That Haunting Look! Ted Heath
I first met Ted Heath, the son of a maid and a carpenter who later ran a small building business, the first ever state-educated Conservative leader, in 1963, when I worked for ATV.
With a colleague, I visited him at his flat in Piccadilly. The only thing that has remained with me was the grand piano in one corner and the soft lighting. We did not get very far with any discussion on European or British politics or a possible TV appearance. He had a lot on his mind.
Influenced by his WW2 experiences as a major in the Royal Artillery, he had seen the devastation of Liverpool and towns in France and Germany, which led him in the direction of a united Europe. In 1960, Premier Harold Macmillan gave him responsibility for the negotiations to secure the UK’s first attempt to join Europe, the Common Market.
After extensive negotiations, involving detailed agreements about the UK’s agricultural trade with Commonwealth countries, British entry was vetoed by the French President, Charles de Gaulle, in January 1963, much to Heath’s disappointment. As prime minister (1970-74), he oversaw a successful application taking the UK into Europe on 1 January 1973. He also worked for good relations with China.
The only other time I met Heath was many years later when, no longer leader of the Conservative Party, he came to give a lecture at Nottingham University. He was politely received but did not impress very much. Afterwards, as a senior member of the Department of Politics, I was invited to a small gathering for dinner. I was slightly embarrassed that he did not receive much attention.
As he rose to leave, looking rather tired, I helped him with his overcoat. Making conversation, but speaking sincerely, I said quietly, “Thank you, Mr. Heath, for all you’ve done for music and Europe!” The look he gave me I shall never forget. It was sad, thankful, grateful and more, all at the same time.
Only days later, to my great surprise, I received a phone call from his secretary who asked if I would accompany the former prime minister to the United States. After regaining my composure, I answered in the affirmative. It was only a short time later that I received another call from the same person. Sadly, the US tour had been cancelled because the American organisers had not done their arithmetic properly!
My ‘mistake’! Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts, was a shopkeeper who had left school at 13. He had a major influence in her childhood. She got to know much about local politics because he was on the Grantham Council during these years and was elected Mayor in 1945. He was determined that Margaret would receive the best education possible. She was educated at the local girls’ grammar school but also went with her father to adult education courses put on by Nottingham University in the 1930s.
Although he was Conservative and Methodist, he and Margaret read left-wing books on the courses they took. In fact, she is the only other person I have met who had read John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power, which I found being thrown out by a local Labour group many years later, by which time its author had moved well to the right of Labour. We also both read, among other books, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler and Douglas Hyde’s I Believed, given to me by a teacher who still thought Mussolini had much to commend him.
Margaret studied Chemistry at Oxford University from 1943-47, which was unusual, but gave her an advantage later when so many of her fellow MPs were ignorant of science. At Oxford she also kept up her political interests. She became president of the University Conservative Association. Considering Britain’s class ridden society at that time, these were extraordinary achievements in themselves.
In 1951, at 25 years old and already eyeing a position as an MP, Margaret Roberts married Denis Thatcher, a divorced WWII officer veteran and industrialist. Margaret had already begun studying for a degree in law in her spare time and she kept working relentlessly toward her future in the law even as a young mother. She was elected as MP for Finchley in 1959. She held junior posts before she entered the Cabinet as Education Secretary in 1970.The ‘Iron Lady’ was the first female British prime minister and the longest serving PM for over 150 years (1979 -1990).
I met Thatcher in 1989. My sponsor, former Guardian young businessman of the year, and a Nottingham graduate in German, responded immediately to my request for financial help to further my German politics research. He was drawn into financing an institute of German, Austrian and Swiss Affairs at Nottingham University.
He asked me who I wanted to open it – former Labour Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey, Margaret Thatcher or Prince Charles? Taken aback though I was, I concluded Charles was too involved with personal matters to be able to make the presence required. Denis Healey was fading and almost at the end of his career. Thatcher was PM and a world-wide personality.
Meanwhile, what was happening in East Germany? Local elections held on 7 May were regarded by many East Germans as fraudulent. Demonstrations demanding democratic rights were taking place in several towns. At Nottingham University Thatcher was well received and, no doubt helped by Foreign Office officials, gave a review of German achievements. This was followed by a tour of the building.
Alone with the PM, I expressed my doubts about the stability of the East German regime and the possibility of German re-unification. Margaret exploded! She made it clear she was against a united Germany and did not want it discussed at future events. I was written off as an ‘expert’ on German affairs and she was soon off to her next engagement.
She was wrong. Soon Germany was reunited and a little later, another remarkable woman, Angela Merkel, also a scientist, took over as Germany‘s first female Chancellor, serving from 2005 to 2021. I do believe her story was more remarkable than that of Margaret Thatcher.
The first woman PM died on 8 April 2013 at the Ritz hotel in London, after suffering a stroke. She received a ceremonial funeral including full military honours, with a church service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Shortly after Thatcher’s outburst, the Wall is open! East Berliners queue to go through the open to visit West Berlin.
Walter Ulbricht: there will be no wall
A fellow member of the NUJ, an editor for Peace News, asked me to write an article with a German theme. Though not a pacifist, I felt I could oblige. Using West German publications, I wrote an article about Admiral Helmut Heye’s dispute with the West German parliament. He was a career naval officer and was elected to parliament as a (moderate Conservative) Christian Democrat in 1953.
As Wehrbeauftragter (Defence Commissioner) of the new, NATO-allied West German armed forces, he was a channel for confidential communications from members of the armed forces. After several cases of reported abuse and the death of a conscript, Heye warned in his 1963 military report that the principle of internal leadership was not being implemented properly.
Disappointed with the lack of support from MPs, Heye went public, publishing his concerns in the magazine Quick. His actions triggered violent reactions in politics and the media, which was followed by Heye’s dismissal at his own request on 11 November 1964.
Shortly after my article was published, I received a letter from the Soviet sector of Berlin. It was from a woman who, impressed by my article, asked whether I knew about the activities of the Peace Council of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). She was, of course, an official of this Communist-dominated body. I answered the letter in a neutral way and to my surprise was invited, “to see for myself”, as a guest, how the “peace loving” GDR was building a new, peace-orientated, society.
I accepted the invitation and a short time later, in May, 1965, my wife and I landed in East Berlin where the woman, Renate Mielke, and her colleague, Kurt Hälker, greeted us. Both were leading members of the Peace Council.
Over the next few days, we were shown the GDR’s achievements, declined a visit to the Berlin Wall, and were introduced to various ‘fighters for peace’. Our most unexpected encounter was a private interview with Walter Ulbricht, leader of both party and state, at the Celebration of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
As it was a sudden invitation, I had to think quickly of questions. I asked about the multi-party elections, German unity and other usual themes. Ulbricht gave me the stock answers. When I was later asked about this man, always regarded as a stiff, robot-like person, I was able to answer, “He is very human. He only had eyes for my wife!”
Walter Ulbrichtwas born in 1893 and died in 1973. He became known for his remarks at a Berlin press conference on 15 June 1961: “Nobody has any intention of building a wall.” However, the Wall, a fortified concrete barrier across Berlin, was started on 13 August 1961 and was opened on 9 November 1989.
Over 140 individuals died trying to cross the Berlin Wall and many hundreds more the East-West frontier.
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