The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Tribute to Sir Edward Heath – 18 July 2005

The text of Sir John Major’s tribute to Sir Edward Heath, published in the Guardian on 18th July 2005, following his death the previous day.


A big man has gone and we shall miss him.

Ted Heath will be remembered most as the Prime Minister who took our country into the Common Market. It was a controversial decision but the correct one, even if it was never accepted by many in his own Party.

I often talked to Ted about what activated him. He saw, in the early 1950s, the rising power of the United States, of the Soviet Union and he foresaw the increasing influence of China and non-Japanese Asia. He drew the conclusion that, unless they worked together, individual nation states were at risk of becoming pygmies in a world of giants. His judgement was correct then and remains so today.

Ted was activated also by the finest of all human emotions – the wish to preserve peace and security and avoid war. He had served in the Army with distinction between 1939 and 1945 and there is no doubt the War left a lasting influence upon his politics. He saw the Nazis. He saw hate and extremism and it disgusted him. He wished to play a part in drawing together Nations that had long been locked in enmity – so that war could never again occur. This emotion was a guiding star for many of his political instincts.

Ted Heath was a politician for whom policy mattered more than personality. He could dislike his opponents but where he did, it was likely to be on policy rather than on personal grounds. He strongly disliked the “us” and “them” mentality that pervaded and split the Conservative Party so seriously in the 80’s and 90’s. The former Chief Whip in him looked on in disbelief as the Party factionalised. These divisions are passing now but did great harm over a long period.

Ted had inelastic principles and this often left him a sitting target. Harold Wilson’s jibe of “Selsdon Man” struck and hurt him politically and was a brilliant piece of invective. It was also in essence wrong: Ted Heath was a One Nation Conservative to his core and it was his misfortune that events and a sour economy led him into confrontation with the miners and the imposition of a three-day week. In later years, he spoke dispassionately of these events but I never heard him malign the miners.

No doubt mistakes were made but this was not a confrontation that the Conservative Government sought. I still believe that if Ted had been an opportunist, or more nimble politically, he would have called the 1974 General Election earlier for 7 February – and would probably have won it. We shall never know but we do know he polled more votes than the Labour Party and was defeated not by the electorate and the wish for a Labour Government but by out-of-date constituency boundaries. He lost, too, because he delayed too long seeking a negotiated agreement with the miners and did not wish to take political advantage of confrontation.

Ted could be grumpy, even curmudgeonly, in his personal relationships. He could also be charming, was well informed far beyond politics, talented in music and yachting and excellent company. Many say he was uncomfortable with women: that was not always so. Norma and Ted would happily talk of music and opera without any difficulties and be oblivious to the presence of everyone else. It is true, though, that Ted was impatient of pointless cocktail-party chatter. It was too frivolous for him. He had a gift for the long view and could be riveting in one-to-one discussion. Anecdote and wisdom were there aplenty and also a wicked wit – sometimes, even a sly one, that exposed critics to ridicule. He rarely used this gift fully in public for which many of his opponents may feel truly grateful: it is, frankly, more than they deserved. Ted was among the last of the War generation in politics – warriors by experience who saw and understood the futility of conflict. He knew, too, political debate was often futile if the views of opponents were dismissed without consideration, and consensus for him was a noble objective.

A remarkable man has gone. His detractors remain but they loose their arrows at a far bigger figure than they will ever be. Ted’s record, warts and all, was as a statesman rather than as a politician: upon that let him be judged and remembered.