LONDON – Sir Edward Heath (search), the prime minister who led England into what is now the European Union but lost the Conservative Party leadership to Margaret Thatcher (search), died Sunday. He was 89.
Heath, who governed England from 1970-1974, died at his home in the southern cathedral city of Salisbury.
A carpenter's son who broke the tradition of blue bloods leading the British Conservative Party (search), he was a born politician whose major achievement was to negotiate Britain's 1973 entry into the European Community. The entry into what became the European Union overturned years of resistance domestically and by France, which had vetoed Britain's entry in 1967.
In 1992, he became Sir Edward, a member of the country's most prestigious order of chivalry, the knights of the Garter.
Thatcher, who successfully challenged him for the party leadership in 1975, offered warm words for her former rival, saying he was a "political giant" and "in every sense the first modern Conservative leader."
"We are all in his debt," Thatcher said in a statement.
Heath came to power in 1970 pledging to end Britain's long cycle of post-World War II decline, but he was thwarted and, in the end, brought down by militant unions seeking higher pay.
"He was a man of great integrity and beliefs he held firmly from which he never wavered, and he will be remembered by all who knew him as a political leader of great stature and importance," Prime Minister Tony Blair said Sunday.
In 1974, with Britain reduced to a three-day week by striking coal miners, Heath called an election demanding "who governs?" in a challenge to the unions. He lost to Harold Wilson's (search) Labour Party and lost again when Wilson called an election in October that year.
In all, Heath had taken the party to defeat by Labour three times since becoming leader of the party in 1965.
The Tories rebelled and Thatcher, another outsider, took over.
Heath remained in the House of Commons as a rank-and file legislator, a bulky, unforgiving figure sniping ineffectively at his right-wing successor.
"This rather shy, rather withdrawn man, felt deeply affronted," said the late William Whitelaw, who served as Thatcher's loyal deputy. Whitelaw died in 1999.
During Thatcher's 15 years as party leader, Heath's name disappeared from the Conservatives' official folklore. The 1987 election manifesto, for example, described the history of Conservative policy toward Europe without mentioning Heath.
Edward Richard George Heath was born in Broadstairs, a harbor town in the southeast England county of Kent, on July 9, 1916, the elder of two sons.
Encouraged by his mother, Heath began piano lessons as a small boy. It became a lifetime interest.
From his state school, Heath won a scholarship to Oxford University. Like Mrs. Thatcher, he emerged from Oxford with an upper-class accent. After World War II service as an artillery officer, Heath worked briefly as a civil servant, then as an editor of the Anglican Church Times.
Heath, who never married, was elected to the House of Commons for Bexley and Sidcup in 1950, and represented the solidly Conservative south England district through his long political career. To the end, Heath remained an unusual politician in that he never tried to be liked.
Awkward silences would fall during interviews with journalists. In the Thatcher era, he would often sit staring glumly ahead during party conventions.
Both as prime minister and leader of the opposition he conducted symphony orchestras. He had two Steinway pianos in his house, Arundells, in Salisbury, and another in his apartment in London's Belgravia district.
His 1976 book, "Music, a Joy for Life," was a best seller. So was one he wrote on yachting after taking his yacht Morning Cloud to victory in Australia in the Sydney to Hobart race.
Stripped of power, he was sensitive to suggestions that his life was lonely or empty.
"I enjoy my own company," he said, looking back in a 1989 newspaper interview. "I don't think I ever regret not getting married. A lot of politicians seem to regret they've got wives."
Heath's funeral was scheduled for July 25 at the Salisbury Cathedral.