Heath: the Thatcherite who lost

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2005 - 8:10

Former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, who died on 17 July, has elicited lavish praise from what the bourgeois press likes to call “all parts of the political spectrum”. Tony Blair has described him as “magnificent… an extraordinary man, a great statesman, a prime minister our country can be proud of”, and eulogies from Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy have been similarly gushing and hackneyed.

What might appear, in hack terms, to be a remarkable display of unity is in fact Britain’s ruling class uniting in memory of one of its most prominent politicians.

Because of the enormous shift to the right which took place in British politics after 1979, and because of his maverick criticisms of Margaret Thatcher, Heath is occasionally remembered with something almost like fondness by people who ought to know better. In the last few days Tony Benn has described him as “a far greater figure than Mrs Thatcher”, adding: “She did enormous damage and his analysis of what she did was correct” (!) In the same statement, he praised Heath as an anti-fascist and a “radical”.

Heath may objectively have been to the “left” of Thatcher, but mostly because she won where he lost — defeated, in a spectacular fashion, by working-class struggle.

Despite TUC quietism, a quarter of a million workers struck to defeat Heath’s Industrial Relations Act and free the five London dockers jailed under its provisions in July 1972; and it was industrial action by the miners which brought down his government one and a half years later. Perhaps Thatcher was a more determined class warrior than Heath, but there can be no doubt that they were fighting on the same side. As Thatcher herself put it on news of his death:

“As prime minister, he was confronted by the enormous problems of post-war Britain. If those problems eventually defeated him, he had shown in the 1970 manifesto how they, in turn, would eventually be defeated. For that, and much else besides, we are all in his debt.”

Heath’s 1970 “Selson Park” programme was Thatcherism before its time.

In spite of his relatively humble background, Heath displayed an old-school Tory aristocratic respect for the “cultures” of various anti-American dictatorships, particularly China, where he argued that repression was justified because “Asians” have “an entirely different view of political democracy from what we have in the West” (this was said in an interview with Channel 4 News immediately following the Tiananmen Square massacre!) Following his first visit to China in 1975, Heath developed close links with the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy and reaped the rewards, receiving undisclosed sums in his position as an “advisor” to the state-owned China Ocean shipping company.

The fact that Tony Blair’s praise was no doubt sincere makes it all the more revolting.

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