For any political historian (of which I enthusiastically count myself as one), BBC Four's documentary this week on the titanic duel at the centre of British politics between 1965-1975 was a 'must watch' event.
Hearing the accounts of the main players close to both Heath and Wilson at this time, mixed in with the excellent array of political archive footage and the music of the period, brought alive this pivotal period in our history which at its end, began to see the break-down of the consesual style of politics that had marked British political life post-1945.
It can be viewed for the next few days on BBC iPlayer, right here.
Heath, Wilson and I
My University dissertations centred around this period of political history so my views come from much detailed research into a period in which I did not live at first-hand.
My BA dissertation centred around the 1963 Conservative Party leadership crisis and I proudly gathered a First for my efforts (and a 2:1 degree in all). Ted Heath played a minor role in this work whilst Harold Wilson meanwhile, played a central role in my MA dissertation effort which concentrated on the Labour Party's attitude towards Europe between 1964-1983. Admittedly, my effort here was much for the worse of having began gainful employment and I was fortunate to have scraped a 40% pass which also went for my Masters as a whole.
Through these studies, I formed a rather low opinion of Harold Wilson who I've never held in high esteem. For me, his brand of 'personality over politics' marked him out as an early day version of Tony Blair. Much of the credit for the good that came from his time at No.10 (particularly between 1964-1970) I feel belongs to his his Home Secretary and latterly Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins.
Ted Heath meanwhile is a bewilderingly complex character to try and decipher. He certainly lacked Wilson's charisma and common touch and yet he did seem to have a deeper grasp of what he was all about. His singular greatest achievement and one for which I am thankful, was his success in getting Britain into the European Community in the early 1970s.
My E-mail to Ted Heath
It was my admiration for his ability in this arena, if none else, that enticed this young and politically keen though rather green and naïve young 18 year old to send a personal e-mail to him back in 2001.
I was a first year student in Aberystwyth University and I recall sitting in the Pantycelyn Halls of Residence computer room, prior to the 2001 General Election, sending a handful of electronic messages out to politicians both local and national, asking questions to them on various issues. I was only beginning to become politically active (indeed, I only joined the Liberal Democrats the autumn previous and my total effort in the 2001 campaign was to deliver one leaflet for the party around Pantycelyn!) and I was keen to communicate my various political interests to these different politicians.
Specifically, I recall sending an e-mail out to Alec Dauncey who is an Aberystwyth Town Councillor who at that time was standing as the Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire where my parents moved back to from south Pembrokeshire in 1999. He had the good grace to reply to my e-mail and we have struck up a good friendship ever since.
I also decided to e-mail Ted Heath. For it was now 2001 and he was retiring from Parliament having been an MP for a remarkable 51 years since the General Election of 1950. I haven't got the text of that e-mail that I sent a decade ago but if I recall correctly, it was in the spirit of grateful thanks for the work that he did with Europe. I also recall rather cheekily asking him, (particularly as the Conservatives were struggling against a popular Tony Blair and New Labour project at the time) why he remained a Conservative and wasn't now alligned with the more moderate and internationalist Liberal Democrats. I must've been in a slightly provocative mood at the time but suffice to say, I never received a reply - which was a great shame!
My sentiments on both Wilson and Heath were summed up neatly at the end of the BBC Four documentary by Lord Donoughue who was Harold Wilson's senior policy advisor between 1974-1976 and remained in that role under Jim Callaghan until his defeat to Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
He therefore had a greater insight into the mind of Harold Wilson than many and yet his startling comment, for one with Labour links, of Wilson was this...
"He wasn't a revolutionary and he wasn't very radical. Ted Heath was much more radical than Harold Willson".
I rest my case.