Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads

Edward Heath

Edward Heath

Sir Edward Heath was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 until 1974. His Conservative government represented a shift in British politics with the end of the post-war consensus but has been harshly criticised for its U-turn on its initial policies.

What was this U-turn? What problems did Edward Heath face, and what is his legacy?

Post-war consensus

The general alignment of the main political parties on major issues from 1945 until the 1970s

Edward Heath Prime minister Edward Heath StudySmarterSir Edward Heath. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Edward Heath as Prime Minister

Heath was elected Prime Minister in 1970 with a Conservative majority of 30 seats.

Heath won the election based on:

  • Effective campaigning
  • Internal divisions in the Labour party
  • Wilson's inability to resolve trade union disputes or explain Labour's economic policies

Heath wanted to end the post-war consensus of state intervention and reduce the role of government, promising to be tough on pay, tough on unions, and prioritise full employment.

However, Heath was faced with the end of the post-war boom which led to an economic and political crisis.

Post-war boom

Period of widespread global economic expansion beginning in 1951 and ending circa 1973 with an economic recession

The New Right

With the election of Edward Heath's government, the UK saw the rise of the 'New Right'. This faction of the Conservative Party directly challenged One Nation Conservatism.

One Nation ConservatismNew Right
  • Supports more government control of economics and society
  • Wants to preserve traditional principles and institutions
  • Includes measures to help ordinary people
  • Argues that the privileged should help those less fortunate
  • Supports removing economic restrictions (deregulation) and transferring services and industries from public to private control (privatisation)
  • Wants to lower direct taxation but raise indirect taxation
  • Aims to reduce the size of the welfare state

Welfare State

A system in which the state plays a key role in protecting the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens

Heath's government argued that people should represent their own interests and that the government should not intervene in the economy.

Labour's criticisms

According to the Labour opposition, the Heath government and the New Right undermined the welfare state and neglected social improvements in favour of economic prosperity.

Margaret Thatcher, Heath's education minister, withdrew free milk for school children aged 7 to 11.

Income tax cuts benefited the wealthy, allowing them to live comfortably at the expense of the poor.

Heath's government cut government spending, which caused council tax rents to rise.

The Selsdon man

Heath was branded a 'Selsdon man'. This name came from a Conservative party conference in January 1970 at Selsdon Park, in which the core ideology of the 'New Right' was formed.

Harold Wilson criticised the 'New Right' and 'Selsdon Man', saying that the ideology was ruthless and uncaring.

Edward Heath's Policies

Let's look at exactly what Heath did during his time as Prime Minister.

Government policies

Heath made changes to local government through Local Government Acts in 1972 and 1973, which attempted to reform their structure.

However, some of these measures resulted in the destruction of historical monuments, the creation of new regions, and the merger of many towns and names. This led to protests as many citizens saw this as an attack on local identity.

Welfare policies

Changes were also made to the welfare state. These included:

  • Benefit contributions were raised for certain services - this was particularly unpopular.
  • The Family Income Supplement was introduced as a child benefit for low-income families.
  • Funding went towards supporting disabled children and adults.
  • The School leaving age was raised to 16.

Economic policies

Heath aimed to make the UK an example of a modern economy, reduce unemployment and tackle the rise in prices. Despite his planning, he encountered serious challenges that prevented his plans from being realised.

What initial problems did Heath face?

  • Iain Macleod, his first choice for Chancellor, died suddenly in 1970. Anthony Barber succeeded Macleod and was less enthusiastic about Heath's modernisation plans.
  • The economy ran into serious difficulties in 1971.
  • High unemployment soon led to 'stagflation' as inflation continued to rise while the economy failed to grow.
  • Inflation had risen to 15% by the end of 1971, and industrial output had declined.


High unemployment combined with high inflation and a stagnant economy

The Barber Boom

In response to these issues, Chancellor Anthony Barber attempted experimental policies that led to a short-lived economic expansion - this became known as the Barber Boom. It involved policies such as lowering income tax by £1 billion as well as giving tax concessions to industries in an attempt to help workers retain their jobs.

However, this boom led to a rapid rise in wage inflation and confrontation with labour unions.

Eventually, only 15 months after the start of the Barber Boom, Barber was forced to implement a series of deflationary measures.

Edward Heath A photograph of Anthony Barber StudySmarterAnthony Barber, Chancellor under Edward Heath. Image via Wikipedia.

Heath's U-turn

In 1972 Heath declared that the government would return back to controlling prices and incomes to combat inflation. Heath's government reverted to many of the policies of the post-war consensus, bringing an end to the New Right's plan to liberalise the market and reduce government intervention in economic affairs.

When Edward Heath first became Prime Minister, his government took a firm stance against bailing out businesses. Yet, just a few months after Heath took office, the government had to bail out Rolls Royce, a key UK company. Rolls Royce was the first of many private companies that Heath's government subsidised.

What was the impact of the U-turn?

  • Heath lost a lot of party support from those who favoured New Right policies, particularly from future party leader Margaret Thatcher.
  • Labour used the U-turn to show the failure of Conservative policy and ideology.

1973 oil crisis

In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States for its role in helping resupply Israel's military in the Arab-Israeli/Yom Kippur War. This began the 1973 oil crisis, leading several nations, including the UK, to fall into an economic crisis.

Oil prices increased from $2 to $35 per barrel, with the prices of many other oil-related products like plastics also increasing. The oil crisis exacerbated the nation's economic problems and was a major reason Heath could not continue with New Right policies.

Industrial Relations

Edward Heath is best remembered for the controversy with trade unions over the Industrial Relations Act of 1971. What did this do?

  • It restricted workers' rights to strike by introducing a policy of 'unfair industrial practice'.
  • This introduced a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC), which had the right to decide whether a strike was legal or illegal.
  • All unions were also required to register with the government in order to retain their rights legally.

This act failed as soon as it was passed. The Trade Union Commission (TUC) refused to cooperate, which resulted in no unions registering with the government. This made the act impossible to enforce, and Heath and his government looked weak and incompetent.

Heath attempted to bargain with unions, but many rejected cooperation due to the Industrial Relations Act. From 1971 onwards, Heath faced continual strike action, which further damaged his reputation as a leader.

Trade union unrest

The National Union of Miners (NUM) called for a strike in 1972 to protest the closure of several mines as well as to demand wage increases.

It caused serious disruption to fuel and electricity supplies, and industrial productivity. Although Heath's government imposed strict fuel restrictions, they did not win the strike.

Edward Heath Miners Strike NUM Flying Pickets StudySmarterNational Union of Miners (NUM) Flying Pickets. Image via Wikimedia Commons



Due to the severe lack of fuel, in December 1973 Heath announced that most commercial and industrial establishments would only be allowed to use electricity three days a week.

Across the country, there were power outages, and many citizens were forced to sit by candlelight, unable to perform many of their daily tasks.

When a settlement was reached, the NUM got a 21% pay raise, which was almost three times higher than what the government had originally offered. This was a huge failure for Heath.

Who governs Britain?

In early 1974, the NUM called another strike, prompting Heath to call a general election. Heath hoped that this election would favour the Conservatives and restore the balance of power between the government and the miners. Heath's campaign was famous for the phrase 'Who governs Britain: the government or the miners?'

It ended in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives losing 28 seats. Heath eventually resigned after refusing to agree to a coalition.

Foreign policy of Edward Heath's Government

Edward Health's government dealt with two major areas of foreign policy: Europe and Northern Ireland.

Joining the EEC

In 1957, the European Economic Community was formed to establish a free trade area between member states. Britain had been trying to join the EEC since 1961 but had not been successful, largely due to the influence of the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was sceptical about Britain being allowed into the EEC.

The UK finally became a member in 1973, during Heath's office, after De Gaulle retired.

Advantages and disadvantages of joining the EEC

Advantages Disadvantages
Britain would stand a better chance of attracting foreign investment that would help boost the economy. Britain was forced to give up its relationship with the Commonwealth, meaning it could no longer buy cheap food and goods from these countries.
British regions would be entitled to European development grants.Britain had to pay high contributions to the EEC, yet it did not get that money back in grants.
British workers would be able to easily work in other EEC countries.The UK was required to charge VAT on imported products - this meant prices rose.
Workers from EEC countries would be able to work in Britain, helping to stimulate the economy.The EEC limited Britain's rights to fish in its own waters.
The EEC was, essentially, a protectionist organisation when the world was entering an era of globalisation.

Heath had hoped that joining the EEC would benefit the British economy. However, there were several disadvantages to joining the EEC, and the international oil crisis of 1973 had a devastating effect on the world economy.

Heath's decision to join the EEC has been much debated. Some historians believe Heath rushed into an agreement that did not benefit the UK in order to preserve his reputation.

At the time of joining, the UK was in a very precarious economic situation. Many politicians believed that joining the EEC was the only way to survive. Heath also believed that once the nation joined the EEC, its position could be negotiated. However, this was not the case. The existing members refused to allow the UK to restructure their already agreed policies.

Northern Ireland

The 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland were a series of conflicts in which different groups in Ireland fought over whether or not Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

  • Conflict emerged in Northern Ireland between unionists and republicans.
  • Simplistically, unionists believed that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK and were generally Protestants.
  • Republicans, usually Catholic, believed Northern Ireland should become part of a united Ireland.
  • The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was committed to creating a united Irish republic through violence.
  • The British army entered Northern Ireland in 1969 when violent clashes began.

Heath's tenure oversaw a particularly violent period of these conflicts.

Bloody Sunday

On 30th January 1972, a protest against 'internment without trial' took place in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. The protest turned violent when British soldiers opened fire on the protestors, killing 14 people and injuring a further 13.

Heath tried to smooth over relations in Northern Ireland but was criticised for his part in introducing internment camps to the conflict - camps where people were imprisoned without trial. Heath defended his actions in Northern Ireland for the rest of his political career.

Edward Heath Memorial commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday, Derry StudySmarterMemorial commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday, Derry. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Heath's legacy

Although Heath had intentions of modernising the UK and changing the political direction of government, a series of unfortunate events left him with a less than favourable legacy.

  • His time in government saw severe economic issues with the 1973 oil crisis, stagflation, and the three day week.
  • The 1971 Industrial Relations Act was a disaster, embittering his relationship with unions and making the government look incompetent when unions did not comply.
  • He took Britain into the European Economic Community, which was hoped would help the economy, but the oil crisis and other factors limited this.
  • His u-turn earned him criticism from within his party.

Edward Heath's Successor

Heath was succeeded by Harold Wilson of the Labour Party. Wilson had also been Prime Minister before Edward Heath, from 1964 to 1970.

Edward Heath - Key Takeaways

  • Edward Heath was Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974. His main policy was trying to modernise the UK economy under the ideology of the 'New Right'.
  • However, he ended up making a U-turn on this policy after inflation rose and industrial production declined - this lost him a lot of respect from his own party, the opposition and the people.
  • He tried to solve the problem in Northern Ireland, but failed - he was partly responsible for the introduction of internment camps and was targeted by the IRA.
  • He was responsible for Britain's entry into the EEC - a move which was controversial and not as advantageous as Heath would have liked.
  • He is most remembered for his struggle with the Trade Unions after the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, which led to Miners' Strikes and the Three Day Week. These events severely damaged Heath's reputation and caused the British people to lose confidence in the government.
  • After calling a general election in 1974, Heath failed to be re-elected, choosing to resign rather than enter into a coalition government. He was succeeded by Harold Wilson of the Labour Party.

Frequently Asked Questions about Edward Heath

17 July 1995.

From 1970 to 1974.

Harold Wilson.

Broadstairs, Kent.

In 1970.

Final Edward Heath Quiz


When did the UK join the European Economic Community (EEC)?

Show answer


31 December 1973.

Show question


When did Heath pass the Industrial Relations Act?

Show answer


In 1971.

Show question


What was the Industrial Relations Act?

Show answer


The Industrial Relations Act intended to make it harder for workers to strike by making it harder for trade unions to strike legally.

Show question


Why did the Industrial Relations Act fail?

Show answer


The Trade Union Commission (TUC) refused to accept or cooperate with the terms, making it impossible to enforce.

Show question


Why did Heath call an election in 1974?

Show answer


After the success of the 1972 strike, the National Union of Miners (NUM) called another strike in early 1974, which led to Heath calling a general election.

Show question


Why did the UK join the European Economic Community (EEC)?

Show answer


They hoped entering the EEC would strengthen their weak economy. 

Show question


What was the cause of the 1973 oil crisis?

Show answer


The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on the United States, restricting its oil supplies because of its role in supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This led to a global economic crisis.

Show question


What was Heath's New Right?

Show answer


It was a faction of conservativism that advocated the abandonment of state intervention in the workings of the free market. Heath's government argued that people and businesses should represent their own interests and that the government should allow market forces to operate unhindered.

Show question


Why did people protest Heath's Local Government Acts?

Show answer


Some of the measures resulted in the destruction of historical monuments, the creation of new regions, and the merger of many towns and names - many citizens saw this as an attack on local identity.

Show question


What happened in the 1974 election?

Show answer


The election ended in a hung parliament, and the Conservative Party lost 28 seats, whilst Labour, though still not a majority, gained 14 seats. Heath resigned after refusing to agree to a coalition and the Labour leader, PM Harold Wilson.

Show question


of the users don't pass the Edward Heath quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free