positive political influence, despite remaining in the House of Commons until he was 80 years of age.