‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Anniversary of the election of the unluckiest prime minister

Some prime ministers are luckier than others. Tony Blair was probably the luckiest post-war prime minister. During his 10 years in power he faced a succession of struggling Conservative Party leaders, he won an overall majority in 2005 on only 35.2% of the vote, the economy grew, inflation stayed low and his health held out.

Today though sees the anniversary of the election of, arguably, the unluckiest of all post-war prime ministers – Ted Heath. Heath was not expected to win the 1970 general election. Opinion polls put his Labour rival, Harold Wilson, in the lead. However, on 18 June 1970 Ted Heath won the election with 330 seats to Wilson’s 288. Heath had served as leader of the opposition for five years and so had had time to plan his premiership. His ministerial team almost all had experience of their portfolios in opposition. His cabinet was the most leak-proof of all post-war cabinets. What could possibly go wrong?

The first disaster was when Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Iain Macleod, collapsed and died from a heart attack after exactly one month in the post. During that month he had already been rushed to hospital for 11 days with appendicitis. Macleod was highly regarded on all sides of the House of Commons for his oratory and incisive views. He had previously served as Minister of Health in the early 1950s, but did not take his own advice. In 1952 he announced to the world that Richard Doll had discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer: Macleod chain-smoked throughout the press conference.

Heath’s luck went from bad to worse. His time in office saw ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Northern Ireland in which British troops shot and killed 14 (eventually established to be innocent) civilians, an oil crisis, the collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and Rolls Royce which he was forced to nationalise, high inflation and two miners’ strikes, the second of which led to the Three-Day week.

Eventually, after less than four years in office, Heath called an election for 28 February 1974, posing the question ‘Who governs?’ In terms of votes, Heath won the February 1974 election, but in terms of seats, he lost – the third time in the twentieth century that the party with the most votes did not have the most seats (the others being 1929 and 1951). Heath held abortive coalition discussions with Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, but left office on 4 March 1974, never to return.

Ted Heath remains something of an enigma. He never married and never revealed the existence of any partner. His hobbies were playing the piano and sailing, which added to his image of an aloof and remote man. Towards the end of his life, he was reckoned to have no living relatives at all.

Heath remained in the House of Commons until 2001, having sat for longer after his premiership than before. His post-prime ministerial period has been described as ‘the longest sulk’ in British political history, while he watched his successor, Margaret Thatcher, win three consecutive elections. However, he did stay long enough to see her departure, on which he was reported as exclaiming ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’ He later corrected the record, saying that he had actually said ‘Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!’

The one significant achievement for which Heath should be remembered was taking the UK into the EEC.

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