On the 21st July 2016 Michael Heseltine spoke at the annual Edward Heath Arundells Association lecture, on a broad range of topics, discussing parallels between Heath’s premiership in the 1970s and the current political climate. The former Deputy Prime Minister in Major’s government, cabinet minister under Thatcher and staunch Europhile also discussed Brexit at length and his thoughts on the wider implications the vote would have.
The talk opened with a fascinating analysis of Heath’s background, and the context in which he formed his politics. Of a working class family ravaged by the unemployment and poverty wreaked by the Great Depression, Heath was shaped by the experiences of his childhood and youth. He also travelled Europe before the Second World War and was shocked by the hatred evident in the Nuremberg Rally he witnessed in Nazi Germany; as well as his experiences of wartime Europe as a respected officer, including the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp.
These harrowing experiences, Heseltine explained, were the motivating factor behind his endeavours towards increasing European integration: in Heath’s words to ‘never again’ allow Europe to tear ‘itself apart’ as it had done twice in his lifetime. Whatever your politics, and however you may have voted in the recent referendum, it is clear how honourable Heath’s intentions were.
The former Tory veteran went on to defend the Heath government of 1970 to 1974 as misunderstood and crippled by forces out of their control. Heath as Prime Minister is to this day routinely dismissed as uninspiring and lacklustre, but Heseltine (who served under him as a junior minister) spoke passionately of him as a radical reformist and a ‘conviction politician’ who was undone by militant Trade Unionism.
To finish, the staunch Europhile went on to share his thoughts on the result of the recent European Union referendum and ‘Brexit’. Heseltine has more firsthand experience than most of the divisions that arguments over Britain’s role in Europe can conjure. For example, he was involved in the Westland Affair, where he stormed out of a cabinet meeting in 1986 over a dispute with Thatcher over emphasising Britain’s friendship with America over its friendship with Europe. Later, he was Deputy PM at the time the Conservative Party under Major was bitterly divided between Eurosceptics and Europhiles.
At first, he spoke miserably about the vote to leave, claiming ‘investment is stalling, recruitment declining, forecasts lowering’. He argued for the need to reform the European Union from within, and laid the responsibility of defining Brexit at the door of the Vote Leave campaign’s prominent figures — namely Boris Johnson who Heseltine scathingly likened to ‘a general, that led his army to the sound of guns, and at the sight of the battlefield abandoned the field.’ after the vote result came about.
Lastly, he found the time to answer some questions in a discussion with BWS and SWGS students after the talk. He informally spoke about what of his background helped form his politics. He described joining the Conservative Party on the streets of Swansea almost by accident as a 13 year old boy; but hinted that witnessing a young girl about his age dressed in rags and living in poverty inspired some of his One Nation beliefs.
This lecture was fascinating and informative for both politics and history students, providing a thoroughly alternative view to a number of disputable topics.
By Dan Payne
Thank you to John Rose Photography for providing the photographs and Friends of Arundells for inviting our students.
This article represents the views of the author, and not the views of the Politics Society, nor of Bishop Wordsworth’s School.