Edward Heath

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The Right Hon. Sir Edward Heath
Prime Minister 19 June 1970 - 4 March 1974
Political Party Conservative Party
Born 9 July 1916
Broadstairs, Kent
Died 17 July 2005
Salisbury, Wiltshire

Sir Edward Richard George Heath, KG, MBE (9 July 1916 - 17 July 2005) was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974 and leader of the British Conservative Party from 1965 to 1975. His term in office is regarded as a transition between the traditional, squirearchical leadership of the party under figures such as Harold Macmillan and that of later, self-conscious meritocratic figures starting with Margaret Thatcher.


Born in 1916 of a humble background, and educated at a state grammar school before attending Oxford University (Balliol College), Heath was a statesman and a fervent pro-European, believing in political as well as economic union. His background and beliefs were apparent from soon after his election as a Member of Parliament in 1950. He was active in the (ultimately unsuccessful) first round of negotiations to secure the UK's accession to the Common Market (as the European Community was then called). Later, as Chairman of the Board of Trade he oversaw the abolition of retail price maintenance.

Heath became leader of the party following its loss of power to Labour in 1964, and survived in the office despite electoral defeat in 1966. The success of his party in the general election of 1970 surprised almost all contemporary commentators and was seen as a personal triumph. Shortly before the election was called, his shadow cabinet had issued a policy document from a conference at the Selsdon Park Hotel which appeared surprisingly rightwing. Harold Wilson had regarded it as a vote loser and had dubbed it 'Selsdon Man' in the attempt to portray it as paleolithically reactionary.

Heath's government suffered an early blow with the untimely death of Iain Macleod whom he had appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. The economic policy changes on which Heath was resolved (including a significant shift from direct to indirect taxation) were not fully implemented until 1972, by which time he was engaged in the attempt to strengthen legal constraints on trade unions still more tightly than had been proposed under the abortive reforms of Wilson's government. The resulting polarised climate of industrial relations led to the downfall of his government.

Heath's government made only modest efforts to curtail welfare spending, though the squeeze in the education budget resulted in Margaret Thatcher's choosing to complete the process of phasing out free school milk rather than cutting back spending on the Open University. The contrast with the later actions of Thatcher's own government resulted in Heath acquiring a strongly humanitarian image.

Heath's major achievement as prime minister was to take Britain into the European Community in 1973. Meanwhile on the domestic front, the increase in inflation led him into confrontation with some of the most powerful trade unions, and energy shortages resulted in much of the country's industry working a three-day week to conserve power. In an attempt to bolster his government, Heath called an election for 28 February 1974. The result was inconclusive: the Conservative Party received a plurality of votes cast, but the Labour Party gained a plurality of seats. Heath began negotiations with leaders of the Liberal Party to form a coalition but, when these failed, resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Harold Wilson who formed a minority government. Wilson was confirmed in office, with a small majority, in a second election in October of the same year.

Heath continued briefly as Conservative leader, until undermined by Margaret Thatcher, who won the party leadership from him. He never forgave this slight, and continued to be a thorn in the side of his successor throughout her own prime ministerial career. Unusually, he continued to serve as a backbench MP for the Kent constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup until retiring from Parliament at the 2001 general election, by which time he was the longest-serving member and 'Father of the House'. Sir Edward Heath died from pneumonia on the evening of 17 July 2005, at the age of 89.