Edward Heath, the son of a builder, was born in Broadstairs on 9th July, 1916. He studied at Balliol College, Oxford where he was influenced by the political and religious ideas of A. D. Lindsay and William Temple. In 1937 Heath became president of the Oxford Conservative Association.
In 1938 he went with three other undergraduates to observe the Spanish Civil War. He met leaders of the Popular Front government and on his return he campaigned against General Francisco Franco and the Nationalist Army.
As well as being in favour of intervention in Spain Heath was a strong opponent of the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain. Although a member of the Conservative Party, Heath supported his university tutor, A. D. Lindsay, the anti-appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election in October, 1938. The following year he was elected as president of the Oxford Union.
Heath was called up to the British Army in August, 1940. After receiving training at Storrington in Sussex, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in March 1941 and was posted to the 107 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment based in Chester.
Following the D-Day landings, Heath's regiment arrived in France on 6th July, 1944. Over the next few months he was involved in heavy fighting in Belgium, Netherlands and Germany. He also took part in Operation Veritable, the action to capture the land between the rivers of the Rhine and the Maas. As a result of this action he was awarded the military MBE and was mentioned in dispatches. Heath remained in Germany after the war and attended the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.
A member of the Conservative Party, Heath worked as news editor of the Church Times. In 1948 he went to work for the finance house of Brown, Shipley and Company. In the 1950 General Election Heath won Bexley with a majority of 133. A committed European, Heath made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 26th June in favour of the Schuman Plan. He ended his speech with the words: "It was said long ago in the House that magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom. I appeal tonight to the government to follow that dictum, and to go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to coordinate it in the way suggested.
Heath showed that he was on the left of the party with an article in the seminal Conservative pamphlet, One Nation (1950). However, after being appointed as deputy chief whip in 1953 he had to remain silent in the House of Commons.
In 1955 Anthony Eden appointed Heath as his Chief Whip and had the task of persuading Conservative MPs to support the government during the Suez Crisis. Later he served as Minister of Labour (1959-60) under Harold Macmillan.
As Lord Privy Seal he led the British team negotiating entry into the Common Market. A passionate European he was devastated when Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry in 1963. In the Alec Douglas-Home administration Heath was President of the Board of Trade.
The Labour Party won the 1964 General Election and the following year Heath defeated Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling to become leader of the Conservative Party. In 1965 Heath supported attempts by Harold Wilson to bring down the white minority regime in in Rhodesia. This upset Conservatives on the right and Heath had to deal with a rebellion led by Lord Salisbury.
Heath lost the 1966 General Election to Harold Wilson. In 1968 Wilson's popularity slumped after Enoch Powell made his "rivers of blood" speech on immigration. Instead of supporting the use of the race issue to gain favour with the British electorate, Heath sacked Powell as a member of the shadow cabinet.
The Conservative Party won the 1970 General Election with a majority of 30 seats. Heath now became prime minister and immediately made the third British application to join the European Economic Community (ECC). On 28th October, 1971, the House of Commons voted with a 112 majority to go into Europe. However, many in his party was unhappy with this policy and it created deep divisions that lasted for over thirty years.
Heath also followed a policy of supporting British industry. In 1971 Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy and received considerable funds from the government. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was also bailed out when it got into economic difficulties.
Heath came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
In January 1975 Margaret Thatcher challenged Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party. On 4th February Thatcher defeated Heath by 130 votes to 119 and became the first woman leader of a major political party. Heath took the defeat badly and refused to serve in Thatcher's shadow cabinet. He considered Thatcher to be a right-wing authoritarian and like another former Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, Heath constantly criticized her policies.
Heath remained in the House of Commons as a backbencher. However, during this period he became an important international statesman and was one of the key members of the Brandt Commission into North/South problems (1977-80), and for several years thereafter was one of the Third World’s most moving advocates. Heath joined the House of Lords in 2001.
Sir Edward Heath died of pneumonia on 17th July, 2005.