Some random reflections on Ted Heath, Prime Minister of the U.K. 1970-74, who died on Sunday.
Ye banks an’ braes o’ bonny Central. Ted Heath’s premiership represented the high tide of bureaucratic managerialism in Britain. Its most characteristic expression was the reorganization of the old British county system, so that ancient creations like Kircudbrightshire (pronounced “ker-coo-bree-shire”) were subsumed into more convenient entities with names like “Central” and “Borders.” Several of my own relatives, proud sons and daughters of Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire, found themselves trapped in something named “West Midlands.”
To their great credit, the people of Britain have done their best to ignore this horror, continuing to write their addresses as “Stourbridge, Worcs.” or “Walsall, Staffs.,” even though those particular towns no longer belong to Worcestershire or Staffordshire. (I note with pleasure that older inhabitants of Long Island continue to write their addresses as “Huntington, L.I.” rather than the more bureaucratically correct “Huntington, NY,” presumably from the same conservative instinct.)
By his enemies we knew him. In spite of being the leader of Britain’s Conservative party, Heath hated conservatives. His two particular enemies were Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, both strongly and unquestionably conservative.
Powell famously got himself fired from Heath’s “shadow cabinet” (the other party was in power) by making a strong speech against massive Third World immigration in 1968. If that speech had been heeded–if, that is, the British had adopted a “Japanese” approach to their national identity, keeping immigration to a tiny minimum and awarding British citizenship to foreigners very sparingly–a great deal of trouble would have been averted. I have problems with Powell (Kingsley Amis, a reliable witness, thought him insane), but in the historical long run, if British civilization survives, and Britain’s mid-20th-century politicians remembered, it is probable that Powell will be more kindly regarded than Heath.
I remember the 1970 election very well. It was the last for many years that I spent actually in England. I was a socialist at the time, strong for Labour, who were in power, and hoping for the Conservatives to lose. A few days before the election, Powell made a speech criticizing Heath. We Labour supporters were exultant. “That’ll put the kibosh on the Tories!” we said gleefully to one another. The Guardian, Britain’s left-wing broadsheet newspaper, ran a cartoon of Powell as A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin, coming downstairs, dragging behind him Ted Heath as Winnie the Pooh, who went bump! bump! bump! on the stairs. How we laughed! We were sure Heath was a goner. Most pundits thought so, too. To our great surprise, he won that election.
In 1974 Powell made a much better job of it, urging his supporters to actually vote Labour. Powell is generally credited for sinking Heath’s chances in 1974, when Labour came back to power.
Heath’s antipathy to Margaret Thatcher had an immediate cause and a temperamental one. The immediate cause was that she beat him in the party leadership election that followed the fiascos of 1974. Heath saw this a personal betrayal of him not only by Mrs. Thatcher, but also by the members of parliament who voted for her. In later years, he could not bear to utter the lady’s name.
The temperamental difference arose from, or was mirrored in, the two leaders’ approach to conservatism. To Heath it meant the application of sound business principles to government. (The satirical magazine Private Eye used to run a “letter” from the “CEO” of a manufacturing company named “HeathCo” to all the firm’s “employees,” in the cheerily dictatorial style that anyone who has worked for a large commercial organization knows all too well.) To Thatcher, conservatism meant summoning up the old virtues of patriotism, family, independence, and individual enterprise, to make the nation strong and rich. None of those things meant anything to Heath. He could really just as well have been leader of the Labour party.
The bachelor life. Heath never married. He showed not the slightest sign of being homosexual, though, repressed or otherwise. He was a specimen of a type that, it seems to me, used to be much more common than it now is, and was certainly more socially acceptable: the confirmed bachelor. He simply had no interest in sex. Nowadays such a person is thought to be strange, to have issues, but the generality of people didn’t think like that 30 years ago.
Whatever you think of his politics (I detest them), it can hardly be denied that Heath lived a full and useful life. He reached the very summit of his chosen profession. He had an absorbing and uplifting hobby–playing and conducting classical and sacred music–to take his mind off his work. He was a keen and accomplished sportsman (racing sailboats). He had close friends, who loved him, spoke affectionately of him, and were loyal to him. In his youth he led men into battle, bravely and capably. He wrote, or at any rate dictated, half a dozen books. From the humblest of beginnings, he rose to wealth and power. He was very intelligent, though unimaginative and not well read. (Among his recorded remarks are: “I never read novels.”) He stuck to his principles, returned loyalty for loyalty, and committed no crimes.
Not many of us can hope to get as much out of life, or to leave as much of an impression on the world, as Ted Heath. Yet in that full and vigorous life, sex apparently played no part whatsoever. He simply wasn’t interested.
We used to be much more comfortable with that than we now are. (That “we” refers to we Anglo-Saxons: I think these remarks apply equally to both sides of the Atlantic.) There was a whole bachelor culture, certainly not homosexual, and not particularly hostile to women, though regarding them as a bit of a nuisance to be got away from as much as possible–in men-only clubs, on the golf course, on walking tours with other bachelors. Philip Larkin, who was heterosexual and liked sex, but unfortunately did not much like women, wrote very affectionately about that culture. It’s all gone with the wind now, alas. If I were to suggest to one of my male colleagues at National Review that we go on a walking tour in the Catskills together, I should get a very strange look.
Faute de mieux. Though it by no means necessarily goes with the other thing, Ted Heath was extremely awkward socially. It was in reference to him, I believe, that the following expression was coined: “His personality is so negative that when he walks into a crowded room, people look at each other and ask: ‘Who was that who just left?’” Ted Heath’s name was an anagram of “The Death,” and that’s what he was to any convivial gathering. I was never myself in the same room as Heath, but I know people who were, and they all aver that when he joined a gathering, even during his premiership when he had the mana of power about him, people dived headlong out through second-floor windows to escape his icy presence.
It says something about politics that such a person can rise to the top. You have to be clever and capable enough to make yourself indispensable to a succession of favor-granting power-holders, and dogged enough to plow on ahead through all the slights and embarrassments that come with having an unattractive personality. Perhaps the fact that a person as un-amiable as Heath could succeed, is an indication of how very small is the pool of energetic, capable people in government. Time and again, his superiors must have sighed and said: “Well, I suppose it’ll have to be Ted, then,” to groans and protests from those in earshot.
Ksissy. At the time Ted Heath was prime minister I was trying to learn Chinese, as part of which I struggled through as much as I could of a Chinese newspaper each day. “Edward Heath” comes through in Chinese as Aidehua Xisi, and I mentally tagged the P.M. as “Ksissy,” though the correct pronunciation of Chinese Xisi is more like “Shee-szz.”
I noted with some puzzlement that the ChiComs rather liked Ksissy, and that the affection seemed to be mutual. How could that be, I wondered, when they were revolutionaries and he a Conservative?
How naïve I was! Bureaucratic-managerial types swarm together, like flying ants, and are much fonder of each other than they are of us mere citizens. In the social engineers of the People’s Republic, Ksissy instinctively recognized soul mates.
After the crushing of the Chinese student movement in 1989, Heath made one of the more egregious statements of support for the ChiComs’ action, and he remained a “friend of the Chinese people” (read: brown-noser of the Chinese Communist Party”) until he died.
Heathism. Well, well, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Ted Heath did his best, and has gone to his reward, which I can’t imagine is other than a good one. His most lasting achievement was, of course, British membership of the European Community.
Which will last longer, that or the newfangled county boundaries Heath imposed on his countrymen in 1974? Hard to say. As a disinterested observer now, but one with some faint lingering attachment to old England, I hope both will soon be gone. Heath will then have no earthly monument at all–a shame, really, since, as I said, he undoubtedly did his best, and was not a bad man.
Thank God, at any rate, that Heath’s kind of Conservatism now seems as quaint and irrelevant as–quainter and more irrelevant than, in fact–Lord North’s.