Friday, July 22, 2005

Floon! The whole thing collapsed

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Not as planned

Ted Heath was awkward to the last. This week I had intended to write about the tunnel collapse at Gerrards Cross, reporting a debate called by the local MP.

You may know the story. Struggling to find a site there, Tesco hit upon the idea of roofing over a railway cutting and building their new store on top of it. The council opposed the plan, but the office of the deputy prime minister waved it through.

A Tesco spokeswoman said brightly: “We can see no reason why the store should not be open by the summer.” Then a couple of weeks ago: Floon! The whole thing collapsed. The Almighty has more respect for local planning authorities than John Prescott does.

But when Ted Heath died this debate was shelved so that everyone could say nice things about him instead.

My clearest memory of Heath is his swansong. As father of the house he presided over the painful process that saw Michael Martin elected as the new speaker. Many people suggested saner methods, but he would not hear of them and so the day ground on.

You suspected that somewhere beneath that bovine stubbornness he was slyly enjoying himself. There were echoes of Charles Ryder’s father in Brideshead Revisited or of Evelyn Waugh himself.

Ted Heath’s heyday is now a foreign country. Union militancy, striking miners – working miners, come to that – and the three-day week. Commentators asked whether Britain was governable and retired colonels drilled private armies in case the balloon went up.

Heath’s claim to immortality as the man who took Britain into the Common Market must be seen in this light. He had distinguished himself in a European war and the argument that it must never happen again had real authority when he expressed it.

But for lesser figures it was the West German economic miracle that was the attraction. They hoped a little of its stardust would brush off on us and offer a way out of the mess of the early 1970s.

Now that miracle is tarnished and it is Britain that sees itself as the model to be followed. Yet you wonder how attractive an economy dominated by a few giant supermarkets appears to others. Which brings us back to Gerrards Cross.

No comments: