Sunday 21 January 2018

Full Heath: the public life of a very private man

Biography: Edward Heath: A Singular Life, Michael McManus, Elliott & Thompson, hdbk, 400 pages, €32.50

Clear focus: Edward Heath's life work would ultimately be destroyed by Boris Johnson
Clear focus: Edward Heath's life work would ultimately be destroyed by Boris Johnson

William Waldergrave on a new biography of the pro-European Prime Minister who didn't live to see his vision for Britain torn to shreds in Brexit vote

Among successful British politicians, there are two recurring types: Peelites and Disraelians. Peelites are driven, anxious, sometimes boring, often irritating, with their high moral tone and overwhelming sense of duty. They make bad party politicians but can be great prime ministers.

Disraelians, on the other hand, are fun. To them, politics is a game; the summit of the greasy pole the goal; wit the weapon; heads for standing on; principles for mugs. They are the ones to sit beside at dinner. As Churchill's mother said: "When I sat next to Mr Gladstone, I thought him the cleverest man in England. When I sat next to Mr Disraeli, I thought myself the cleverest woman."

In Disraeli's corner are Bolingbroke and Fox, Rosebery, F E Smith and Wilson. In Peel's team are Gladstone and Salisbury, Chamberlain, Thatcher, Major and (for all his skill with words) Cameron.

No one would doubt for a second in which camp to put Edward Richard George Heath. Of all the politicians I have known, he was most driven by an implacable will to fulfil what he saw as his duty to the country.

Of Harold Wilson, the maddeningly successful Disraelian of his day, he was overtly contemptuous. That Heath's life's work - leading the United Kingdom into the European Community - should now have been destroyed in his centenary year primarily by Boris Johnson, the arch-Disraelian of our own time, shows that fate has a very vicious sense of humour.

Edward Heath: a Singular Life is not a narrative history of Heath's times, nor does it set out to replace the pre-eminent biographies by John Campbell (1993) and Philip Ziegler (2010). McManus attempts, and achieves, something different: an assessment of Heath's motivation and psychology. Since Heath deliberately built around himself a carapace thicker than a rhinoceros's hide to protect his privacy and rebuff intimacy, perhaps especially sexual intimacy, this is no easy task.

McManus writes it very well. Movingly, and often comically, he tells the story of his own complicated relationship with Heath, whom he cannot quite bring himself to say he liked. The skill he demonstrates is closer to that of a novelist or portrait painter than that of a journalist.

McManus's assessment of Heath as an international sportsman and more-than-amateur musician is careful and fair. Also judicious is his analysis of the behaviour of the Wiltshire policemen who, standing in front of Heath's house in August 2015, invited every fantasist in the land to imagine Heath as a child abuser. One of their number is now condemned to spend his declining years combing through the immense and shambolic Heath archive, and serve him right. He will find nothing.

If Heath was, as McManus and others conclude, a deeply closeted gay man, then he sacrificed his own sexuality to his career from the earliest days. The idea that he would have risked it all - in illegal and foully risky ways - is absurd. But about the dead, fantasists can say anything.

At heart, the story McManus tells is that of a builder's son who thought the world a dangerous place and wanted to do something about it. Heath went to see the Nuremberg rallies for himself; in Republican Spain, he was nearly killed when a Francoist aeroplane strafed his car.

At home, he saw what was coming and fought the appeasers, then volunteered on the first day of the war. He made of himself an efficient, popular artillery officer, achieved a military MBE and retained a contempt for those - like Wilson - who had never heard a shot fired (and an admiration for Denis Healey, and others, who had). Heath was never in any doubt that the European project was political as well as economic. At the 1975 Referendum, his voice was the clearest in letting the British people know that sovereignty would be lost.

McManus thinks that something profound altered in the Eighties, with the drive towards a single currency; I think it was all there from the beginning. In any case, no one can accuse Heath himself of ever having lied.

For years, he had said: "Europe must unite or perish."

McManus's book is a wonderfully skilful attempt to describe what it felt like to be Edward Heath. Like a sort of British political Samurai, Heath made himself into a honed weapon, dedicated to pushing Britain to the centre of a new, united Europe. Everything in his life was subject to this great goal. Described at Oxford as "a man apart", and in the Commons as "extraordinarily self-sufficient", he was noted for his "iron self-control"; he had, as Douglas Hurd saw, a "puritan seriousness".

Politics was never just a game to Heath. It is therefore unsurprising that, from the late Eighties, the slow unwinding of his life's work brought him such anger, pain and despair. When the Conservative family, which had been overwhelmingly pro-European and to which he had given his life, rejected him, he was left bereft. It was more than pique.

William Waldergrave is a former Tory MP and cabinet minister and now life peer.

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