Throughout his years as Conservative leader, Edward Heath detested two of his MPs above all others: Enoch Powell and Edward du Cann.
The two men could hardly have been less alike in temperament. Powell was brilliant and unsmiling, his gaze so intense that an unnerved Harold Macmillan shifted his place around the Cabinet table. Du Cann, who died earlier this month, was the most amiable and approachable of men. About the only thing the two politicians had in common is that they were loosely on the Right, du Cann in a more conventional way than Powell, who followed the arrow-flight of his logic to some unusual places.
Both were what would now be called Brexiteers, an unusual stance for a Tory in the 1970s. In those days, the EEC could still plausibly be seen as an economic project, concerned primarily with boosting trade. Although plans for political federation were being openly laid in Brussels, few Conservatives noticed. Heath was one of the tiny number who understood what was intended, though he was careful to keep it quiet. He naturally loathed those who, also understanding, tried to tell the voters.
Powell is now, of course, out of fashion. He is no longer remembered as the clever, complex and contradictory politician he was, becoming instead a shorthand for anti-immigration views. Tory candidates have been disqualified for quoting him, and Leftists use his name as a swear-word. But du Cann was difficult to dislike. He had that charm that comes from an unfeigned interest in other people, and his politeness was so exquisite that even Michael Gove might seem coarse by comparison.
Perhaps it was his Rightist views, or perhaps it reflects the meanness of our current political discourse, but the Guardian and the Independent gave du Cann ungenerous obituaries last week. Both suggested that there had been something wrong with his business dealings and implied, without exactly alleging anything, that he had been shady.
The truth is more prosaic. Du Cann, who was never investigated or prosecuted for anything, was simply unsuccessful – or, if you prefer, unlucky. He made a great deal of money in the City, and then lost it. He was not the first Conservative MP to run up debts: many had done so, including Pitt the Younger, Disraeli and Churchill. Unlike some Tories of earlier generations, du Cann did not seek to be bailed out by wealthy and influential friends. He took his losses with good grace, even when his home was repossessed, retiring to Cyprus where he lived happily with his third wife, Maureen Hope Wynne, an opera director of unusual charm, intelligence and kindness.
That, of course, is not an especially satisfying story. Journalists, especially those who disagreed with du Cann politically, find it difficult to write about Tory MPs and financial dealings without implying impropriety. In fact, du Cann lived according to the market principles he preached. When he was up he was generous, and when down uncomplaining.
Conservatives have cause to be grateful to the man who, as Party Chairman, created the machine that won the 1970 election – a machine whose tubes and pistons are still, in one or two cases, operating today – and who, as an exceptionally long-serving Chairman of the 1922 Committee, raised its prestige and helped create the parliamentary committee structure that halted the long slide in powers from legislature to executive.
Above all, we should recognise his role in making Margaret Thatcher party leader, an outcome that almost no one had foreseen. When Heath clung on following his defeat in the 1974 election, du Cann was briefly touted as a successor. Although flattered, he decided not to stand, instead throwing his weight behind the little-known former Education Minister. His natural bonhomie, as much as the influence he wielded through the 1922 Committee, was decisive. To the astonishment of most MPs, including Heath, Thatcher came from behind, and so began the end of Britain’s postwar decline.
Du Cann is not often recognised as a man with strong convictions. Perhaps it was his striking good looks, or his slightly foreign-sounding name, or perhaps it was his sometimes florid courtliness. He tended to address people of both sexes as “my dear”, which is (or was) common enough in his Somerset constituency, but which could come across, outside the West Country, as over-friendly.
In fact, the layers of easy charm swaddled a Thatcherite Eurosceptic of unusual principle, who understood that the best way to advance his cause was not through Powellite absolutism, but through making it sound moderate and commonsensical. He had lived a life that put politics into perspective, having just been old enough to serve in World War Two on a torpedo boat. A man who embarked on adulthood that way may be forgiven a languid manner when younger men discuss politics overheatedly.
It is traditional, when MPs of du Cann’s vintage pass, to remark that politics has dwindled, and that today’s practitioners do not measure up to the titans of the past. In fact, every generation has made that observation, and it has never been true. We recall the politicians of our youth, like the music of our youth, with unusual fondness. But, as Danny Finkelstein (who is working his way through the biographies of all British prime ministers) points out, the calibre of our politicians is demonstrably improving.
Certainly du Cann himself was optimistic about the quality of MPs in all parties. He was optimistic, too, about Britain’s future, convinced, even in the dark days of the 1970s, that the best lay ahead. And you know something? He was right, God rest his soul.