Sympathy for the Deviant

The re-appearance of a 1995 interview with former government whip Tim Fortescue has coincided with me reaching chapter eighteen of Philip Ziegler's brilliant biography of Edward Heath, bought for me as a thankyou gift from a student's father.  Fortescue, who served as a senior whip in Heath's government, claims that whips were able to use their knowledge of MPs' private lives (particularly as they applied to them interfering with 'young boys') to influence and control them.  This is hardly a revelation, as the power of senior whips is common knowledge - it is hardly surprising that Francis Urquhart began the 'House of Cards' trilogy as a Chief Whip - but the more interesting aspect to this episode is the role of Heath himself.

Heath served as Chief Whip in the Eden and Macmillan governments, prior to becoming Leader of the Opposition, and later, Prime Minister.  According to The Daily Mail, kept a 'dirt book' of details concerning MPs' private lives which could be used against them.  One might conclude that such a political apprenticeship would prove quite useful for a Prime Minister when controlling his party, but it seems truly terrifying that Heath might have been responsible for constructing a highly sophisticated system of ensuring political leverage which might have been utilised not only during his tenure as Prime Minister, but also by subsequent administrations.

Ziegler has little to say on this matter: Fortescue is not mentioned once throughout his 600-page tome, nor is there any reference to a 'dirt book'.  On page 94, it is noted that 'Heath constantly had to enquire into the private affairs of one person or another and usually found the task distasteful'.  The only passage which refers to Heath's handling of members' sexual exploits arrives on page 95, where, perhaps with an unintentional sinister silkiness, it is noted that 'Heath always found it hard to understand or condone the sexual misdemeanours of others but in most cases he did his best to be sympathetic'.  One can only hope that Heath was not quite as forgiving of his colleagues as his biographer might have been of his subject in his otherwise excellent and punctilious biography.

James O.