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Howard: One of the political giants of the twentieth century

House of Commons tribute to Sir Edward Heath

"I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute on behalf of this side of the House, to the memory of Sir Edward Heath.

Ted Heath was one of the political giants of the twentieth century.

As Chief Whip during Suez, as a Cabinet Minister under Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home, and above all as the Prime Minister whose single minded determination took us into the European Economic Community, he made a historic contribution to our country.

Ted was the last leader of the Conservative Party to serve in the Second World War. In common with the rest of his generation his whole outlook on life was shaped by that titanic conflict.

Even before it began he was aware of the dangers that lay ahead. As a young man he heard Hitler address a Nuremberg Rally. And he actually met Goering, Goebbels and Himmler, whom he described as:

"The most evil man I've ever met".

In the famous 1938 Oxford by-election he opposed the Conservative candidate, Quintin Hogg, and campaigned instead for A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, who stood on an anti-appeasement platform.

After the War he saw political integration in Europe as the best way to avoid a repeat of its horrors. That became the moving force of his political career. And as Prime Minister he succeeded where Macmillan had failed, by taking Britain into the Common Market.

It was controversial when he did it - he needed the votes of members of other parties to get the legislation through this House. And it has remained controversial ever since. But Ted never wavered in his attachment to the European dream. He was utterly and unswervingly consistent. His maiden speech in this House was in the debate on the Schuman Plan. His final speech was dominated by the same issue.

He was, however, less successful in achieving his other political objectives.

Before the 1970 election he outlined an exciting programme to revitalise the nation's economy based on a smaller State, lower taxes, less regulation and trade union reform.

That platform - designed at the Selsdon Park Hotel - provoked Labour into caricaturing Ted's position. They depicted him as Selsdon Man, a dangerous reactionary. So Ted went through what every Conservative Leader of the Opposition always faces - the accusation, just a few months before the election, that they are lurching to the right.

But he won that 1970 election - against the tide of expectation. It was a tribute to his determination to try and pursue the course he believed to be right. His task was made much harder when Iain Macleod, his first choice as Chancellor and another political giant of the age, died tragically just weeks after the election.

The problems of rampant inflation and overweening trade union power that were to dog his four years in office made him change course and adopt instead policies which were unequal to the challenge.

Yet many of the changes he originally tried, and failed, to put in place were made, ten years later, by his successor Margaret Thatcher.

The BBC's Political Editor said last night that Margaret Thatcher was a grocer's daughter in more ways than one. The fact that neither of them would perhaps welcome that thought made it no less appropriate.

After leaving office, Ted remained true to his character and continued to court controversy, especially in the Conservative Party - but did so, I believe, more often mischievously than wilfully.

He never lost his wit, even if it was displayed in ways not always likely to be appreciated by his successors.

When speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in 1981, at the height of the first Thatcher Government's unpopularity, he advised the Conference representatives:

"Please don't applaud - It may irritate your neighbour".

But whatever disagreements he had, or manufactured, he was a Conservative all his life.

He remained a remarkable House of Commons man, serving as a Member of Parliament continuously for fifty-one years. He became Father of the House. It was fitting that one of his final acts as a Member of this place was to preside in October 2000 over the election of a new Speaker, something he clearly hugely enjoyed and which showed him in his element.

He lamented the declining influence of Parliament in holding the Executive to account, a trend which he noted had taken place under governments of both parties, and a development which many of us indeed regret.

And he was remarkable also for the width and breadth of his outside interests and skills. How many leading politicians could have won the Sydney Hobart race? How many Prime Ministers could have captained the British team to win the Admiral's cup? How many could have conducted world class orchestras?

Ted Heath came from a humble background. He followed the then familiar route from grammar school to Oxford. But he never forgot his origins.

Every year Ted used to return to his home town of Broadstairs to conduct the Christmas carol concert - music for him was not just a source of personal solace; it embodied the deeper harmonies which we as human beings live by.

Because Ted was a private man, who did not wear his emotions on his sleeve, people often didn't see the personal side of him. But we do get an occasional glimpse from his autobiography:

"[My father] was an excellent craftsman" he wrote, "and his work was greatly admired by all who saw it. The earliest examples which I can remember were the money boxes - mine of mahogany, my brother's of oak - which he made in order that we might collect our small savings in them. Each was inscribed with our name and I still have my beautiful mahogany box in my study".

Today, we remember a Prime Minister who was a most distinguished Parliamentarian, who was fearless in his views and rock-like in his integrity and who always sought to serve his country to the very best of his ability. In this House we join together to mourn his passing."

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