A transcript of the 2021 Ted Heath Lecture, delivered by European Movement UK President Lord Michael Heseltine at the University of Nottingham on 3rd November 2021.
I am grateful for the opportunity once again to revisit the memory of Ted Heath. I was delighted to deliver the second Ted Heath annual lecture in 2016 in Salisbury. I then covered much of his life and career in some detail and I do not intend to repeat much of what I then said. My speech tonight will look at Ted the man, his record and his legacy. Self-evidently that legacy is centred around our European relationship and it is not fanciful to suggest that his legacy has been shattered beyond recognition. I do not intend to avoid the question how it was that a conservative party that joined our country in a partnership with our neighbours across the channel can, within a generation, have turned its back on such an historic event.
Ted was born in 1916 in humble circumstances - the son of a builder and a lady’s maid - unrecognisable from the background of those who had led the party so far. His talent, energy and ambition took him along a familiar journey through grammar school and Oxford University into the troubled times of the 1930s. His observations of national socialism in Germany and the civil war in Spain ensured he was amongst the first to volunteer in 1939. He knew what we were going to have to fight for. I do not know whether he had read Harold Macmillan’s book The Middle Way at that time but undoubtedly he would have shared Macmillan’s interpretations of that time which defined the sort of conservative party in which he believed. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Artillery, took part in the Normandy landings and fought through Europe until the end of the war. Like so many of his generation he was deeply moved by the togetherness of wartime experience which reached across the then very obvious class divisions. The common threat and the hardships it created forged feelings of mutual respect and interdependence that were to characterise his later political thinking.
He was not an easy man. There were no cosy chats or light banter about Ted the politician. I am probably understating the reality. I remember complaining to his close colleague Michael Wolff after some particularly bruising encounter. “Join the club!” was his reply. Entertaining in his home in Salisbury one saw a more relaxed, convivial Ted but even here care was advisable. I was walking with him in his garden looking at an attractive vista. I suggested he should find a piece of sculpture to act as an eyestopper. "So commonplace", was the putdown.
I turn now to the record. Much contemporary comment about Ted as a politician consists of comparisons and contrasts with Margaret Thatcher. The latter is portrayed as the great radical reformer whilst Ted is mired in the failures of wet compromise.. To those who lived through those times this analysis is based on post-event rewrite. Both Lord Deben, who delivered an excellent third lecture in the series, and I set Ted in a different context. On being elected to Parliament he climbed the greasy pole. By 1955 he was Macmillan’s Chief Whip and there followed a series of senior ministerial and cabinet appointments.
At that time, when a new leader was needed there followed a process of consultation that was designed to allow one to emerge. In practice it was designed to preserve power in the old establishment guard. The emergence of The Earl of Home as leader in 1963 was the straw that broke the back of such an archaic affront to real choice by MP.s. Home had to renounce his peerage and secure a seat in the Commons. He lost the 1964 election. It is fair to point out that if he could have distributed 200 votes in constituencies of his choice he would have won. He became a friend.
Ted was the first leader to be elected by his parliamentary colleagues in a secret ballot. He was seen as the future. I remember taking Anne, my fiancée (now my wife) to listen to him talk, advising her that she would hear the voice of our party’s future. Ted's election opened up the party to talent from whatever background. His language was that of the meritocracy of which he was so evident an example. Shortly before the 1970 election he gathered his shadow cabinet together at a hotel called Selsdon Park. A programme of change emerged so radical that its opponents characterised Ted in the image of Selsdon man. Above all his voice was that of the Europeans in the party. He had done all he could to achieve Macmillan’s reset from imperial to European destiny. De Gaulle’s veto was for him simply unfinished business.
In office he led a reforming government Resale Price Maintenance, a courageous reform, the abolition of 1000 outdated local authorities and above all our accession to the European Community. The critics make much of the rescue of Rolls Royce. No serious government would have let such a world class engineer collapse. The rescue of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders is more debatable but should be seen in the context of the rising unemployment statistics and the still vivid pre-war memories. Ted was appalled at the prospect.
The quintupling in the price of oil in 1973 was at the heart of the inflation crisis that hit his government. Almost certainly the inflationary consequences meant that there was no chance of political recovery from that moment on. It was also the background to the confrontation with the miners in early 1974. It is a matter of conjecture at what time in our history a government should have confronted militancy in the trade unions. Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle took the first tentative step when they produced a White Paper in 1969 "In place of Strife". No change in the law followed. The trade unions would have nothing to do with it. Ted inherited the problem. His recent wartime experience strongly influenced his search for negotiation in contrast to the civil strife that confrontation would have involved. In that he was close to public opinion of the time which was to recognise that confrontation was inevitable only after the destruction of the next Labour government. It remains one of the unanswered questions of history whether he might have won the 1974 election if he had called the poll earlier, concentrated the campaign on ‘Who governs’, not delayed and allowed Harold Wilson to catch him in the last week on prices. Wilson served as Prime Minister until April 1976 . Most of his energies were committed to securing support for Ted’s Treaty of Accession from a deeply divided Labour Party by winning the referendum he had promised to avoid a clear commitment at the election. We cannot know if he would have been more successful in dealing with militancy in the trade unions which were to destroy his successor Jim Callaghan’s government in the winter of discontent in 1978.
Mrs Thatcher led the Conservative party to power on the back of that collapse of public order. It is seldom recognised that her government in its make up was effectively Ted’s government, given a second chance. We knew what we had to do. There was no division, battle hardened we were not going to fail again. But the composition of the Parliamentary party had shifted a generation on. The wartime memories had faded. No one saw Scargill as someone with whom they had shared a trench in Normandy.
I turn now to the legacy.
Ted Heath never secured universal support for the new relationship with Europe. 39 conservative MP's voted against the legislation at its final stage in the Commons but that only revealed how substantial the majority in favour would have been. It was not the deal Ted had negotiated and De Gaulle vetoed in 1963. It was certainly not the deal we could have secured if we had helped to create the community at the Messina conference in 1956. It is unrealistic to expect anyone to change the rules of a club to allow new members to join. Mrs Thatcher, however, secured a rebate on our terms of entry early in her first term. Despite the rhetoric and her instinctive dislike of foreigners by 1986 she had played a formative role in the creation of the single market which involved the largest sharing of sovereignty in our history. Later, particularly when freed from the responsibility of office, she encouraged the early Eurosceptics.
The new equilibrium secured by Ted’s treaty sat on shifting sands. Immigration throughout history has stirred passions in societies across the globe. Ted's personal belief surfaced when he sacked Enoch Powell in 1968 for his inflammatory "rivers of blood" speech. I was the first Conservative to criticise that speech. It was designed to stoke passions without providing any answers to the many questions about immigration control. It was in that sense not only racialist but immoral. I confronted the Conservative Party conference with the issue in 1981 when I said:
"We talk of equality of opportunity. What do those words actually mean in the inner cities today? What do they mean to the Black communities? We now have large immigrant communities in British cities. Let this party’s position be absolutely clear. They are British. They live here. They vote here. However tight the immigration legislation - and in everyone's interest they should be tight - there will be a large Clack community tomorrow just as there is today. There are no schemes of significant repatriation that have any moral, social or political credibility."
The Conservative Party to which I belong cheered those words and a glance at the present cabinet shows how prophetic they were. But they only tell a part of the story. Immigration remains an all too easily exploited issue which in the early part of the present century became a part of the anti-European dialogue. The Vote Leave campaign did not hold back:
"Turkey is going to join the EU and this will overwhelm the NHS."
That statement was a lie.
Alongside this issue three men played a central role in determining how news was presented by the British media. Rupert Murdoch, a naturalised American Australian and Conrad Black, a Canadian, secured control of the Sun, The Times, News of the World and the Daily Telegraph. In July 1992 David English was replaced by Paul Dacre as editor of the Daily Mail. Over the years the British public were fed a diet of anti-European propaganda. Never far below the surface and sometimes glaringly above it was the message that our sovereignty was being eroded, foreigners were dictating our behaviour and our freedoms curtailed. John Major felt the force of this and despite the concessions he negotiated he only secured the Maastricht treaty by one vote in the Commons. Richard Ryder, John's chief whip, and I have differing views about how that one was secured. I am convinced I persuaded one colleague into the lobbies after the vote was called and before the doors closed. The bastards had become a central feature of contemporary dialogue. The Conservative Party remained significantly pro European but the demands for another referendum were growing by the week. John conceded the concept in the very narrow context that if, as a government, we decided to join the Euro after the next election then that decision would be put to the people in a referendum. Ken Clarke and I look back on our agreement to that announcement as the worst decision of our careers. The genie was out of the box. The closely defined circumstances were swept aside. There was no going back and David Cameron made the announcement in February 2016 that there would be a referendum on June 23rd that year.
2008 saw the financial crisis headlined by the collapse of Lehman brothers in the United States. The consequences on people's living standards and expectations were profound and long lasting. It was this background against which the referendum battle was fought. Foreigners, bureaucrats, immigrants, Brussels, intrusive regulation featured in speech and headline. The solution to every problem demanded that we "Take back control". The Brexiteers won.
David Cameron felt a personal responsibility and resigned. Theresa May, having articulated the remain case in considerable detail as Home Secretary became Prime Minister and put the leading Brexiteers into the key jobs to secure our new relationship. Boris Johnson, the new Foreign Secretary, David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade. They would have been spurred on by John Redwood’s advice that "getting out of the EU can be quick and easy. The UK holds most of the cards". Not quite enough cards apparently. One year later, in June 2017, there was no deal and the government lost its overall majority in a general election that was designed to strengthen our negotiating position with the Europeans.
We have had control now for two years, but more significantly five and a half years have passed since the referendum in which there has been more than enough time to plan that bonfire of controls that were said to be so damaging to our economy. Mrs May returned to the backbenches having lost the confidence of her colleagues in the Commons.
In 2019 the general election delivered Boris Johnson, her successor, a massive majority. A central promise of the campaign was that it would enable the government to get Brexit done.
Boris Johnson explained the advantages that would flow as he said he would be voting to leave because:
"I want a better deal for the people of this country to save them money and to take back control."
Put like that there is a simplistic appeal. One can be forgiven now for wondering if Boris Johnson had any idea what lay in store, as we remember the queues for petrol, are warned to buy early for Christmas, view the gaps in the supermarket shelves, wait in queues in doctors surgeries, beg builders to spare someone to fix a leaking tap or broken window, read that well over a million European workers have gone home and see the containers stacked up at Felixstowe. To be fair, there has been a huge adverse impact of Covid. It is as though that crisis has drawn a curtain across our lives obscuring all that lies behind. It is the excuse for anything that goes wrong. It was not Covid that sent all those European workers home, dismayed our farmers, brought tension back to the seas, persuaded companies to relocate or failed to penetrate the walls of bureaucracy. Covid would have stretched the capabilities of any government to the extreme but nothing reveals the relative nature of its impact on our economy than the assessment last week by the Office for Budget Responsibility that the long term effects of Brexit were twice as damaging as those of Covid. The attempt by George Eustace, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to dismiss these findings as "Old Hat" fell rather flat when Nick Robinson on the Today programme pointed out that they had only been published the day before. It is important to remember that Brexit was conceived, designed and secured before Covid ever entered our vocabulary.
The campaign to leave the European Union was deeply divisive. It played on people’s anxieties, fanned their resentments, conjured up memories of an imperial independence long since past. Specifically it focussed on several long standing grievances. Sweeping aside the fact that many British fishermen had sold the quotas allocated to them in 1973 to European fleets, taking back control of our seas was targeted at our fishing industry. I quote the verdict from the National Federation of Fishermen’s organisations:
"The flags flying over our vessels had a slogan 'Fishing, No Sell Out'. Those flags now seem prescient because that’s what happened."
The Common Agricultural Policy has been a long standing target for the Eurosceptics. I must declare an interest here. My company has extensive agricultural and horticultural interests. Liz Truss has negotiated deals with Australia and New Zealand that, unlike virtually every other trade deal negotiated as a consequence of Brexit, are new as opposed to simply rollovers. They have a common factor. They are being phased in over a significant period of time. I have been in politics a long time. I know what that means. Someone is going to get hurt. Kick the hurt down the road and hope it will be lost to sight in the details of an agricultural horizon still shrouded in uncertainty.
I turn now to the effect of Brexit on the United Kingdom. We are greater together than ever we could be apart. I come from South Wales. It will always be my home. My eyes fill as the choirs sing. It never occurred to me that Wales should split from the United Kingdom. It is one of the most perverse aspects of Brexit that the very arguments its advocates use to separate from Europe are those the nationalists use to divide the United Kingdom. Brexit fuels separatism. Can anyone today claim that the United Kingdom, its monarchy and its constitution are more secure now that we have got back control?
I deplore the prospect of an independent Scotland. Its people have made such a significant contribution to what we are. The human giants in academia, engineering and culture are part of British culture. As a young school boy I made models of the tanks of the Black Watch fighting in the deserts of North Africa. Our defence is their defence. Brexit has handed Nicola Sturgeon one more potent weapon.
The Northern Irish situation is fragile. Debate rages about the creation and implementation of a border within the United Kingdom that we were told no Prime Minister could contemplate. What the government signed and what their ministers said are incompatible. There is one uncomfortable explanation. Brexit was more important than the truth. Britain’s word matters and is a key to our reputation across the world. People must believe that what we sign we will deliver.
I have already referred to the huge number of Europeans who chose to return to their over regulated, too centralised, Brussels dominated, sclerotic economies leaving us with glaring holes in our public services and the private sector. The Prime Minister advocates a high wage high productivity economy without explaining that the high productivity has to precede the high wages. This failure has made him the shop steward for every inflationary wage claim that will, over the coming months lead to growing inflation, rising interest rates and falling living standards. Not quite the dividend Brexit promised.
The City of London had established itself as the preeminent European financial centre before Brexit was a serious feature on the political agenda. Under the terms of the single market its position was unassailable. The Brexit negotiations did not cover these crucial service industries and companies are now forced to anticipate what discriminatory measures Europeans will adopt to shift part of this lucrative business to the continent. In an article in the Insurance Journal it is claimed that 440 relocations have been decided with 135 destined to Dublin followed by Paris with 102. The prizes are obvious and we should expect to see persistent attempts to undermine our market leadership. There will be those who accuse our former partners as cheats and worse ignoring all the while that our talk of creating a Singapore on Thames, slashing taxes and tearing up regulations is designed to achieve precisely that outcome at their expense.
This brings me to another of the easy targets of the Brexiteers, regulations coupled with images of anonymous officials in Brussels. I have some experience with deregulation. John Major in a flourish at a party conference called on Tarzan to get out the axe. I set out with enthusiasm. Amongst my many initiatives I wrote to every Trade Association promising to examine any change that conferred new freedoms or competitive advantage to our companies. I received not one constructive reply. The explanation is simple. The market knows no morality. Left to its own devices it is a jungle. Everyone for themselves. Civilisation depends on the constraints imposed by politicians to protect the weak, impose standards, and frustrate criminals. Regulations are often intrusive and detailed but that is because long experience has taught the officials that design them that there is a small percentage of the population with clever lawyers looking for loopholes they can exploit. Last week it was revealed we have the dirtiest beaches in Europe because we allow the discharge of raw sewage onto them. A group of Conservative MPs forced the government's hand. Regulations will follow. If all those facile claims for deregulation had had any validity the chimneys of Whitehall should today be belching white smoke. At least our environment benefits from its absence.
I have covered a number of detailed examples of what Brexit has meant. There will be variations up and down in statistics of this sort but in one important way the debate should focus elsewhere. Too much of the Remain campaign made the mistake of concentrating on detailed threats that were then all lumped together under Project Fear by its opponents. The argument that attracted too little attention was the extraordinary achievements of the European Community in changing the nature of the continent's history. Debate, negotiation and compromise became the essence of political behaviour. Three wars in seventy five years gave birth to the founding vision that it must never happen again and led to three quarters of a century of peace. The extremes of politics had been eliminated or marginalised. The communists are now insignificant in France and Italy, the fascists have disappeared from Spain and Portugal and the Colonels no longer run Greece. Twenty seven nations sharing sovereignty each with their own liberal democratic accountability as a condition of Community membership have turned their backs on centuries of bloodshed. Their shared political endeavour has levelled up the condition of their people and preserved the countryside. A political entity with the resources to compete with the superpowers of the United States, China and shortly India opens horizons that would be denied to those of us dependent on national resources alone. A British voice at its heart speaking for generations of young people about the social, commercial, cultural and environmental world of tomorrow. That was Ted's legacy.
For what purpose did we throw it all away?. Does Britain stand taller in the world today? Should we not have listened to President Obama when he warned that in seeking a trade deal we would be at the back of the queue?
Our relations with China are clouded by understandable disagreements. European politicians are at the wrong end of name calling in a war of words that every businessman has to overcome to clinch a deal.
Across the world there is incomprehension at what we have done. At home there is a growing understanding that we were deceived.
I have not mentioned Nigel Farage but I want to allow him the last quotation:
"In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way."
Thinking he was about to lose he was preparing for the fight ahead. The last opinion poll I saw showed that that narrow Brexit vote has been replaced by a 10 point lead for those who took the opposite view. I agree therefore that it is unfinished business. It will take time. It will require energy and leadership. There is a lesson to be learnt from the Brexiteers. They never gave up. Our purpose is clear. We must restore Britain's position in the corridors of European power. That is our natural home and where our history lies. Any vision of our future must be built around the realities of world power. We have so much to contribute. Our tolerance and fair mindedness, a political sophistication that has converted colonies into the Commonwealth, a reputation of trust, as reliable friends. We will play our part more effectively sharing the power and sovereignty of modern Europe. Every Conservative Prime Minister for whom I worked since Winston Churchill himself understood this. Ted Heath gave substance to the words. It is sad beyond measure that this government, by contrast, will bequeath to our younger generation an empty chair, voiceless, devoid of influence over European affairs. They will come to reject such a diminished role for our country. Europe will welcome them back.