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Very forgiving biography of a beleaguered Prime Minister
on 7 May 2011
It is said that you should not meet your heroes, to avoid being let down. I may also be true that you shouldn't meet your villains. Edward Heath's plumy tones have been representative (to me) of all that's worst in the British Establishment for as long as I can remember. His was the voice that justified the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, and later records of the political/legal events which surrounded that event have only served to black further his reputation (in my mind). I was quite surprised to read in the book that his accent was viewed as very erratic by the British establishment, a sign of his lower middle class origins. Well well!
Ireland joined the EEC (in 1973) along with the UK and Denmark, so I never understood the magnitude of his `triumph' in bringing the UK into the Community, nor have I ever fully understood the British ambivalence to the EEC/EU. His subsequent `long sulk' during the Thatcher years rather proved my point. However the effect of Ziegler's very forgiving biography is to reveal his cloven hoof as feet of clay (perhaps).
There are some points about Heath which are remarkable - his determination, his ability in small groups, for instance he took up sailing at the age of 50 and became a world class yachtsman. Ziegler illustrates this as a determination to succeed, but also as Heath's answer to the public who might be concerned about his lack of a spouse, and of any interests outside politics. While not a connection with the real world, it did at least convey a `man-of-action' image, rather more than his musical interests. His determination to gain entry into the EEC, despite scepticism both in the Community and in Westminister show him at his political best - Ziegler states that this was a result of Heath's single-minded determination, and almost makes me believe that no one else was in favour of the policy. This is patently untrue, more I think a measure of the unpopularity of the EEC/EU in British public opinion subsequently. Ziegler approves of Heath's earlier abolition of the Retail Price Maintenance Act, in the face of fierce opposition from retailers. This paved the way for large scale supermarkets (able to exploit economies of scale ) in Britain, another rather dubious legacy.
Ziegler's view of Heath's personal life is again too forgiving to be credible, even with the most rose tinted view, a picture emerges of a mother-dominated, self-obsessed child who grows into a cold, successful, rude adult. His rudeness and isolation emerge slowly, but by the time he became prime minister were well established. Ziegler tries to pass delicately over Heath's lack of intimate relationship by guessing that perhaps some chaps are asexual. You can sense his desire to get as far away from this subject. In an era when revelation of homosexuality was a certain end to a political career, it is likely that someone as ambitious and self-centred as Heath would have repressed all personal desires which could have limited his political career.
The description of Northern Ireland was the area of the book which interested me most, and the area which changed my opinion (to a certain extent). Heath, it seems, was contemptuous of the Unionist leadership, and basically sought a political solution to the problem. It should be pointed out that he was the driving force behind what became known as the Sunningdale Agreement, which was the first power sharing authority within Northern Ireland and gave some recognition to the Republic's role. It was unsuccessful as it was brought down by rejectionist Unionists, and swept away the existing unionist establishment, but its blueprint was the essential element for the devolved administration in Northern Ireland. Even his defence of the actions of the British Army in relation to the Bloody Sunday massacre seem to have emanated from a desire not to be bested by Republican Violence, rather than a deep-seated urge to use violence. Nonetheless the choices he made during this time - blindly supporting the Army's version of events, corrupting the Judicial inquiry into the events so that it supported the Army's view - poisoned the nationalist community's attitude to Britain for many years thereafter. Heath was not alone in making this choice- it is the thinking behind Lord Deming's appalling vista. And it makes David Cameron's (very late) apology for Bloody Sunday all the more welcome, and courageous.
Heath's petulance after Margaret Thatcher came to power does him no credit, and Ziegler, obviously caught between two personalities he admires, does not conceal Heath's churlishness. What is surprising is how long it took Heath to realize that he was not going to be re-elected as Tory leader. He genuinely did not seem to grasp that his time in power was seen as a nadir, that his accommodations with unions and implementation of price (if not pay) restraint, three day weeks were seen as weakness almost immediately after his fall from power.
His dealings with the Church of England in securing his final accommodation show Heath at this worst (in my revised view) - he secured a long lease on a house in Church lands, and was able to exploit a loophole to gain ownership of the house. Something he was rather boastful about in later years. Heath died in 2005, fully thirty years since he lost the leadership of the Conservative party. His decline was long and slow and painful for all concerned.
Overall, I would have preferred a more straightforward, `biting' biography. However it did make me reassess my views of Heath, from demon to cad.