Mao, Saddam, and the tricky truth about Ted Heath

Sir Edward Heath would probably be pleased to know that he remains as divisive in death as in life.

Never backward in coming forward, the former prime minister bequeathed his house in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close to the nation. The house of only one other 20th century prime minister is open to the public, and that is Chartwell, home of Sir Winston Churchill.

Alas, the nation proved indifferent. When the house, Arundells, was opened to the public in 2008, it attracted just 14,500 visitors a year, compared to Chartwell’s 188,000.

Ted Heath at home at Arundells

Ted Heath at home at Arundells

For some reason, few people wanted to go round this grand house with its magnificent array of photographs of Heath shaking hands with foreign dignitaries, its selection of expensive Chinese vases given to Heath by grateful business contacts and its range of unremarkable artworks.

‘Ceiling spotlights focus on nothing worth looking at. Several tiers of watercolours of yachts on green seas,’ sniffed the aesthete James Lees-Milne when he was invited to the house by Heath.

His view of these artworks was perhaps eclipsed by the sight of Heath’s ‘enormous behind, bulging over baggy trousers’.

Faced with such a disappointing turnout, the trustees of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation have decided to cut their losses and sell up, thus releasing millions of pounds to suitable charities.

But others want to stop them. Enter that great contrarian Tony Benn, who has lent his support to The Friends of Arundells, a group dedicated to maintaining the house as a shrine to one of the 20th century’s least popular prime ministers.

‘I have given my support to this campaign because I know the house, I knew Ted, obviously, and visited him there after he retired from politics,’ says Benn.

As explanations go, this one seems unusually solipsistic, even for Tony Benn, implying that the chief reason for keeping it open is that Benn himself once paid it a visit.

In fact, Benn visited Arundells for precisely an hour and ten minutes on Tuesday, July 23, 2002.

In Benn’s diary entry for that day, he is suitably struck by its grandeur. ‘It is the most beautiful house. I don’t know if it belongs to the cathedral or to him, but it’s got a huge garden, perfectly kept, and the house itself is beautifully decorated, full of models of Morning Cloud and other boats, and his bust, and signed photographs of him with Clinton and Nixon and the Queen, etc.’ Amidst this gush, Benn unwittingly puts his finger on a key question. Did Arundells actually belong to Heath?

In Philip Ziegler’s authorised biography, it emerges that Heath bought a 21-year lease on the building from the Church of England, but, thanks to an inefficient estate agent, a clause was omitted that ensured the Church retained ownership. So in the mid-1990s, Heath managed to seize on a loophole, paying just £700,000 to buy the freehold outright.

The Dean and Chapter were aghast, but there was nothing they could do. They attempted to persuade Heath that though, in a strictly legal sense, the house was now his, the moral thing to do was to give it back to the Church at his death. But Heath refused to budge.

‘The dispute was exacerbated by Heath’s habit of gloating over the way in which he had put one over the Dean and Chapter and bought the freehold of Arundells against their wishes,’ writes Ziegler.

Wrong end of the stick? 'Seasoned campaigner against injustice' Tony Benn

Wrong end of the stick? 'Seasoned campaigner against injustice' Tony Benn

According to Ziegler, even his most stalwart friends considered Heath’s behaviour deplorable. His Cabinet colleague Jim Prior believed that ‘he was in honour bound to let Arundells return to the Church of England after his death’.

So it seems that both sides in the current dispute are in the wrong: Arundells should be neither sold nor kept, but returned to the Church of England.

Needless to say, Tony Burnside, the co-ordinator of the campaign to keep Arundells as a shrine to Heath, has welcomed Benn’s support. ‘Tony Benn is a seasoned campaigner against injustice,’ he says. ‘We are delighted that such an important public figure has decided to back the public’s wish to keep Arundells open.’

In his last volume of diaries, Tony Benn described Tariq Aziz as ‘a nice guy’, Gerry Adams as ‘immensely sensitive’; and Saddam Hussein as ‘very friendly’.

At the time, he described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as ‘a great setback’ and declared himself ‘a great admirer’ of Chairman Mao.

Whether this makes him ‘a seasoned campaginer against injustice’ is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. But it’s somehow strangely reassuring that, even at his great age, Tony Benn is still so adept at grasping the wrong end of so many sticks.

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