Growing up in the 1960s with a precocious interest in politics, the main UK party leaders Harold Wilson and Ted Heath were among my role models. The new term “meritocrat” might have been invented for them . Both of them came from modest backgrounds and made it to the top. Politically I admired Heath’s decisiveness compared to Wilson’s waffle and to some extent I still do. At the time, entering Europe and introducing power sharing in Northern Ireland required bold leadership, however mixed the results . But whereas Wilson paraded his ordinariness as a political virtue, Heath was the odder but more interesting character. Plummy voiced, clearly driven, a bachelor and apparently socially dyslexic, he was nonetheless perfectly happy to share his personal enthusiasms of music and ocean- going yachting which he tackled with the same commitment as his politics. If there were passions below the surface, they appeared to be sublimated in classical music .
In a 1972 Omnibus programme I ’ve just been watching as part of Heath Time on BBC Parliament to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his ascent to the Tory leadership, the serious music fan, organ scholar and conductor comes across as human and even a little vulnerable. In our era of spin that kind of spontaneity is all but impossible.
One evening in 1965 shortly after he became Conservative leader, I and my mates got of school to hear him address the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. For Derry in the 1960s, here was a a very rare star turn. But Ted was a terrible disappointment. He bored us witless with a lecture on how businessmen should keep tidy accounts. To be fair in those days, discussing Northern Ireland in any detail was taboo. His friend the local MP Robin Chichester Clarke ( still alive) told how he covered Ted with a blanket in the back seat when they drove across the border.
In the Troubles Heath’s local associations were very different, as the prime minster who authorised internment and set up the Widgery tribunal but who also forced through the first power sharing agreement at Sunningdale where he gave a formal and unmemorable interview.
In 2003 I watched as the 87 year old Heath swatted away Michael Lavery QC’s aggressive questioning at the Saville tribunal. Whatever you thought of how he handled our affairs, you could see even at that great age how formidable he could be.
So what are we to make of the allegations of paedophilia and cover up? If you’re private life is not on the surface so to speak, you’re vulnerable. Even after death, Heath remains isolated and unpopular. It’s hard to imagine the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph writing up the gossip about any other Conservative leader without adding a polite disavowal.
Paedophilia has been exposed as a world-wide scourge, often practiced by people with power. But it is also today’s equivalent of the Red Scare.There is now a tidy dossier of overhanging allegations naming not only Heath but the very much alive Ken Clarke and the late Leon Brittan. If you google you’ll come across plenty of defamatory material of the safely dead. Some questions must be answered but with others the innuendo will cling on for ever. This is inevitable when our world has been so shaken by the extent of child abuse which seemed to have been treated on a par with prostitution but with more forgiveness, or else written off. True allegations can have a distorted echo in imaginings and exhibitionism as in the McAlpine affair which was as damaging to the BBC as was the original exposure of Saville.
For what it’s worth, I’m sceptical about the Heath claims. He was under close security from 1970 to the end of his life ten years ago and surely someone would have coughed. I don’t want to believe them but then, what do I know? The police must follow where the evidence leads, as they say. There’ll be plenty to urge them, not all with decent motives.
Update Since I wrote this post, four police forces are now reported to be investigating separate claims against Sir Edward and the Daily Telegraph names a Filipino woman in Heath’s retirement home city of Salisbury who was jailed twice for running a brothel using young teenagers. Her claims she procured for him were allegedly suppressed. Scotland Yard has also reportedly been investigating claims against Heath for several months as part of Operation Midland, which was set up to examine allegations of murder by a Westminster paedophile ring that systematically abused children allegedly located in Dolphin Square complex of flats near the Houses of Parliament. Details were covered by the Exaro investigative news website .
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London