Opinion: Heath lacked advice to gain common touch

My favourite political slogan is one I saw scribbled with a wet finger on the back of a dirty lorry. It was 1974, during the three-day week and the miners' strike. 'Vote for Ted and stay in bed,' some wag had written. The country decided against taking this advice and so ended the premiership of Edward Heath, who sadly passed away earlier this week.

Baroness Thatcher's statement that he was a 'political giant' was probably a little over the top; perhaps she was trying to make up for the fact that they had been bitter enemies for so many years. Tony Blair's slightly more measured view, that he was 'a leader of great stature' is nearer the mark.

Heath was supposed to be the man who 'broke the mould' of Tory leaders because he was a humble grammar school boy, but in an age when political spin was in its infancy, this did little to help his cause.

Although by all accounts he was an engaging man in private, Prime Minister Heath had a big problem in relating to the public and certainly lacked Harold Wilson's 'common touch'. The Labour leader was light years ahead of Heath when it came to PR. The pipe was of course just a prop and he knew how his image could be enhanced by rubbing shoulders with people such as The Beatles.

The contrast with Heath, who loved playing the piano, conducting orchestras and sailing, could not have been starker. You could never imagine Heath going to watch football at Huddersfield Town or mixing with pop stars.

His first taste of defeat as prime minister came from his fight with the Upper Clyde ship workers. It was their union leaders' brilliant PR strategy that secured victory: not for them a 'strike' but a 'work-in' and a sustained public campaign to save the yards. Heath's 'lame duck' policy was left floundering by the Glasgow shop stewards, one of whom, Jimmy Airlie, taught me the tricks of the trade.

What the shipyard workers started, the miners finished. The National Union of Miners was then a very different beast from the one led by Arthur Scargill a decade later.

Its leaders knew there was huge sympathy for their wage claims and didn't make the PR blunders that Scargill did later.

The three-day week, SOS (switch off something, or 'sod off sailor' as it became known), was designed to make the crisis worse and force the public to vote for Heath to end it. Instead they ended Heath's tenure in office.

Despite all this, he did leave a legacy. Ted Heath took Britain into Europe. How Tony Blair would love such a legacy, rather than being the PM who led us to war.

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