Colin Brazier: Britain should value leaders with a past

Edward Heath has become the prime minister everybody wants to forget

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Today, I’m going to argue for a lost cause. For a man distrusted in life and despised in death. But also a man who gave our country one of its greatest stories of social mobility, long before we used the phrase.

Because, on this day in 1965, leadership of the Conservative Party passed from an Old Etonian, to the son of a carpenter and a lady’s maid, Edward Richard George Heath, better known as Ted Heath.

If there’s one thing he’s known for, hated for by some, it was for taking Britain into Europe. As one of the 17.4 million Britons who voted to Leave, I think that was a colossal misjudgement. But it was a mistake made in good faith. Britain was then on its knees economically, and the EEC was - THEN - just about economics.

Heath has become the prime minister everybody wants to forget.

The Tories hated him for turning their party into a movement that was always banging on about Europe. Labour mocked him as a class traitor and union baiter. Everybody else thought he was just a bit weird.

Gifted, but weird.

When he was deposed by Margaret Thatcher he began what became known as the longest sulk in parliamentary history. He never married and lived alone. When trades unionists protested against his industrial relations bill outside Downing Street, their chants were what we would now call homophobic.

Edward Heath
Edward Heath

But consider some of the facts. And, as you do so, think about your local MP. Because, chances are, all they will have done with their life - is become an MP.

Because he was a clever working class boy who, via grammar school, won a scholarship to Oxford, he faced snobbery throughout his life.

The satirical magazine, Private Eye, which was run by public schoolboys, called him ‘Grocer Heath’, a dig at his modest beginnings.

He spoke Received Pronunciation, but there were traces of his old Kent accent, which comedians, including those from Monty Python, never let him forget. Even the Netflix series, The Crown, recently depicted him as a social misfit.

But for many people today, Heath’s reputation is lower still. He was accused of being part of a VIP paedophile ring by an anonymous sex-abuse victim known only as Nick. Two years ago Nick, unmasked by this time as former nurse, Carl Beech, was jailed for 18 years. He’d been found guilty of perverting the course of justice with his fabricated allegations about public figures, including Heath.

For some, though, there’s never any smoke without fire. The allegations fed into a broader feeling that Heath was strange. Well, he was certainly remarkable.

Partly that was the times he lived through. During the war, for instance, he commanded a firing squad that had to shoot a murderer. Not something you’d expect to find on the CV of your average MP. We don’t expect THEM to have captained round the world crews, or conducted the world’s finest orchestras.

Britain should value leaders with a past.

But we should value those with a hinterland more than we do.

Too many of our politicians today have led lives that have only been about politics, and nothing else.

Heath had no children. Other than a dutiful Godson, there’s nobody campaigning to rehabilitate his memory. But perhaps it’s time to re-examine his extraordinary life on this anniversary of his rise to power.

And for all those who believe it’s possible to change our stars by dint of our wits, to forge a history-shaping future from the humblest of starts, he sets an example that deserves to be better remembered.