Edward Heath's "Conservative" government

On June 19th, 1970, the Conservative Party, led by Edward Heath, was declared the winner of the General Election, and asked to form a government. The result was an upset because previous polls had given Labour, led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a comfortable lead. A poll on election day, however, showed a small Tory lead, and the Conservative Party, which the included the Ulster Unionists, gained a majority of 31 seats.

Their term in office under Heath was not a comfortable one. The had been elected on the "Selsdon Manifesto," a radical free market agenda that repudiated the post-war consensus. Soon after taking office, however, Heath abandoned the 1970 manifesto in the face of bitter opposition from the trade unions. He concluded that free market ideas were simply not appropriate in the modern world. His Chancellor, Anthony Barber, attempted a Keynesian-style "dash for growth," printing money like there was no tomorrow, stoking up a massive inflation that provoked union militancy.

The unions never accepted Heath's 1971 Industrial Relations Act, and staged a series of crippling strikes. Heath U-turned on his pledge not to bail out failing businesses by doing precisely that. Government spending increased far ahead of revenues, and he failed to modernize the outdated and relatively unproductive UK economy. The result was a new phenomenon: high unemployment combined with stagnation, or "stagflation." He introduced wage and price controls, both disastrously ineffective.

Heath undermined Britain's relationship with the US and its former dominions by taking the UK into the European Economic Community, not recognizing its ambitions to become a political entity. His downfall was his inability to cope with the 1973 oil crisis caused by the OPEC embargo. He instituted a 3-day week for offices, factories and public buildings, and saw frequent power cuts as militant unions went on strike to bring down his government. The economy went into recession. He called an election in February 1974 asking the electors, "Who governs Britain." They replied, "not you," and removed his majority. Labour formed a minority government, and the following year Heath was ousted as Conservative Party leader by Margaret Thatcher.

It did not help Heath that he was widely regarded as arrogant and rude. He went into a massive sulk that lasted for years, refusing even to mention the name of "that woman." Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher adopted the free market policies Heath had discarded, and from winning the 1979 election, used them to take Britain to renewed growth and prosperity. She succeeded where Heath had failed in taming the unions. She abandoned controls that he had brought in and that Labour had continued. Britain boomed, taxes were lowered, jobs were created, and people who had been dependent on the state now bought their own homes and often shares in the newly-privatized state industries. The ones that Heath had needed to subsidize massively now became profitable private businesses that paid taxes instead of consuming them.

History has not looked kindly upon Edward Heath and his administration, and is unlikely ever to do so. Even the museum at his home, to which he left the vast bulk of his estate to establish in his memory, failed to attract enough visitors, leading the trustees to seek permission to close it down and sell off its assets to other charities. A compromise was reached in which it remains open for part of the year as a centre for charitable activity related to Heath's interests, principally yachting and music.