qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

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Events, dear boy, events

The Course of My Life - the Autobiography of Edward Heath
Despite the rather unimaginative title, this turned out to be a very good read. This was a second hand purchase inspired, if I remember correctly, by Andrew Marr's series on postwar Britain.

I hadn't realised that Heath's family background was unremarkable; though there's something of a disconnect when he gets to Oxford, as if all of a sudden he was destined naturally for great things. The description of his travels in Europe in the late 1930s - including a visit (as an observer) to a Nuremberg Rally and an extremely ill-advised visit to Poland in the summer of 1939, with what can only be described as a lucky escape - are particularly interesting, and give some useful background to his war service in the artillery as well as to his later passion for Europe.

Following his entry into the House of Commons in 1950, the majority of the book describes Heath's parliamentary career. Early episodes include rebelling over a motion regarding the prevention of Seretse Khama's return to Botswana (Mma Ramotswe would surely approve, although the motivation in part that "he was a Balliol man" doesn't do Heath any favours) and serving as the Chief Whip during the Suez crisis. In the early 1960s Heath's primary responsibility was for progressing the negotiations over British membership of the Common Market, eventually vetoed by de Gaulle. It's interesting to read again of the ambivalence from the start of the British political attitude to the European "project", ignoring its first incarnation in the 1950s and only turning to it after the Suez debacle demonstrated plainly Britain's real status in world affairs. Heath also writes clearly about the motivation and enthusiasm by the other five members of the Common Market and even the French ministers and negotiators; it was a evidently a surprise to them when the process was quashed.

By 1965, Heath had become Leader of the Opposition, and in 1970 became Prime Minister. Several chapters are devoted to separate areas of this time - economic and industrial affairs, eventual entry into the EEC, the Irish troubles, home and world affairs. There are one or two places where I felt Heath was tending towards subjectivity and self-justification, but for the most part I think he assesses things fairly (though most often with a positive stance). He feels that the economy had been mostly repaired over the 1970-73 period, but was then blown off-course by the oil crisis. He feels that he lost the first 1974 election because of a report by the Pay Board on the NUM dispute that was published during the campaign, and because of off-message comments by the director of the CBI; negotiations with the Liberals foundered on the question of electoral reform.

Despite what you might expect, Heath is relatively restrained on the Thatcher years, although he does not shy from criticism when he feels it is deserved. He had no time for monetarism and feels vindicated by the economic destruction of the early 1980s. There is also some prescient criticism on Reaganomics, financial mismanagement and debt. He criticised both the Labour and Conservative administrations that followed his on the question of European policy, and although this book was published in 1998 I suspect that criticism would have been ongoing. It's plain that the European Union is far from perfect, but Heath's argument that we will always fail to influence its direction when we argue from a self-imposed second-class position forever verging on threatening to leave seems fair comment to me.
Tags: books, europe, politics
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