John Barnes, Historian

Ziegler on Heath

Philip Ziegler is a practised biographer and his study of Heath’s life moves along at a cracking pace. The narrative is well-shaped, the prose lucid, polished, even elegant. If the purpose of biography is to bring the dead to life, to make them walk again the stage on which they lived, Ziegler largely succeeds. This is Ted Heath to life in most, if not all his moods. It misses out perhaps on his ability to sparkle, to enthuse and to impress. The curmudgeon is captured brilliantly, but we are told rather than made to feel why so many were happy to work with him and for him, and this despite the way in which they were all too often treated. Ziegler, although he has written a sympathetic study, may well wonder whether he would have liked Heath. It is clear that he does not really understand those like Sara Morrison who were prepared to tolerate Heath’s moodiness, make a joke out of his grumpiness, and remain devoted to him, even in the long and testy diminuendo of his public life.

Although curiously shy and self absorbed, Heath had the capacity to reach out to people and enthuse them. I recall an evening at Swinton Conservative College, probably in the summer of 1961, when he sat in the bar, holding a largeish audience of undergraduates in thrall while he captivated their imagination with his vision of Europe’s future. He did not talk down to them, but rather shared his thoughts with a lightness of touch that was rarely in evidence in more set piece orations. The arguments he put were altogether rational, but through them shone a burning passion that left an indelible mark on our minds. Undergraduates are not easily impressed, but at the end of that evening just about everyone present would have enlisted in Heath’s praetorian guard.

Ziegler makes excellent use of the national archives and private testimony to illuminate the major episodes of Heath’s premiership, but in the earlier parts of his study he is stronger on Heath himself than the context in which he worked. The account of the 1962 negotiations to join the EEC is almost as disappointing as the account of Heath’s part in the later, successful negotiation is perceptive and well-judged. It is clear that Ziegler simply does not understand that the best, probably the only chance of success in 1962 would have been to bring the negotiations to fruition before the French parliamentary elections. The internal politics of the Conservative party made that impossible.

Slight slips can be forgiven (Albert rather than Andrew Alexander, for example) but there are some striking omissions that Heath might justifiably have resented. His government left much more of a long-term mark than is generally remembered, but the Housing Finance Act (with its far-reaching switch to subsidising people rather than bricks and mortar), the major reorganisations of local government and the NHS, the introduction of community sentences, and the new nationality Act find no mention in this account. The CPRS is dealt with, but it was only part of the reorganisation of British central government to which Heath and his acolytes had given time and attention. Mention of the “giant” departments like tax reform is relegated to a chapter on opposition, the latter magisterially dismissed as if innovations like VAT were no longer with us.

That is a pity since Ziegler is generally excellent in his account of the way in which Heath, a dominant Prime Minister, dealt with the issues facing the Government, and at his best in recounting the way in which it engineered its own downfall. His account of what followed and of the way in which he became a bitter critic of Mrs Thatcher’s government is shrewd and sympathetic. Here Heath lives and breathes on the printed page.

And yet the essential Heath somehow escapes him. Just as Heath was very nearly a great man, so this is very nearly a great biography. Its central flaw, the lack of an altogether convincing explanation of the bundle of paradoxes that was Edward Heath and of the forces that drove him to achieve so much, is understandable. Heath was a strange mix, incredibly selfish and yet capable of acts of great generosity; able to make lasting friendships without doing much himself to keep those relationships in good repair; incapable of love, but inspiring both affection and a desire to protect a man so easily bruised. Even those close to him, his mother excepted, could never be sure of the mood in which they would find him. Ziegler’s portrait, more Augustus John than Sargent, has sensible things to say on the subject, but not quite enough.

What drove Heath, apart from an overriding sense that he was a man of destiny, is clear: patriotism and a sense of what his country had become and of what she might again be if her people could be taught the error of their ways. Instead they were being indulged and betrayed by political opportunists like Harold Wilson. Behind his rational approach to politics, and a sense that principles must adjust to facts, was a burning anger at those who were letting the nation down and a determination to set things right. An English version of de Gaulle, he found it difficult to believe that people would not recognise and respond to his vision, and later that they would not call him back from his own Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. That he lacked de Gaulle’s ability to articulate his vision in speech and prose, except perhaps in small private gatherings, is obvious, but it remains conceivable that had he chosen to go the country just a fortnight earlier in 1974, we might now recall him in very different terms. It is a measure of Ziegler’s strengths as a biographer that he recognises and makes us recognise that fact.