Exactly 50 years ago tomorrow, Britain went to the polls to deliver one of the shock results of the century. After six years in office and having secured a landslide victory just four years earlier, Harold Wilson remained the firm favourite to return to Downing Street, despite the turbulent straits his administration found itself in.
On the morning of election day, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror
urged the public to return the Prime Minister to Number 10, warning its readership that a Labour victory was 'not in the bag until the last X has been marked'. Despite possessing a 98-seat majority in the Commons, after the long-anticipated devaluation of the pound in November 1967, Wilson's Government had struggled to recover its footing, and had run into further trouble over its In Place of Strife
White Paper in January 1969, which sought to settle Britain's industrial relations.
Harold Wilson's challenger for the throne was the Kentish Edward Heath, who became the first-ever elected Leader of the Conservative Party in July 1965. The son of a carpenter and a maid, Heath was educated at Chatham House Grammar School in the centre of Ramsgate, some two miles along the Thanet coast from his hometown of Broadstairs, before receiving a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Heath's school reports record a diligent and conscientious, if not exceptionally gifted, schoolboy.
Despite a career spent grappling with foreign affairs – including as one of the architects of the Brandt Report
in 1980 – Heath particularly struggled in geography, although his French master noted his steady improvement, despite his later ropey attempts to deliver speeches in French whilst negotiating Britain's entry into the European Community. As Heath recalled in an interview at Chatham House some eight months after ceasing to be Prime Minister in 1974, he benefitted from the school's ethos to deliver 'a good all-round education, built on an academic foundation', where examination results were by-no-means 'the be-all and end-all'.
Whilst Heath had begun the 1970 election campaign a considerable distance behind Wilson, he succeeded in closing the gap and capitalised on the release of poor trade figures a few days before polling day. With last minute polls predicting that Scotland was swinging against the Tories as the Midlands moved behind Heath, the election was evidently not going to be the Labour walkover expected midway through the campaign. Much to his amusement, Heath later discovered that two journalists who had been travelling with him throughout the campaign were already writing a book explaining why he had lost. On the evening of polling day, predicting a dead-heat, one regional newspaper thought Heath resembled 'a horse bursting through on the rails', making a 'late dramatic dash for the winning post'.
Whilst the latter part of Heath's career was dominated by his long-running feud with Margaret Thatcher, who would succeed him as Leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975, his highly unexpected victory over Wilson in June 1970 marked a turning point in Britain's politics and the direction of travel for its constitution. In addition to finally securing Britain's entry into the European Community on 1 January 1973, after two previous attempts in 1963 and 1967, Heath's administration pursued a fundamental overhaul of local government which would endure for another two decades.
However, Heath's reforming administration became increasingly unpopular, with its Industrial Relations Act bringing it into direct confrontation with the Trades Union Congress which ran a nationwide 'Kill the Bill' campaign, culminating in a 'day of action' in Central London in January 1971. In Scotland, its decision to end state-support for 'lame duck' industries so soon after the nationalisation of Rolls-Royce prompted the infamous and celebrated Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in. As unemployment hit 1 million for the first time since 1947, the House of Commons had to be suspended in January 1972 as the Opposition's anger with the Government boiled over. Although shielded from its worst effects, having grown up in the shadow of the Great Depression, the Prime Minister told the House that he 'deeply deplored' the unusually high level of unemployment.
After his infamous Declaration of Perth
in May 1968, which committed the Tories to supporting a Scottish Assembly some six months after Winnie Ewing's surprise victory in the Hamilton by-election, Heath remained a consistent advocate of greater devolution for Scotland. His primary contribution to Scotland's devolution decade was to reform its increasingly fragmented and disparate local government system, which had consisted of county councils, city corporations for Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, district councils and large and small burgh councils. In all, Scotland had 234 institutions of local government, which scarcely reflected the country's complex geography; the most notable example of this being in the Outer Hebrides where, despite being on the same land mass, Lewis was part of Ross-shire and Harris was represented by Inverness-shire.
Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, local government was recreated as a two-tier system, establishing nine regional councils and 53 subordinate district councils (as well as three unitary island councils for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland). Whilst the new regional councils benefited from previously untapped economies of scale, concern about the powers accorded to them permeated Scottish politics throughout the 1970s as fears grew that decision-making within Scotland was becoming increasingly centralised.
One councillor in Musselburgh, the 'Honest Toun', which is dissected by the River Esk as it flows into the Firth of Forth, pointed to the conflict that already existed between the regional and district councils. Whilst traditionally in the historic county of Midlothian, Musselburgh, already suffering from the decline of its age-old coal mining, fishing and milling industries, found itself under the remit of the newly created East Lothian District Council and discovered that Lothian Regional Council's priorities 'were in places other than East Lothian'.
Two years after leaving office, Heath and fellow former PM Lord Home even called for a referendum on Scottish independence, believing they had been placed 'in a nasty dilemma' by the SNP's claim that 'any move towards devolution is to be swallowed merely as a step towards independence'. The proposal made at a meeting of the nation's easternmost outpost of the Conservative Party, the East Aberdeenshire Unionist Association in Peterhead, in September 1976, met with a mixed reaction. After fierce resistance from The Scotsman
, The Press and Journal
welcomed the proposal believing it to be 'forward-looking and conflict-reducing' at a time when Scotland's 'energies should be concentrated on survival… instead of being dissipated on unproductive tribal quarrels'. Despite Heath's interest in devolution, as the March 1979 referendum on the Labour Government's Scottish Assembly approached, he took something of a backseat.
Despite having been in Downing Street at the time of the UCS work-in, Billy Connolly recalls that, 'Old Ted' was 'quite liked on the Clyde' and recognised the 'decency and the dignity' of the city's inhabitants. Speaking to a Press Fund luncheon in Glasgow at the end of January 1979, Heath revealed that he had rejected a sizeable number of invitations to speak and campaign for 'Yes' across the country. His rationale being that 'it is up to Scots now, without the interference of English politicians, to make up their own minds'. The relatively high regard in which Heath was held north of the border was demonstrated by the fact that the rebel Conservative 'Yes' campaign felt able to include his portrait and a message of support on its campaign literature.
With his well-known affinity for classical music and his talent as a yachtsman, captaining the winning team in the 1969 Sydney to Hobart Race and the Admiral Cup in 1971, Heath was one of the few senior politicians of his generation (along with Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins) who fostered real and lasting interests outside of politics. In the 'Exchequers' Spitting Image
sketch, about the retirement home for former Prime Ministers where Alec Home fished from the top of the staircase and Jim Callaghan made mashed potato likenesses of the Taj Mahal, Heath remained off-screen, with Callaghan complaining about 'bloody Ted Heath playing with his bloody organ'. In a later appearance whilst Thatcher was still in Downing Street, the Matron, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria, told the inmates that Heath was out on parole 'on picket duty with the Yorkshire miners'.
After leaving office, his own sense of humour became increasingly evident during an appearance on the Dame Edna Everage Show
. Whilst there was something of a rapprochement between him and Thatcher later in life, he infamously told his staff to 'Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice!' when she resigned and once sent a note to a former member of his staff, who was retiring after some years working for Mrs T, congratulating him on 'rejoining the human race'.
Despite sinister and unfounded allegations about his private life in recent years, Heath remains one of the most noteworthy figures of the last half-century of British politics. Despite very few of his achievements remaining intact, after Britain's departure from the European Union, with a political career that stretched from Hitler and Himmler to Tony Blair and David Cameron, Heath was a living link with so much of the 20th century. For Sir John Major, who like 'Old Ted' enjoyed far more public respect and affection after leaving Downing Street, 'Ted's record, warts and all, was as a statesman rather than as a politician'.
Half a century on from his one and only General Election victory, Edward Heath remains one of the most significant but underrated politicians of recent times.