OBITUARY - Former premier Heath took Britain into Europe


By Nidal al-Mughrabi

LONDON (Reuters) - Edward Heath, who died on Sunday aged 89, shepherded Britain into Europe as prime minister but he will also be remembered for long years in the political wilderness, often bitterly critical of his successor Margaret Thatcher. 

Heath's enduring achievement as premier from 1970 to 1974 was to secure Britain's membership of the European Community in 1973, marking the country's break with the colonial era. 

But the move, in keeping with his lifelong commitment to the European ideal, was soon overshadowed at home as his government was overwhelmed by economic problems and trade union demands. 

Former British prime minister Edward Heath is seen in this April 29, 2002 file photo waving as he arrives at number 10 Downing Street in London. (REUTERS/Kieran Doherty)

After a showdown with striking coalminers that put British industry on a three-day work week, he called an election in February 1974 on the issue of "who rules" and lost. 

He then went down to defeat in another election in October that confirmed his Labour rival Harold Wilson as prime minister. 

Heath was ousted as leader of the Conservative party the following year by Thatcher, his one-time education secretary. 

His increasingly bitter feud with Thatcher over her 11-year rule was dubbed "the longest sulk in history". 

When she in turn was toppled by her party colleagues in 1990 Heath telephoned his secretary to exclaim: "Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice." 

Heath became Conservative leader in 1965, waiting five years for his election victory in 1970. He was knighted in 1992 and finally stood down from parliament in 2001. 

Heath was an awkward, prickly man with little gift for small talk. He never married but was passionate about music and frequently conducted orchestras as a skilled amateur. 

He also shone as a yachtsman, once winning the Sydney to Hobart ocean race skippering his boat Morning Cloud. 

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Born on July 9, 1916 to a carpenter and a housemaid in Broadstairs, a seaside resort in southeast England, Heath became an organ scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. 

His enduring and passionate interest in Europe dated back to the 1930s when he travelled to Spain during the Civil War and to Germany in 1937 and 1939, getting a close-up view of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg rallies. 

He said later that those travels and his experiences as an artillery officer in World War Two inspired his lifelong ambition to help build a peaceful and united Europe. 

Leading Conservatives demanded his expulsion in 1989 after he accused Thatcher of patronising, self-serving hypocrisy and called her attitude towards the European Union and full integration with the rest of Western Europe "rubbish". 

His mission in October 1990 to negotiate with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein on the release of sick and elderly British hostages after Saddam invaded Kuwait was yet another irritant for Thatcher supporters. 

He was criticised for lending respectability to Saddam by flying to Baghdad, but he justified the trip by securing the release of more than 30 Britons being held hostage. 

Heath continued to be a thorn in the side of Thatcher's successor, John Major, sniping at his efforts to appease right-wing Eurosceptics. 

In the years after his replacement as party leader, he pursued his interest in music, conducting orchestras in Britain and in Europe. "I can't live without music," he said. 

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