Amid the ‘tributes’ showered on the late Sir Edward Heath earlier this week, there was, inevitably for a man who upset so many people, the occasional reference to his most catastrophic service to his country: his decision to take us into what is now called the European Union. It was said, fairly, that Heath was not straight with the British people about this. The 1970 Conservative manifesto promised to negotiate about our possible entry; but entry took place without any further reference to the people. In a similarly secret way he effectively abolished our fishing industry and made a commitment — happily unfulfilled — to take us into a single European currency. Yet, as was said in many of the obituaries, Heath was a man of integrity. He had a set of principles and always lived by them — and spoke up for them when they were under attack. For all his high-handedness, it is hard to prove Heath ever actually lied in his public life. He was just, to quote his private secretary Lord Armstrong in another context, ‘economical with the truth’. This modus operandi marked out the Grocer as the missing link between the old-school politics of Churchill’s generation, where all was above board, and the brothel politics of Tony Blair’s Britain, where no store is set by the truth at all.
Should you consider this an exaggeration, note the exchange in the High Court last week between the Rt Hon. Stephen Byers MP, one of Mr Blair’s leading acolytes, and Mr Keith Rowley QC, who represents Railtrack’s shareholders. Mr Byers admitted that when, as transport secretary, he told a Commons select committee that he was ‘not aware’ of discussions over a change to the status of Railtrack before 25 July 2001, it was ‘not an accurate statement’. Mr Rowley then asked Mr Byers if he had deliberately made an inaccurate statement — that is, ‘lied’.