On 10 June 1989, the former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, appeared on Channel 4's late-night political discussion programme, After Dark
, to debate whether Britain was 'out on a limb' with just five days to go until Europe went to the polls in the third round of direct elections to the European Parliament.
– which took the form of an open-ended discussion, beginning at midnight and often running into the early hours, and covering topics as diverse as official secrets, euthanasia, freemasonry, sex, Winston Churchill, and the Yorkshire Ripper – was designed to counter what Sidney Bernstein, the legendary founder of Granada Television, described as the 'worst words ever uttered on TV: I'm sorry, that's all we have time for…
In a 'bad-tempered' conversation, Mr Heath – as he then was before becoming a Knight of the Garter in April 1992 – denounced rumours that he was about to be expelled from the Conservative Party and clashed with Richard Perle (the Assistant Secretary of Defence for Global Strategic Affairs in Ronald Reagan's administration) and the journalist and academic, Josef Joffe, about the future of European integration.
In addition to marking the first time that a former Prime Minister had appeared on what The Times'
Chris Peachment dubbed 'the sexiest show of the week', this episode of After Dark
also brought Heath into contact with Shirley Williams – who had recently moved to the United States to take up a professorship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government – and the actor, writer, and UNICEF Ambassador, Peter Ustinov CBE.
Unbeknown to all except the keenest-eyed viewer, Heath and Ustinov – who agreed that the European Community was already a cohesive social, cultural, and political union – were already firm friends, with Ustinov regularly visiting the former Prime Minister's palatial home in Salisbury's Cathedral Close, which he had bought five years before the two men met in Channel 4's London studios on Charlotte Street, at the foot of the BT Tower.
Throughout his long and diverse political career, there existed a persistent caricature of Edward Heath as cantankerous and painfully rude. An artistic bachelor whose ego was almost as sizeable as his ever-expanding girth, possessing the 'tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority' which Herbert Asquith once said characterised his fellow graduates of Balliol College, Oxford. In October 1967, an episode of Panorama
noted that he possessed a deep shyness and aversion to glad-handing, describing his public and political persona as like that of a 'sensitive man in a butcher's shop'.
However, the former premier's friends recall an enduring warmth and good-humour that was all-too-often hidden from the voting public, although, as one of his private secretaries once confided in Michael Cockerell, Heath's rudeness to colleagues and fellow parliamentarians was typically a sign of his affection. Whilst Heath's reputation at Westminster was coloured by what Andy McSmith once described as his 'rudeness, egoism and relentless capacity for nursing a grievance over an imagined insult', Douglas Hurd argued that Heath was one of the most formidable figures of post-war politics, who would abstain from 'flying high into fancy or sinking deep into muckraking'.
Edward Heath's autobiography, The Course of My Life
(a mammoth memoir, which finally appeared in 1998 after almost a decade of procrastination) concludes with a touching acknowledgement of the 'boundless dedication of many personal friends' and, whilst Stephen Fry's predecessor as Britain's resident Renaissance man, does not receive a mention in its almost 800 pages, Ustinov and Heath were brought together by a deep and lasting love of fine dining, conducting, opera, priceless artwork, and sailing.
In the polymath's autobiography, Dear Me
, first published in 1977, Ustinov penned a warm salute to the former Prime Minister, noting that he admired Heath 'not for his politics, with which I have always been in some disagreement (except for his championship of Europe…) but for his passions'. As I wrote in Scottish Review
on 26 January 2022
, these rich and varied private passions are now best displayed at his beloved Grade II*-listed home, Arundells, which is overseen by a charitable foundation and opens to the public from March to November.
Heath's irascibility has, understandably if not entirely fairly I think, coloured popular perceptions of this intriguing, often frustrating, but perversely likeable old curmudgeon. Ustinov – who was five years younger than the long-serving MP but died just over a year before him – remained one of Heath's most devoted defenders. In Dear Me
, Ustinov noted that his friend was a man of 'extraordinary courage and grip of abstractions', and asserted that Heath had been a 'consistent victim of that miserable prejudice which believes that a Prime Minister should be a person without visible talent; that talent in high places is tantamount to a lapse of taste'.
Although most historians will rightly see Heath and Ustinov's friendship as little more than an interesting historical titbit, the two also shared a passionate commitment to European integration, with both possessing a cosmopolitan collection of friends and drawing lifelong inspiration from the devastation of an entire continent that they witnessed during service in the Second World War.
Both believed that, as the 1971 United Kingdom and the European Communities White Paper said, 'there is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest'.
Both strenuously maintained that greater European solidarity was a noble and humanist cause, with Heath eloquently writing that a 'united, peaceful, and prosperous Europe is demonstrably more than the sum of its historically fissiparous parts'.
In addition to being prominent advocates of the European cause, Heath and Ustinov also personally identified with our continental cousins with a depth of feeling that many of their compatriots did not throughout Britain's membership of the Community. Deutsche Welle noted in 2004 that Sir Peter was the world's 'first global citizen', being the only son of a French-Russian artist and a German-Russian journalist, possessing German and English passports, and being fluent in six languages.
Likewise, despite what Yehudi Menuhin called Heath's very 'English loves of nature, the wind, the sea, and the land', Sir Edward was also emotionally European. Even the invitations to his 80th birthday party at The Savoy in July 1996 show the rotund former premier steering the sailing dinghy of state, adorned with the European Flag, on a sea of musical notes, as penned by the legendary Telegraph
cartoonist, Nicholas Garland.
Whilst the 50th anniversary of the United Kingdom's entry to the European Economic Community next January will inevitably see the revival of the Leave-Remain animosity that soured our national conversation for five years before the Covid-19 pandemic, Heath and Ustinov's example demonstrates how our increasing rudderless politics is lacking a 'Grand Project'. During An Audience with Peter Ustinov
(which was released as a belated Christmas TV special a year before the two men met on After Dark
), Heath told Ustinov that 'you abandon dogma and put humanity in its place', which would surely be as good a place to start as any.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly