Edward Heath

(1916—2005) prime minister

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(b. Broadstairs, Kent, 9 July 1916; d. Salisbury, Wiltshire, 17 July 2005)

British; leader of the Conservative Party 1965–75, Prime Minister 1970–4; Kt. 1992 Ted Heath was the only son of a carpenter, later a master builder. He was educated at Chatham School, Ramsgate, and Balliol College, Oxford. At university he was active in the Conservative Party and president of the Oxford Union. After a good war record he sought entry to the House of Commons. He was one of a new breed of young post-war Conservatives, somebody who wanted to be a professional politician. He had no family tradition of political involvement and did not come from a public school, an established profession, business, or the land.

In 1950 Heath won the Bexley seat, part of which was renamed Old Bexley and Sidcup in February 1974. Health's maiden speech was, significantly, a call for Britain to respond favourably to attempts to build a united Western Europe. He was quickly appointed to the whips' office and between 1955 and 1959 was chief whip. He was credited with keeping the party together during the Suez crisis (1956) and involved in the emergence of Harold Macmillan, rather than R. A. Butler, as leader in 1957.

In 1960 Heath was appointed Lord Privy Seal, charged with handling negotiations for Britain's entry into the European Community. He became Britain's ‘Mr Europe’ and was bitterly disappointed when General de Gaulle vetoed the British application in January 1963. Sir Alec Douglas-Home appointed him to the Board of Trade. In this post he overcame party opposition to achieve the abolition of resale price maintenance. The measure showed his interest in economics competition and did much to improve his leadership prospects.

In Opposition after 1964 the Conservative Party sought a more meritocratic leader than Sir Alec, one who could stand up to Labour's Harold Wilson. The grammar school Heath seemed to fit the bill. In a leadership contest in July 1965 Heath gained 150 votes to 133 for Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell's 15 votes. Maudling immediately stood down, thus giving the leadership to Heath. At the age of 49 Heath was the youngest Conservative leader for over a century. Considering that many Conservative MPs came from an upper-class background, Heath's rise was noteworthy.

As Opposition leader, Heath was determined to pursue policies for modernizing Britain. His proposals for trade union reform, tax cuts, constraints on public spending, disengagement from industry, and avoidance of incomes policies might be seen as a first shot at Thatcherism. Some part of the shift to the right was a consequence of opposing the economic interventionism of the Labour government. Heath had the opportunity to deliver the programme when the party gained an unexpected election victory in 1970.

The Heath government (1970–4) has been noted for reversals of policy, what were known as U-turns. It was badly hit by the sharp rises in commodity prices in 1971 and then the quadrupling of Arab oil prices in late 1973. The government felt itself forced to rescue firms because of fears of rising unemployment, and adopted a statutory prices and incomes policy to arrest inflation. There were a record number of days lost due to strikes and direct rule was imposed in Northern Ireland, following violence in the province. The incomes policy proved Heath's undoing. The miners disrupted normal life by their strike against the policy in the winter of 1973–4. As industry struggled to cope, Heath felt that there was no option but to call a general election. Although the Conservatives ended with most votes, Labour had more seats in the February 1974 election.


Subjects: British History.

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