Heath, Edward (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)

Reference work entry


Edward Richard George Heath was the Conservative British prime minister between 1970 and 1974. A pro-European, his domestic policies were more interventionist than had been expected. His party came out ahead in two general elections but was unsuccessful in forming a government after the second.

Early Life

Heath was born on 9 July 1916 in Broadstairs, Kent in the southeast of England. His father was a carpenter and builder, an unusual background for a future Conservative leader in that era. He won an organ scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford where he studied Modern Greats (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). While there he held the positions of President of the University Conservative Association, Chairman of the Federation of University Conservative Associations and President of the Oxford Union, using his position in 1938 to condemn the government’s policy of appeasing Germany. In the same year he won a legal scholarship to Grays Inn but joined the Royal Artillery at the outbreak of World War II, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and receiving an MBE (Military Division) in 1945.

After the war he was employed at the Ministry of Civil Aviation, then edited the Church Times 1948–49 before joining a merchant bank. He entered the House of Commons in 1950 as the member for Bexley (which would evolve into Old Bexley and Sidcup), the same year in which he and eight other Conservatives published One Nation—A Conservative Approach to Social Problems. He held a succession of posts in the Conservative governments of 1951–64, including assistant Chief Whip to the Lord Commissioner of the treasury, joint deputy Chief Whip, deputy Chief Whip, parliamentary secretary to the treasury and government Chief Whip. He was created a member of the Privy Counsel and took the post of minister of labour in 1959 before becoming Lord Privy Seal the following year. He was also Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs in the Commons, in view of the fact that the foreign secretary, the Earl of Home, sat in the Lords at that stage. During this period Heath oversaw Britain’s application to join the EEC, which was subsequently blocked by France.

In 1964 the Earl of Home, by then Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, made Heath secretary of state for industry, trade and regional affairs and president of the board of trade. When the Conservatives lost the general election of Oct. 1964 he became the opposition spokesman on economic affairs and when Douglas-Home resigned in July 1965 he was elected the party’s new leader, defeating Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell. He lost the general election of March 1966 to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party but led the Conservatives to power in June 1970.

Career Peak

Heath’s tenure was expected to see reduced taxation and public spending, but rising oil and commodity prices made this impossible. High inflation, rising unemployment and an unsatisfactory balance of payments posed major problems throughout his premiership. Government money was used to bail out failing businesses, and price and wage controls were imposed. Heath also attempted to take on the trade unions, putting forward an Industrial Relations Act in 1971. There were numerous strikes, the most serious of which was led by the miners, and in 1972 a 3 day working week was introduced as an energy saving measure. In the end, however, Heath was forced to give in to the miners’ demands.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland’s sectarian troubles continued to worsen, and in 1972 the Heath government imposed direct rule on the province. His greatest personal achievement on the international stage came in 1973 when he successfully negotiated Britain’s entry into the EEC. However, it was not a wholly popular move with the nation at large. When Heath called a general election to strengthen his mandate in Feb. 1974, he failed to gain a majority and could not establish a coalition. Wilson did so and Labour won the year’s second election in Oct. outright. In the ensuing Conservative party leadership election of 1975, Heath was ousted by Margaret Thatcher.

Later Life

Heath was member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup until he stood down in 2001 and was Father of the House (i.e. the longest serving member of the Commons) from 1992 until 2001. He has remained an active figure on the international scene, working with Willy Brandt in the 1970s and negotiating hostage releases with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Heath had a tempestuous relationship with Thatcher during her period in office and remained vocal on the pro-Europe wing of the party. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1992. He is a keen sailor, having captained the British Admirals Cup-winning team in 1971. As a devotee of orchestral music, he helped found the European Community Youth Orchestra. He published his autobiography in 1998. He died in Salisbury, Wilts on 17 July 2005.

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