Tributes to the late Sir Edward Heath

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:56 pm on 18th July 2005.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, House of Lords 2:56 pm, 18th July 2005

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in the Motion that she has put before us. Today we mourn the death of Sir Edward Heath, and it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness in her just tribute.

We have lost another link with the 20th century, especially that link with the war years. Sir Edward Heath was the last Conservative leader to see active service in war; he served with distinction, being mentioned in dispatches in the closing stages of the Second World War, for which he was awarded the MBE (Military Division). As a result of his wartime experience, he vowed to do all that he could to avoid it ever happening again.

Elected to another place in 1950, he was appointed a Whip by Churchill the following year and was rapidly promoted to Deputy Chief Whip and, subsequently, Chief Whip. His powers of persuasion must have been unrivalled. In that role he rendered invaluable service to the country during the Suez crisis in keeping the government and his party together.

In 1960, Macmillan appointed Ted Heath as Lord Privy Seal, responsible for negotiating Britain's entry into the EEC. He led a superb negotiating team whose successful efforts foundered because of de Gaulle's surprise repudiation of Britain's application in 1963. Later on, he was Secretary of State for Trade, Industry and Development, and an early deregulator—not without controversy in the case of resale price maintenance. But it was on Sir Alec Douglas-Hume's resignation in 1965 that he achieved the leadership of the Conservative Party in the first election for the post, rather surprisingly defeating Reggie Maudling. He presided in opposition over a period of strenuous policy rethinking and so-called "preparation for government".

In 1970, Sir Edward became Prime Minister—an outcome that the polls at the start of the campaign had indicated was practically impossible. He inherited a challenging economic situation and struggled to find a way forward. His term of office was characterised by difficult challenges, two of which were especially crippling. The first was the tragic early death of Iain Macleod, his Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the most brilliant members of his Cabinet. The second was the oil crisis of 1973, which sent huge inflationary shockwaves throughout the world economy. But it was his attempt to control the spiralling might of the trade unions which ultimately destroyed his government and set the tone for industrial relations and legislation over the next 15 years. It was a terrible time for the nation. However, on a small and personal note, as a schoolboy in the early 1970s I remember well that feeling of anticipation that the lights might go out so that there would be a perfect excuse not to have studied the conjugation of irregular Latin verbs. In 1974 he lost that crisis election in terms of seats in spite of a lead in the popular vote.

In good times and in bad he conducted himself with integrity, never more perhaps than when he was forced to suspend Stormont and transfer the government of Northern Ireland to Westminster. The Sunningdale agreement of 1973, short lived though it was, was a bold and imaginative precursor of the Belfast agreement more than 25 years later.

Sir Edward served as an MP for more than half a century and was a wise and well regarded Father of the House until his retirement in 2001. He took the decision not to join our Benches here—something I regret and we are surely all the poorer for that. However, his heart belonged utterly to another place. His life was dominated by service and in particular service to his constituents, fellow MPs and the nation. He was a man of the Commons.

There is no doubt that we have lost a political giant and the world of politics is today a duller place. Sir Edward Heath will largely be remembered as the man who led Britain into the European Economic Community—an achievement of which he was deservedly proud, and which at the time was very widely supported by those who were tired of Britain's failures and saw our European neighbours pulling far ahead. He was a man of great principle and these principles guided him in everything he did. He was an old school politician. Not for him the modern spin machine or the insincere charm offensive. He was brusque and honest. He did not curry favour with colleagues, often to his detriment, or with opponents. One always knew where one stood. After losing office he continued his international work and famously led a mission to Baghdad in 1990, which successfully secured the release of 33 hostages.

There is one further aspect of Ted Heath's life that is worth mentioning. One never felt that he really overcame his ousting as Prime Minister, and certainly was never entirely reconciled to those he felt were responsible. He rarely saw good in what followed him and refused to come to terms with the changing nature of the Conservative Party and, indeed, of Europe and the world at large. That must have been a sad weight to bear.

However, he also combined high office with great achievements in the world beyond politics. He had a real hinterland. His life-long passion for music, and skills at making it, led to his conducting orchestras all over the world. And he was a yachtsman of real distinction, winning the Sydney-Hobart race in 1969 and captaining Britain's victorious Admiral's Cup team in 1971. It seems incredible now that only 35 years ago a leader of the opposition and subsequently a Prime Minister could take so much time to take part in such events. There is perhaps a lesson for us all in that.

Ted Heath was a man who understood the word "duty" and all that it meant. He led by example in putting the interests of the nation first and foremost, a statesman in every sense of the word. People will argue for years about his political legacy, particularly that on Europe, but what is certain is that the nature of his commitment and contribution to our island's story will remain unchallenged.