I am an unlikely defender of Edward Heath. He’s up there in my list of worst British Prime Ministers of all time. Heath was certainly, consequential though. Britain’s entry into the EEC, the forerunner of the European Union, was an epoch-defining moment of huge historical significance. Britain abandoned its traditional policy in Europe, cemented by Henry VIII in England’s break from Rome, in which the Brits intervened when the balance of power or British interests were under threat. Heath changed it all. The UK parliament became subordinate to external authority and some people will forever blame him.
Yet even as a critic of the grumpiest man in European politics, I find myself appalled by some of the media coverage of allegations made against him in recent days. A suggestion that the police abandoned an investigation into him decades ago is the excuse for page after page of coverage.
The BBC on its bulletins also reported that “police are investigating Ted Heath.” Ted’s dead. How can he be investigated other than by historians?
But no. This is how Britain works now. A lurid accusation is made against a dead public figure who cannot defend himself. Assorted show-off MPs go straight to the studios to give interviews about the victims, chucking in assorted words designed to make it seem as though they have proof, the cops announce they are investigating (they are terrified of any suggestion they don’t jump to it as it might or might not be another Jimmy Savile), the lawyers set the meter running, and my profession – journalism – gets to work.
Some of the stuff published on Heath in the last 24 hours or so is shameful. There are even references to his love of sailing, and plenty of nudge, nudge, wink, wink chicanery because, well, every nice boy loves a sailor, know what I mean? Have we been transported in a time machine back to 1978?
It is perfectly possible that Heath was gay. So what? Whose business is it? If you do think it matters, his biographers and friends seem convinced that he was either asexual or a repressed homosexual who sublimated his desires and devoted himself to career. Again, so what?
I stress that there is no doubt Britain suffered a particular child abuse problem in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, and the authorities failed in numerous ways. For those who suffered, the damage done must have been enormous. All of this deserves examination and where appropriate investigation, as long as it is undertaken calmly with an understanding that an allegation is not proof of guilt.
It is not ever likely to be solved by endless shouting on the television. After the war, Britain had all manner of other problems too – racism, discrimination – as it struggled to adapt in era of dramatic social change. Conservatives were sometimes too slow to respond to shifting reality and liberals were often naive and even malicious in their let it all hang out approach. The post-war period is, like most tumultous periods, a complex mess and if anyone tells you they have a theory of everything that explains motives, morality and money in that maelstrom, treat them with scepticism.
Although nuance is rarely in fashion in human history, in recent years our public culture does seem to have become steadily more hysterical and wildly unthinking. Perhaps it is the existence of the Internet and the way it speeds up life, making people shout louder, that has driven the media madness.
The impact on the police is terrifying. They now seem to worry as much about public relations as they do policing. Look at the gang of coppers, one with a battering ram, that raided Lord Sewel’s flat days after a tabloid sting. Was that really a sensible use of scarce police resources, to target a sad old peer who has blown up his career snorting drugs and wearing a bra?
The police are spurred on by parts of what was Fleet Street. Elements of it are becoming ever more censorious, angry and desperate to be heard, as the online world destroys or transforms the media’s business models.
One result of these troubling developments is that Ted Heath – who served his country during the Second World War, who was Prime Minister, and about whom never a scrap of proof that he was a molester of children has ever appeared – is metaphorically dug up so he can be kicked to death (again) by the police, publicity junkie MPs, opportunistic lawyers and bored hacks looking for something to do in August.
As so often, the comic genius Chris Morris predicted the future. The man behind the spoof news show the Day Today was also responsible for the Brass Eye special on media panic over paedophilia. Google it. It’s not meant to be a documentary, but viewed now it might as well be.