By GERARD NOEL
EARLY this year 1 was commissioned to write a book comparing and contrasting the lives and personalities of Heath and Wilson. Though not out in time for the unexpectedly early General Election. the writing of the book was a highly worth while and enlightening undertaking.
Having previously written about Harold Wilson most of my field work was aimed in the direction of the new Prime Minister; and in the case of both men, the myths fall thick and fast the nearer you get to the subject. The first casualties are the foolish assumptions that Wilson is a mere Parliamentary trickster without statesmanlike qualities and Heath a political technocrat lacking in personal warmth.
Both men in fact have for many years shared in common the passionate desire for a new and greater Britain and each has been willing to use anv legitimate political means to achieve the,. power necessary to further this aim according to his lights. But ethics in politics (as in business) often differ from personal and individual standards of morality, and politicians, if one is to be realistic. must be looked at within this context; an easier task perhaps for the political agnostic than the confirmed parts disciple.
The biggest surprise of the election was the extent to which the supposed political experts and pundits relied on opinion-poll rather than circumstantial evidence and failed to take into account the advantage to Edward Heath of a costly. computerised and elaborate political machine of unprecedented strength and efficiency. Above all there was the tell-tale psychology of the situation, the key to which was and is the personality of Ted Heath himself.
Finishing my own book at the beginning of last month I ventured to prophesy that Heath would be a difficult man to beat on the evidence of his past performances. notably his individualistic political career at Oxford in the late Thirties and the fact that he was a distinctly promising outsider in his very first (but ultimately successful) campaign to enter Parliament after the war. For Teddy Heath, in fact, a struggle against unfavourable odds has virtually been a way of life since his very earliest years.
His birth place in Broadstairs was even humbler than that of Harold Wilson in Huddersfield, both men having been born in 1916. Ted's father William worked hard though without dazzling prospects; his mother Edith. formerly "in service" was a woman of warmth and great character, later taking in lodgers to balance the family budget. A dilemma came when Ted won an organ scholarship to Oxford from Chatham House Grammar School. Could the Heath's afford the luxury of Teddy's taking it up?
Edith Heath had no doubts and because of her thrift and determination. her eldest son went ahead. His gift and love for music. evidenced even earlier at St. Peter's Church of England Primary School, was very much part of his attachment to Anglicanism which has remained steady and strong ever since. It inclined him to Conservatism in politics as much as Wilson's vigorous non-Conformist upbringing inclined him to Socialism.
But at Oxford, Ted Heath was to show that his Conservatism was far from being of the conventional type. It was Christian and liberal, and above all unsnobbish, in its complexion and his Presidency of the Union and support of the Oxford Socialist candidate. A. D. Lindsay (Master of his College) against Quintin Hogg and the official Chamberlain line in the "Munich by-election" of 1938 were highlights of his varied career at this time. As earlier at school, he did not excel academically but was outstanding as an all-rounder.
The expression in fact. "broad stairs for Balliol" is a bad pun but an accurate description of the path which led Ted Heath out of a confined though promising "cosmos" into a wide, if awe-inspiring world. He did not tread what was then the narrow, ascetic and academically distinguished path of his fellow undergraduate Harold Wilson, but proceeded by steps which widened his horizons more and more during his Oxford days and brought him all over Europe (notably to Poland just before the German invasion and Spain during the Civil War) before World War II had engulfed humanity.
It was no small achievement and many an undergraduate before and since, with infinitely more advantages at his disposal. has a much sorrier record to show for it all. One of his former school masters. on hearing of his Oxford successes said significantly "I can only hope that .the snobbery of this age in which we live will cast no shadow on his career." It never really has, ever since, and despite the fact that Teddy (as his closest friends always did and still do call him) was distinctly "non-U" in accent and style in the Bullingdon Club and "Brideshead Revisited" atmosphere of pre-war upper class Oxford. It has infuriated his detractors from within the Tory party and puzzled his opponents from outside that he has plodded on to such signal success without ever cowtowing to anyone.
Ironically in fact one of Heath's disadvantages has lain in always having been so patently "good". This becomes clearest of all in the light of his post-war career which may be said to have begun, with hidden nuances, in a curious encounter at Tourney in Belgium half way through 1946.
Ted Heath was being demobbed from the Gunners. in which he had served with great distinction during the war. collecting an M.B.E. which he discusses only with reluctance and modesty. Being demobbed the same day was an Oxford acquaintance Ashley Bramall. and they had a celebration drink together at the bar. Little did they know that they would be meeting again, head-on. a year or so later by which time Ashley Bramall had become the Labour M.P. for Bexley by virtue of a by-election.
Ted had not yet made his final decision on a career. though he had abandoned earlier aspirations in the direction of music and the law. A spell at merchant banking and news editorship of the Church Times (indicative as is the latter of Heath's tastes and talents) were virtually only time-fillers after he had finally got bitten by the political bug. From his first, hard, political fight. he has never looked back, and he has of course sat continually in Parliament since 1950.
He was a paying guest during those hectic days in the late Forties at the house of Sir Edward Bligh, the father of his close Oxford friend, Timothy. The house was near Swanley in a still rural part of Kent and Sir Edward's housekeeper remembers, as if yesterday, the scurrying, studious. single minded, p.g., as he raced between London, Bexley and his home in Broadstairs.
To her (a motherly figure) he was always "the Colonel" whose room had to be kept tidy somehow (despite the plethora of political books and papers) and whose clean shirt had to be ready every day. To her. also, he was a man of warmth, dedication and touching charm, despite his maddening habits, such as always being in a hurry and seldom taking more than three minutes over breakfast.
After meeting her I felt impelled to write that "popularity in public life takes little accord of arcane factors; but in truth the computerlike expertise of Edward Heath, the Common Market negotiator. must take its place behind the unaffectedness of Teddy 'the Colonel', the humble p.g. in Swanley. If the impression on Miss Hall could be reproduced, even approximately, across the country as a whole, his victory would be assured."
But the inner warmth of Edward Heath has, to this day, obstinately refused to become universally apparent. Having. however, won such a notable personal victory the chances are that its effects will become strongly evident as time goes on since. as those closest to Heath have always asserted. he is a man of action rather than words.
His long period in Opposition was thus cramping and frustrating, unlike his fruitful earlier years in the Whips' Office which stood him in such good stead some years later as a member of the Macmillan and DouglasHome administrations.
It has always been said in political circles that a good Whip like a good Adjutant (which Heath was) never becomes Prime Minister. Edward Heath was well aware of this saying. and his achievement in making the Whips' Office a stepping stone to the premiership has been one of the minor revolutions of a remarkable career.
If Edward Heath is possibly a hidden romantic he is also a shrewd and uncompromising "tough guy". He took up sailing (in the late Fifties in Brittany) not for pleasure but 10 win; as Chief Whip at the time of Suez. he held his party together without giving in to his own inner feelings. and without disloyalty to Anthony Eden. Harold Wilson could not have done it better and this is in no way derogatory to either man. It is a point that it is essential to make. for life at the top. in present day politics, has no place for the man of simplistic mould.
The combination of discipline, cajolery and personal dedication is a formidable one. and Edward Heath's very bachelorhood is proof of nothing more complicated and yet more fundamental than his long standing, singleminded personal and passionate dedication to the ideal of a streamlined Britain as a fully competitive and component part of modern Europe, Having exhibited in the Honourable Artillery Company what a brother officer called "almost an unconscious power of leadership" he could feel within himself an inner confidence that outsiders seldom spotted. After talking to him for some time at the end of April, I felt constrained to write: "The more Edward Heath is told how difficult is his task, the more likely he is to be 'awkward' and confound the prophets of doom. In the few quiet moments during which he can survey the world of Burlington Gardens from his beautiful Albany flat, he can at the same time (to inject a 'Crossbencher' touch) sniff the roses on his window-box in a meditative mood. 'People told me that you couldn't grow roses in a London window-box.' he once said. 'So I grew awkward and did'."