Published: 06:00, 14 June 2021
In the latest in our alternative history features, we ask what if Kent's Edward Heath hadn't risen to the top?
One of the major political figures of the 1960s and '70s, the Tory was prime minister for four tumultuous years, but the University of Kent's Professor Richard Whitman looks at what may have happened if he'd never been elected to lead the Conservatives?
If Ted Heath had not been elected as Conservative Party leader in 1965 the UK might not have joined what later became the European Union.
He was was the first Tory leader to be chosen by a vote of the party’s MPs.
Previous leaders had emerged through decisions taken in smoke-filled rooms.
If Heath’s main contender – and frontrunner for the party leadership – Reginald Maudling (then Shadow Foreign Secretary) had been elected to head the party, it might have taken a different direction.
Unlike Heath, who was strongly committed to European Economic Community (EEC) membership, Maudling was seen to be much cooler on the idea of joining.
Maudling who, as President of the Board of Trade, had overseen the promotion of a UK proposal for a large free trade area for 17 European countries, a much larger project than the six member EEC, and also led the negotiations for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), a UK-created competitor organisation to the EEC, created in 1959.
He was receptive to concerns about the impact of EEC membership on the trading relationship with the Commonwealth and on British agriculture.
The Conservatives faced a significant political challenge in unseating the Labour Party from government in the 1966 General Election.
This was a snap poll called by Prime Minister Harold Wilson as Labour only had a two-seat majority in Parliament.
Maudling was the better-known politician than Heath, and had previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
He conveyed a sense of competence and reassurance. Consequently he may have reduced the size of what turned out to be a landslide election for Labour on March 31, 1966 when Wilson defeated Heath convincingly.
More importantly his opposition to EEC membership would have given the Conservative Party a different policy from that pursued by Heath as leader of the opposition from 1966-1970.
As Maudling was much less driven than Heath on the membership issue, an alternative approach to Europe could have been taken under his leadership.
As importantly it would have forced Wilson, ever the politician to give precedence to tactics over policies, to pursue a more ambiguous policy on EEC membership.
The Labour Party was divided especially after De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s application again in 1967.
A Conservative government elected in the 1970 General Election headed by Maudling could have dropped any third application to join the EEC.
In real life, Maudling was to serve as Home Secretary in the Health-led government elected in 1970. He resigned in 1972 as the result of his close association with the business activities of John Poulson, the subject of police investigations for fraud.
Maudling was then the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry where his actions were heavily criticised. Heath was to lead the UK into membership of the EEC the following year.
He was deposed as party leader in 1975 by Margaret Thatcher – by the same leadership election process that had brought him to power.
He was to remain a strong supporter of the UK’s membership of the EU and a frequent critic of the Europe policy of his successor. He was an MP until 2001 and died in 2005.
Who was Ted Heath?
Sir Edward Richard George Heath was born on July 9, 1916 in Broadstairs.
Despite relatively humble beginnings, he went to Oxford University, where he was elected president of its Conservative Association in 1937.
During the Second World War, he served in the British Army before working for the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 1946-47.
He was elected to parliament in the Bexley seat at the February 1950 election.
In October 1963 he became secretary of state for industry and president of the Board of Trade.
After the Tories' defeat in October 1964, Heath became a major player.
After Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s resignation, Heath was elected leader of the opposition in July 1965.
Although his party suffered defeat in the March 1966 general election, it won victory in June 1970, defeating the Labour Party of Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
His time as prime minster was dogged by industrial strife, increasing tensions in Northern Ireland and Britain's entry into the then ECC, which later became the European Union.
After Wilson returned to power in 1974, Heath continued as Tory leader until he was replaced by Margaret Thatcher in 1975.
He died at his home in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2005.
In previous weeks, we have asked what if Thomas Becket had lived? What if the Battle of Britain had been lost? What if the Romans had never arrived in Kent? And what if Anne Boleyn had survived Henry VIII?
Professor Richard Whitman is from the University of Kent's School of Politics and International Relations.