Today (23 June, 2016) marks a historic moment: the day of the European Union referendum. Visiting the Shoreham lifeboat station in West Sussex recently, I did not expect to be reminded of British political history, or of the EU referendum. Obviously the station’s primary focus is lifesaving at sea. But, like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), of which it is a part, the station at Shoreham is aware of its history: paintings, photographs and other memorabilia decorate many of its walls.
Our guide drew my attention to a long, thin fragment of polished wood, salvaged from a wreck. It bore the words ‘Morning Cloud’. On 2 September, 1974, the yacht of that name sank in a storm off Shoreham. Two of the seven crew members drowned.
The yacht’s owner had been ashore, in London. Four months earlier he had lost a General Election and also his position as Prime Minister of the UK. On 20 September that year Edward Heath would lead the Conservative Party into another, unsuccessful General Election campaign. In February, 1975, Margaret Thatcher would succeed Heath as Conservative leader, and go on to eclipse him almost completely over the next decade.
Born in 1916, Edward Heath died in 2005. Recently his name has again been in the news; there have been allegations made against him of sexual abuse, so far unproven. Heath’s place in history is, in any case, secure; however judged, his term as Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974 was eventful and controversial. And his personality, no less his politics, remains a source of some fascination as well as speculation. Heath is remembered for many things. Notably, he was the Prime Minister who, in the words of one obituarist, ‘took Britain into Europe’ – in fact the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then titled, in 1973.
Europe arguably exerted an enormous, if complicated, influence on Heath. He visited the continent several times in the late 1930s, and served there during the war, in the Royal Artillery. In the early 1960s he led the official British team attempting to negotiate EEC entry. France vetoed the application in 1963.
Unbowed, Heath publicly declared that ‘we are a part of Europe: by geography, tradition, history, culture and civilisation. We shall continue to work with all our friends in Europe for the true unity and strength of this continent’.
Having all but divested itself of empire by that time, Britain sought new relationships, with both the Commonwealth and with Europe. For British pro-Europeans such as Edward Heath, EEC membership did not offer merely economic advantage; it offered hope for the future. In a 1971 television broadcast, Heath – now Prime Minister – reiterated and expanded on what had become by then a signature theme: ‘we must go in if we want to remain Great Britain, and take the chance of becoming Greater Britain… we have the chance of new greatness. Now we must take it’. In the late Victorian era Conservatives, among others, had evoked an ideal of ‘Greater Britain’ in resolutely imperial terms. Heath’s use of the phrase was telling – and seemingly effective.
Heath’s success in gaining EEC membership for Britain relied heavily on his ability to garner support less in the country at large than within Parliament. That proved difficult. In the early 1970s, as now (if not to the same extent), there was dissent within as well as between political parties.
In October, 1972, however, sufficient Labour MPs voted in favour of membership to more than offset the impact of Conservative ‘anti-marketeers’. The UK thus formally joined the EEC in January, 1973, an event that has been described as ‘the greatest single achievement of Heath’s premiership, and indeed of his political career’. Subsequently, the terms on which Britain joined would be criticised, especially its contribution to the Community budget and the extent to which membership compromised or (as it seemed to some) even imperilled British national sovereignty.
In 1975, the Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, gave the British public the opportunity, in the form of a referendum, to exercise their views and their vote on EEC membership. Heath played an important and influential role in the Conservative campaign; Margaret Thatcher, more cautiously pro-European, deferred to Heath’s expertise and enthusiasm. He seized the opportunity to re-emphasise his credentials as a statesman. In the process, he made his last significant contribution to British political and national life.
Heath was vulnerable to the charge that he had taken Britain into Europe without consulting its people directly. He took the referendum seriously, canvassed vigorously and asserted the pro-European case in eloquent terms. ‘Anti-Europeans’, he said, ‘want to freeze the past. Their talk of sovereignty would only make sense if the Royal Navy ruled the waves and gunboats could be despatched anywhere in the world’. Membership of the European Community, according to Heath, ‘gives us the opportunity in the modern world to fulfil ourselves as a nation’.
Many others apart from Heath contributed to the referendum outcome: 67 per cent of votes were in favour. In the House of Commons, Thatcher congratulated Heath for his contribution. He ignored her. His bitterness towards her was by then only too evident. One journalist offered a mischievous explanation for the snub: Heath’s hearing was impaired after a recent spell on the ocean wave.
Heath took up sailing only at the age of 50. He and his crews quickly achieved remarkable competitive success which, according to biographer John Campbell, offered a perfect metaphor for what Heath hoped would be a comparable political success in the 1970s.
But success in relation to Europe would be short-lived, and would generate further problems. The Heath government proved ultimately unable to contend with, much less resolve, the pressing domestic political and economic problems that confronted it. After a narrow electoral defeat in February, 1974, there would be no way back to power for Edward Heath. The loss of the Morning Cloud four months later was a bad omen as well as a tragedy.
On the question of Europe, though, and the UK’s identity as a nation in a rapidly changing post-imperial world, Heath arguably left a huge mark on modern British history.
Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (eds.), The Heath Government, 1970-74 (1996)
John Campbell, Edward Heath: A Biography (1994)
Douglas Hurd, ‘Sir Edward Richard George [Ted] Heath (1916-2005)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (2011)
Philip Ziegler, Edward Heath: The Authorised Biography (2010)
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University