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“Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice” Obituary of Ted Heath

Declan O'Neill

 

Heath and friend“A man of great integrity” and “ A political giant” were two of the many hyperbolic tributes paid to Ted Heath as news of his death broke yesterday. Given that the first comment came from Tony Blair, not universally known for his grasp of the concept of integrity, and the latter from Margaret Thatcher, who ended Heath’s career as leader of the Tory party, they should perhaps not be taken too seriously. At least the “incredible  sulk”, as Ted Heath came to be known, was more honest with his “ rejoice, rejoice, rejoice”,  remark issued when Margaret Thatcher was forced  to resign as prime minister.

This “political giant” was, of course, one of the most unsuccessful Tory leaders of the past century.   As memories of his three years and eight months in the PM’s office fade the myth has grown that he was a soft “one nation” Tory, a completely different animal to his successor as leader, Margaret Thatcher.  It is true he was not as successful as her in his assault on the trade union movement, but it was not for lack of trying.  It was the Heath government which introduced the Industrial Relations Act in an attempt to shackle the Trade Unions, jailed the Pentonville dockers and attempted to smash the NUM.   It is true that he was a vocal critic of the Thatcher government’s policies on Europe, the poll tax and the economy, and post-1997 he often appeared on BBC Question Time as a liberal critic of New Labour.   That perhaps says more about New Labour than Ted Heath.

There is though another side to Ted Heath which will probably not get much prominence in the days to come. His government authorised the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland in a vain attempt to prop up the discredited Unionist regime.  The subsequent incarceration and ill-treatment of hundreds of innocent detainees led directly to the bloodiest period in the history of the” Troubles”.    As Prime Minister in 1973 he was among the first to recognise Pinochet regime in Chile, even as evidence emerged of the torture and murder of thousands. .  This was, of course, over thirty years ago but there is little to indicate that Heath’s views had changed in recent years.  Challenged on Newsnight, shortly after the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997,  to condemn the Tiananmen Square massacre, he replied   “There was a crisis in Tiananmen Square after a month in which the civil authority had been defied and they took action about it."    He added "we can criticise it in exactly the same way as people criticise Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland."  Maybe we can understand Heath’s dilemma.  It was Deng himself who ordered the "action" - in Tiananmen Square,   The prime minister responsible for the “action”   in Derry on 30 January 1972 was Ted Heath.

 


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July 2005

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