Great sulk spoiled memory of Heath

Brian Monteith
Edinburgh Evening News, July 22nd 2005

THE death of Ted Heath this week brought the predictable references to taking Britain into Europe and film clips of him signing away our national sovereignty.

One of my sons asked, who was Ted Heath? What was he like?

I pondered for a second whether I should take him to the pub and explain the modern political history of Britain in the 60s and 70s over three or maybe five pints of Deuchars, depending how morose or elated I might become.

I thought better of the idea. You see, Heath was the political leader that caused me to be a Tory and I could end up drowning in nostalgia as well as the beer.

My mum and dad were both Labour and their parents before them were, as far as I could tell, all Labour too. Aged eight, I remember the 1966 General Election and being given a red paper Glengarry hat by a Labour candidate. I was won over immediately.

I had liked that Labour lady, Barbara Castle, who had tried to limit the power of the trade unions but had been knifed by her own Labour premier, Harold Wilson. The cad.

By the 70s Ted Heath was trying to do the same as Mrs Castle, with similar deferred success. Facing a dock strike (which, it might be hard to believe now, was a very big thing back then) after a miners' strike that had conveniently coincided with an international oil crisis, he asked the question, who governs? The nation decided, and it was to be the trade unions.

From that moment on I was a Tory. Surely democratically elected governments should be allowed to rule, I thought.

The subsequent descent of Britain into the chaos that was to reach its nadir with the 1979 Winter of Discontent brought many people, including even my parents, over to the Tories too.

I subsequently had cause to meet Ted Heath many times and not once, sadly, can I say it was an enjoyable or even memorable experience. By the 1980s he had become a particularly pompous and sour man, never forgiving Margaret Thatcher for having the audacity to defeat him in the leadership race of 1975. The more she became a political success the more bitter he seemed to become.

It was a tragedy, for he was, as his obituaries recognised this week, the original moderniser of the Tories. He was no toff, but a grammar school kid who originally encouraged meritocracy and opportunity for all.

Unfortunately his premiership between 1970 and 1974 was, to put it kindly, troubled, and so the seed of his great sulk was sown.

And yet, just as Thatcher begat Blair, so Heath begat Thatcher. Without Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher would never have been the success she was. It was by learning from Heath's mistakes that Thatcher was able to ensure she would not fail.

If one looks back to the manifesto commitments that helped Ted Heath win in 1970 one finds the rule of law, smaller government and lower taxes.

Heath quickly jettisoned all that malarkey and with his first budget raised public spending and relied upon controlling the economy, rather than setting it free.

Heath had promised not to support lame-duck industries. Faced with the closure of shipyards on the Clyde he made his famous U-turn and took them into state control. He even nationalised Thomas Cook travel agents and only sold off a brewery in Carlisle.

His handling of the trades unions was similarly doomed. Rather than remove their privileged legal protections he established industrial tribunals that turned people into martyrs.

So when Thatcher had her chance she did it differently. She removed the legal immunity of trade union bosses, empowered the ordinary union members and stockpiled coal so she could not be blackmailed. Crucially she ensured the courts had the powers to seize union assets rather than jail union leaders. Finally she transferred ownership of state industries into the hands of millions of shareholders.

Of course Thatcher is Thatcher. With her sharp intellect and moral purpose she did not bend like Heath did.

Thank goodness the days are past when you couldn't take more than £50 out of the country on holiday or when you waited three months to have a phone installed, and even then it was a shared party line. The days when two thirds of Scots lived in serfdom to their council house and to get a job - or a job done - you needed union approval. When nationalised industries received huge subsidies to write off their losses instead of paying taxes from their profits.

There's no doubt getting to our more open prosperous society was painful - all the more painful because Heath failed to tackle the problems ten years earlier - but as he ensured we had a premier who was up to the task I shall be forever grateful to him.
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