Former British Prime Minister Ted Heath Dies
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
On Sunday evening, the former British Prime Minister Ted Heath died at the age of 89. He held the premiership for four years from 1970 to 1974 and will be best remembered as the man who took a reluctant Britain into the European Union, the then European Economic Community. His passionate belief in European unity had been forged in the heat of WWII during military service and he was a true European statesman, something he was extremely proud of.
Heath was a brilliant man, who came from very humble background, the son of a carpenter and parlour maid, and against the odds made it to the very top of the political establishment. His many accomplishments reached far beyond politics and he was a world-class yachtsman, winning the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and a distinguished musician. He visited Japan several times and was a fan of Japanese art, having several pieces in his personal collection.
In the 1970 general election, he was written off, but defied the pundits, and the opinion polls, to win. As Conservative prime minister he realized his life long dream to take Britain into the EU and steered the country through a very difficult period. Although he was only prime minister for four years, a relatively short period by British standards, he achieved a great deal, although his success at taking Britain into the EU is the lasting legacy of his period in office.
For those who got a chance to know a little of him, he came across as an incredibly gifted man with an amazing understanding of Europe and deep insights into world politics. He had encountered many of the focal figures of Twentieth Century European and world history, and was inclined to drop their names into casual conversation as if it were natural, which for him it was. The list of his historical acquaintances was astonishing, including Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, General Charles de Gaulle, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Premier Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, General Francisco Franco, President Dwight Eisenhower, President Gamal Nasser and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato to name but a very few.
After losing two closely fought general elections in 1974 to the Labour leader Harold Wilson, Heath was ousted as party leader by Margaret Thatcher who went on to win the premiership in 1979. Heath remained an active lawmaker after stepping down as party leader and only retired from politics in 2001 after 51 years in parliament.
During Thatcher's period in office, he barely hid his distain for her policies, which were much more right-wing than his own. He still seemed to be unhappy even when she had gone from office, and in March 1992 told me, "Consensus has been a dirty word. It didn't go along with the Handbag."
Thatcher took the Conservatives to the right and if you listened to Heath's political views, you would have thought he was a Liberal or moderate Labour supporter. The veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn described Heath as being "To the left of Tony Blair." Heath was strongly opposed to both Iraq wars and a dedicated European.
I once asked him if he though his views were out of tune with his own party and he said, "One should never be afraid of holding the right view, even if others disagree." That is how I will remember him, a great, warm-hearted man of integrity with strong ideas and genuine vision, who was never afraid to be out of step with public opinion if he thought he was right.
Britain, Europe and the world have lost a great statesman.