Europe was Edward Heath’s mission and, at one point, his legacy. This biography of the Prime Minister who led Britain into the European integration could not be better timed.
The Rt Hon Edward Heath and the Rt Hon James Callaghan, MPs, in Oxford for a Union debate, 1950s
By John-Paul McCarthy
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was as much a prophetic primer on the logic of collective action as it was a tirade against fanaticism. He insisted that healthy politics involved what he called “computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally-and not metaphysically or mathematically-true moral denominations”. This implied not just some degree of self-awareness on the politician’s part, but also a functioning emotional life. If he did little else in his book, and he doesn’t really, Michael McManus makes his readers marvel once again at Edward Heath’s wholly unBurkean personality and premiership.
This curious effort is McManus’ second foray into these depths, having ghost written Heath’s memoirs. Gladstone, Asquith and Churchill need not fear the stylistic comparison in the memoir genre with a book that contained numbing lines like: “After consultations had taken place, a number of minor amendments were made, such as the extension of the Commonwealth Citizen Working Holidaymaker Scheme, from six to twelve months.” This new book is scarcely any better, and in many ways, it isn’t even a book at all in the conventional sense, rather a kind of amateur psychological profile via quotations from a series of informed witnesses. The most interesting insights into Heath’s constricted and borderline distraught emotional life are also the most well-known.Heath came from working-class Kent to Balliol with an organ scholarship, followed by a smooth progression through the Conservative ranks
The Whitehall perspective is provided by Heath’s former principal private secretaries Robert Armstrong and Robin Butler, the former of whom became Heath’s best friend during his long and bitter post-premiership life in Salisbury after 1974. Armstrong also emerged as Heath’s fiercest defender in the recent bizarre attempt to suggest he was a predatory homosexual paedophile for much of his adult life. Lord Armstrong pressed the case for seeing Heath not as a severely repressed gay man, a thesis that McManus toys with here, but rather as a sexless adult, a sort of human neuter so to speak. (This line of defence eerily recalls Jonathan Swift’s sketch of the archetypical British Prime Minister in Gulliver’s Travels as a “creature wholly exempt from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; at least, makes use of no other passions…”)
Douglas Hurd’s recollections of Heath’s kitchen cabinet are recycled again, as are the tributes of Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey from across the aisle. These two Labour admirers first met the organ scholar ‘Teddy’ Heath at Balliol College in the years before the Second World War, the crucial social and political cradle for the builder’s son from Kent. Some of the quotations in the book effectively evoke Oxford at this time, touching happily upon the great post-Munich by-election fight between Quintin Hogg, then a fellow of All Souls, and the Master of Balliol Sandy Lindsay, the unique pressures exerted by university life on working-class undergraduates like Heath and Harold Wilson at nearby Jesus College, and the arcane protocols of the Oxford Union on the eve of conscription and continental war. Recalling this era years later at one of Heath’s many birthday parties, Roy Jenkins said his friend was a kind of political lighthouse who shone out “a wholly dependable beam” in all kinds of weather. This took account of Heath’s Keynesianism, his commitment to the NHS and industrial peace, and of course, his faith in the post-war European political project of Monnet, Schuman and Adenauer.
Even though there is nothing original in this account of Heath’s Europhilia- a passion that grew out of first-hand experience of a bawling performance by Hitler and which was consummated via the European Community Act in 1972- these passages remain hard to read today. Heath’s core insights remained consistent. Nationalism ripped European civilisation apart between 1939 and 1945. The antithesis of said nationalism involved a calculated pooling of sovereignty in both an economic and a legal sense so that the great European nations could combine their strivings. And outside this kind of continental arrangement then, there was only the night.
For more than half of the UK’s voting population today, such arguments are apparently hidebound and archaic, and reek of an antique logic and prejudice. Heath’s historic and superficially irreversible accommodation with President Pompidou in 1972 has as much party political relevance at the moment as headlines about Poor Law reform, Fenian dynamiters, and a matchgirl strike. To hear tell once again of the fate of a Tory who once openly championed ever closer union is to be reminded of everything the country once suffered, and everything it has just recently thrown away. Doubtless this was not what McManus qua Eurosceptic intended, but it is probably the best that can be said for his largely anecdotal labours.
Dr. John-Paul McCarthy took a DPhil in Modern History at Exeter College, Oxford in 2011
Images © Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University Images