More Charming Than a Tank

By Goodlad, Alastair | The Spectator, October 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

More Charming Than a Tank


Goodlad, Alastair, The Spectator


The Course of MY Life is both Sir Edward Heath's autobiography and his political testament. In trenchant and often witty language, he describes a life of drama, triumph and sorrow. The book is an important source for future historians - of political attitudes in the 1930s, the second world war, Westminster politics and British government from 1945 until the present day, the development of the European Union, Northern Ireland, and aspects of international affairs such as China, the Middle East, and international development in which Heath has played a significant role. It is a seminal text on two separate over- overlapping themes in 20thcentury British politics, namely One Nation Conservatism and Britain's relationship with the European Union. It tells the life story of one of the most remarkable Englishmen of our age, as seen through a clear and rarely jaundiced eye. It is highly stimulating.

Heath's passion for politics began early. During school holidays in Broadstairs, he sat outside an ice-cream parlour talking earnestly with friends about the issues of the day. The practice continued at Oxford, in the rooms of the Master of Balliol, A. D. Lindsay, and in Heath's own rooms. He stood in a mock general election at school, attended a TUC conference at Margate before going up to Oxford, where he plunged with excitement into university political life. The influence of Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and Harold Macmillan's The Middle Way provided the philosophical basis for the One Nation Group which he helped to form as a young MP after the war.

An early political experience was the Oxford by-election of 1938, when the Labour and Liberal candidates stood down to enable A. D. Lindsay to campaign against Quintin Hogg as Independent Progressive candidate on an anti-Munich ticket. Heath quotes with approval a letter from Harold Macmillan to Lindsay:

If I were a voter in the Oxford constituency, I should unhesitatingly vote and work for your return to Parliament at this election - the times are too grave and the issue is too vital for progressive Conservative opinion to allow itself to be influenced by party loyalties or to tolerate the present uncertainty regarding the principles governing our foreign policy.

Heath is open and sanguine about his disappointments and mistakes. The disappointments include the French veto of the first British application for membership of the EC, the loss of the February 1974 general election, his loss of the Conservative leadership, the absence of an offer of a senior Cabinet position in 1979, and the loss of the election for the chancellorship of Oxford University to Roy Jenkins. His account is generous and dignified in each case. Of the mistakes in government to which he refers, only the Industrial Relations Act, which sought substantial change at one attempt rather than by a more gradual series of measures as proved successful in the 1980s, seriously affected his government's political fortunes.

Some of his judgments will command little assent:

I consistently campaigned for greater democracy in Hong Kong. I just felt that direct elections should have been introduced earlier as a genuine measure of democracy in which we really believed, not as a last-minute act of defiance by a Governor with no cards to play.

The paucity of the cards in the 1990s did not affect the genuineness of the democracy or the sincerity of the belief.

Heath expresses justified exasperation with those who have subjected him to `foulmouthed accusations and historical distortions', and demolishes with a timely recital of the evidence the canard that Parliament and the British people were somehow deceived into joining the European Community in the belief that it was merely a free-trade area. He traces his belief in European Union from the horrors of the war, and affirms his conviction that enthusiastic rather than reluctant participation in European deliberations is vital to the national interest. …

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