Sunday, August 9, 2015

In defence of Sir Edward Heath

I was shocked to hear over the radio that former British Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath was the subject of child sex abuse allegations. My shock turned to anger when I discovered the flimsy web of so-called evidence, hearsay and downright malicious gossip on which these allegations have been made.
Let me make one point straight away. I admire Heath. I regard him as one of the most honest, straightforward and decent Prime Ministers to have occupied 10 Downing Street in modern times. I applaud his greatest achievement in taking the United Kingdom into what became the European Union.
Those who now campaign for the country to leave the EU are living in a fool’s paradise which, if they have their way, will see the UK quickly sink to the status of a third world banana republic – but that is an argument for another day.
I met Sir Edward on two occasions. During the 1970 UK election I was part of what is now called the ‘media scrum’ that followed him on the campaign trail. I remember once when we got him to pose under a street sign that stated ‘Turn Right One Way Only’. The picture went national and he thought it was a great joke.
The second time, almost 30 years later, occurred when I was in the UK on an assignment and he happened to be giving an address at a university near where I was staying. I called his office and asked if I could interview him after his speech for a ‘Lion in Winter’-type’ feature. The reply came back agreeing as long as I bought a bottle of good scotch to the meeting. This was duly presented and mostly consumed during a convivial and successful evening.
I do not claim to have been his friend or even to know him well, but those who do — even those who actively disliked him — have with almost one voice expressed both incredulity at the accusations,  and suspicion at the way Wiltshire Police  and other police forces have jumped into the media on the basis of so little concrete evidence.
Who, for instance, is this “retired senior policeman” who claims that more than two decades ago the prosecution of a person accused of child sex abuse was halted by powerful political figures because that person threaten to expose Heath as a paedophile? Perhaps it is time for this former officer to leave his comfortable anonymity and have his claims tested under questioning.
The fact is that in the 1990s Sir Edward was neither powerful himself nor with friends of any great political influence. He was a lonely backbencher, ostracised by most of his own party for his constant criticisms of his successor, Margaret Thatcher. There would have been many people in authority at the time who would have rejoiced at this final disgrace.
Wiltshire Police then made the call for anyone who had been a victim of Heath’s misdeeds to come forward, and of course they did in legions — those who believe they have been wronged by the establishment and see a means of getting back; those who want their 15 minutes of fame and those who believe there might be a quid in it somewhere.
One newspaper ran the story of a 65-year-old man who claimed as a boy he had been picked up by a “toff” in August, 1961 who, three years later, he recognised from a newspaper picture as Heath. The man said he had been taken to Heath’s flat in Park Lane and had sex with him there.
Anyone who has read Heath’s very detailed autobiography The  Course of My Life, will realise that in that month he was out of the country  in the run-up to then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to join the Common Market . Anyway, Heath never had a flat in Park Lane.
Another astonishing accusation comes from a woman who says that when Heath gave an outing on his yacht, Morning Cloud, to some youths from  a boys’ home in the Channel Islands, she “counted 11 on and only 10 came off”. Perhaps the yacht’s crew, many of whom are still around, will give evidence that Sir Edward had sex with one of the boys and then dumped him over the side. Such nonsense should be treated with the contempt it deserves.   
It is true that Heath kept his personal life very much to himself, but a careful reading of The Course of My Life does provide some small chinks in the armour with which he surrounds this subject.  When at Oxford in the 1930s he speaks briefly of an idyllic summer’s day foursome spent with a fellow undergraduate and two women “who both lost their lives in the war”.
There are also indications of a female friend in the 1940s who he saw on occasions before and after he was demobbed following distinguished wartime service in the Royal Artillery. It was a hectic time for him as he sought to earn a living as a civilian while trying to find himself a suitable parliamentary seat in which to stand for the Conservatives in the 1950 election. 
He notes that the woman eventually wrote to him to say she was getting married. Reading between the lines it is obvious this dismayed him, but after a formal letter of congratulation he never got in touch again although “many years later I learnt that she had had a very happy marriage”.
He never married, and perhaps this makes him an easy target for the slurs against him. As a former Conservative MP, Michael Brown, stated in a newspaper article a few days ago: “In the current febrile atmosphere, when it seems to be automatically assumed that nearly every dead politician of his era was a paedophile, it is inevitable that these police inquiries must now take their inconclusive course.”
Dead men cannot defend themselves; dead men cannot sue for defamation. Even, as I believe, there is not a shred of credible evidence to link Sir Edward to these allegations; even if they are eventually revealed to be a tissue of fabrications, it will be for this that he is remembered, especially by those who did not live through his times.
Why now? Why has this surfaced more than a decade after his death? There is one explanation which disgusts me, but considering the levels to which the profession of politics has fallen, I must consider.
Before the end of 2017 a referendum is to take place on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. Polls have suggested a close outcome, but with those in favour of continued membership holding a slight lead.
How would it affect voting intentions if Sir Edward Heath, the passionate European, the architect of Britain’s membership, were to be disgraced?
Could it have come to this?  

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