There is no doubt that Edward Heath – who died a few days ago at the age of 89 – was one of the most important statesmen of his country in modern times.
He was Prime Minister for the relatively brief period between unexpectantly winning the 1970 election and also unexpectantly losing the snap election he called himself in 1973.
But during that brief period he brought into reality his dream of taking Britain into what was then still the European Economic Community. He had argued for and prepared the step for a long time, not the least in building a close relationship with France, and there is no doubt that he was instrumental in taking the United Kingdom into the EEC on January 1st 1973.
For him, the ideal of Europe was never just the large free trade area that the British are sometimes accused of being in favour of. He believed genuinely and passionately in the need for the nations of Europe to come together to secure both peace and prosperity, and to preserve and promote their position in the world.
For him, the days of the Empire were definitely over, and the special relationship with the United States would never be enough. He wholeheartedly endorsed the policy that Tony Blair has later described at putting Britain ”at the hearth of Europe”.
He lost power to an anti-European and anti-reform Labour party supported by the militant and backward-lookingh old trade unions. In his 1970 manifesto he had set out some of the policies – including trade union reform – that were necessary in order to reform Britain, but it would eventually fall to his successor as Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher to implement them when she become Prime Minister.
The relationship between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher was not a happy one. He saw gher attitude towards the rest of Europe as hopelessly narrowminded and uninformed, and deeply regretted when she let the Conservative party be taken over by Empire-dreamers and anti-Europeans of different sorts.
And there were indeed significant differences between them on these issues, although not on others. The critically important trade union reforms that Thatcher introduced had been outlined already by Heath. His 1970 program for modernising Britain would have repercussions all through her years.
But on Europe they differed. When she in 1989 saw the fall of the wall in Berlin and the unification of Germany as the re-emergence of some old German threat, he saw it as the possibility to realize a new European dream.
They never reconciled. He stayed in the House of Commons nine years after she had left just to make the point that he was still around. At times, he was much too bitter against his successor, much like she was against her successor.
As a young student, I was in a group of European students invited to Downing Street to meet him in the early 1970’s. At the time, we certainly saw him as a European visionary and as a modernizer of Britain. He was a most open and most pleasant man, also when I had the opportunity of meeting him during later years.
It’s politicians carried by a vision that creates legacies that last. Edward Heath was certainly among them.