Denis Healey is widely regarded as one of the best Prime Ministers Britain never had. Richard Heller, his former adviser, pays tribute to Lord Healey who died at the weekend.
WITH Denis Healey, we have lost not only a political giant but a piece of our history and our collective memory.
Born during the First World War, he fought with distinction in the Second and helped to shape the postwar world. He knew every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, and his conversation was peppered with great contemporaries, especially American Secretaries of State. He enjoyed name-checking them in the House of Commons, and enjoyed even more giving them advice.
Although born in Kent, he had a Yorkshire boyhood and education of which he was deeply proud. As a truant schoolboy he saw Don Bradman score a triple hundred at Headingley. He served his Leeds constituents for forty years and stood by them despite many tempting international offers.
His place in history is secure. He once described himself as a clean-up man: he cleaned up defence, he cleaned up the economy and he started the process of cleaning up the Labour party. As Defence Secretary in 1964 he inherited a mess: a nasty, undeclared war against Indonesia, unsustainable commitments, inter-service rivalries and no coherent strategy.
The war was won with minimal casualties. Combined defence planning became a reality and Britain’s forces were given coherent and achievable missions. In 1968, not one British soldier was killed in action, a record never since repeated. For the first time since the war, the British government spent less on defence than on education – but nonetheless our forces were better equipped, better paid and better housed.
Apart from his own prodigious knowledge of defence issues, Denis Healey’s policies were shaped by his wartime experience. Throughout his life he despised all politicians who went into war lightly, exultantly and without proper planning for their execution and their aftermath. His wartime service included being a beachmaster in Sicily, Anzio and Salerno – which required him to make good decisions under fire when things were going wrong.
It was good preparation for Defence, but still more so for his next job as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the almost perpetual crisis years of 1974-79. Again he inherited a mess – the quintupling of world oil prices and the domestic crisis of the three-day week. Britain was on the edge of hyper-inflation.
The outgoing Heath government announced itself incapable of governing and then had the cheek to ask the British people to re-elect it. To meet this multiple crisis (in a government with a tiny majority or none at all) Denis Healey became the hardest-working Chancellor of modern times. For good or ill, he made more policy decisions and introduced more economic measures and packages than any other. His diary, usually rich and informative, became terse: “terrible day… sterling crisis… bloody tired.”
By autumn 1978 he had an economy ready to display to the voters. Inflation falling month after month and employment rising, public finances restored, debts to the IMF paid off ahead of time and rising living standards, especially for poor and disabled people.
Unfortunately, that proved to be the election that never was. The “winter of discontent” led to his ejection from government: Labour turmoil in opposition ensured that he never returned. As Chancellor he was mocked for contrasting the progress of “the real economy” – the output of traded goods and services – with the vagaries of financial markets.
Today, his contrast seems remarkably prescient, and for the rest of his life he called for international action to control the gigantic and unregulated flows of capital which destabilized the world economy, especially the fantasy financial products which their traders could not value or even understand.
In opposition, Denis Healey’s fate was to save a Labour party which had rejected him as leader. His campaign for that post was lacklustre and inept, but ultimately he lost because too many Labour MPs proved to be flinching cowards in search of a quiet life under Michael Foot, or sneering traitors who wanted an excuse to defect to the newly-formed SDP.
Almost immediately he was forced to defend his consolation prize of Deputy Leader against Tony Benn’s challenge. Tony Benn is now a National Treasure: not so in 1981, when his campaign was one of the most selfish and destructive in British political history.
It showed an equal contempt for truth and for the democratic wishes of Labour party and trade union members, and was utterly indifferent to its impact on the electorate.
It was, however, well-prepared (with rules stacked in Benn’s favour), well-funded, and lavishly staffed: by contrast, Denis Healey’s lone full-time assistant was an affable amateur, a Bertie Wooster in bad need of a Jeeves.
At first reluctantly, but then with increasing passion and conviction Denis Healey beat off Benn’s challenge and saved Labour as a mainstream progressive political party. For the first time in his career, he built a personal following in the Labour movement. He even learnt to be patient with fools and bores.
If he had lost, Labour would have imploded, the Liberal/SDP Alliance would have taken over as the main opposition and ultimately as the government.
Without Denis Healey there would have been no New Labour, not that its creators ever showed any gratitude, since to them the world began with Tony Blair. He himself had no regard for Blair, but rated Gordon Brown a better Chancellor than himself. This was a generous assessment given that he inherited an economy near ruin and restored it to health.
His career was almost dwarfed by his personality. He was credited with inventing the term “hinterland” of a politician – his or her interests and passions outside politics. In fact, it was coined by his beloved wife, Edna. Denis Healey had a prodigious “hinterland”, perhaps too great for his own good as a politician.
Apart from the prestigious international jobs he turned down, he could have chosen to be an art historian, poetry editor (he enjoyed reciting it in six or seven languages), a music critic, a photographer, a philosopher, a soldier – and an entertainer.
As much as anything he did in politics, he treasured his appearances with Mike Yarwood and Morecambe and Wise. Even off-screen he loved performing. He regularly entered his Commons office with dance steps and dramatic chords and answered its telephone with an appallingly inept pretence of being a Chinese laundry (once to a bemused Henry Kissinger).
He hammed it up in overdrive on the campaign trail, where he broke an ancient showbiz rule and had himself photographed in a pet parlour with a dog whose eyebrows were a match for his own. In and out of politics, Denis Healey’s life was enriched most of all by his family and his partnership with a woman of singular intellect, generosity and magnetism. After 64 years of marriage, his eyes would still light up when Edna came into the room: her death in 2010 left an unimaginable void in his life.
For once, the cliché is true: we shall not see his like again. Some people still wonder why a man of such singular gifts missed out on the highest prize in British politics. Late in life, he gave the question a wry dismissal: “I would rather people wondered why I didn’t become Prime Minister than wonder why I did.”