Denis Healey: The big man behind the big eyebrows

Happy birthday, Denis Healey. Richard Heller, who from 1981 to 1983 was political adviser to the Labour stalwart, explains why Britain owes the former Chancellor so much.

A cheerful maxim of Denis Healey, who is 90 today, is "when in doubt, tell the truth".

Along with its counterpart, "when in doubt, do the right thing", it combines the toughness and the humour of a great adoptive Yorkshireman, qualities which captured the imagination and affection of his country.

He saved the British economy from disaster – but he is almost equally proud of being the

first and only Chancellor to appear on the Morecambe and Wise Show.

He burst onto British politics at the Labour Party Conference in May 1945 as a young idealistic Major Healey, candidate for Pudsey, denouncing the decadent upper classes of Europe.

As Labour's International Secretary, he helped Ernest Bevin shape the post-war world. He contributed personally to the revival of democratic socialism in western Europe.

Years later, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, he was sometimes teased for name-dropping in his speeches, but he earned the right. Denis Healey has met virtually everyone of importance in international politics since the war – and given them the benefit of his advice.

In 1952, he began 40 years' service as a Leeds MP. At dark times, when tempted to abandon his political career, he always put his constituents first.

During Labour's long years in opposition, he avoided its factions and coteries and specialised

in the unfashionable areas of foreign policy and defence. His speeches then were cerebral: only later did he develop the gift for knockabout and repartee which earned Geoffrey Howe ironic immortality as a "dead sheep".

As Defence Secretary, in 1964, he inherited a mess – a nasty, undeclared war against Indonesia, unsustainable commitments, inter-service rivalries, expensive prestige projects, and no coherent strategy.

His own party was unilateralist and congenitally opposed to defence spending.

The war in Indonesia was won, with minimum casualties to either side or to civilians. Labour's unilateralist pledges were quietly buried. The East of Suez commitments, and the prestige projects, were painfully abandoned, combined defence planning became a reality and Britain's forces concentrated on achievable missions.

They were also better equipped, better paid and better housed, although for the first time since the war government defence spending fell below education spending: 1968 was the first and last year since the war when no British troops were killed in action.

In the midst of all these achievements, he collected an award for being the most humorous statesman

in Europe.As Chancellor, in 1974 he inherited an even worse picture. Oil prices had quintupled overnight (before Britain had any of her own). The world economy was in turmoil, Britain was on a three-day week and on the edge of hyper-inflation.

All of these problems had to be faced by a minority Labour Government, in the face of a Labour Party haunted by memories of past "betrayal" and congenitally opposed to spending cuts imposed by foreign bankers. (Denis Healey envies Gordon Brown for his inheritance of a benign economy and a docile party).

As Chancellor, he faced down five years of uninterrupted economic and political crisis. For good or ill, he made more policy decisions and introduced more economic measures and packages than any previous Chancellor. At the end of his term, the British economy was intact and out of debt, inflation contained, unemployment falling each month (without the aid of statistical manipulations) and living standards improving, especially for poor and disabled people.

He even had space in 1978 to prepare an election-winning Budget for the election which never was. In the midst of all this, he found time for those appearances on Morecambe and Wise and as a piano-playing wizard in a BBC pantomime.

In 1980, Labour's MPs denied him the job he deserved as leader of the Labour Party. Many were genuinely opposed to his policies and outlook.

Others voted against him out of personal pique but, ultimately, the anti-Healey margin was made up

from flinching cowards (who hoped to avoid civil war or deselection by their constituency parties) and sneering traitors (who promptly bolted to join the new SDP).

He had many well-paid offers to leave British politics. Loyalty to Leeds and Labour came first. He soldiered on as Michael Foot's deputy and became (in his own words) a psychiatric nurse to troubled Labour MPs who might otherwise have defected.

Forced into a Deputy Leadership contest with rules devised by his enemies, he fought uninterruptedly for mainstream Labour values and beat off Tony Benn's challenge by an eyebrow.

That narrow victory saved the Labour Party from political extinction and prepared the ground for its subsequent modernisation.

The Blairites never acknowledged this achievement. Denis Healey does not resent this, but I do.

Although robbed of the biggest prize in British politics, Denis Healey has had great compensations elsewhere in life – a long, happy marriage to a gifted woman, a joyous family life, music, literature (any campaign timetable was always destroyed if he discovered a second-hand bookshop) philosophy, photography, art criticism, travel and that insatiable appetite for entertainment and theatrics.

His wife, Edna, invented the term "hinterland", to describe all the things which fill a politician's life and outlook from outside politics. It might have been made for him.

On his 90th birthday, does "Healeyism" survive today in British politics?

To the disappointment of some of his friends, he never defined his politics in terms of theory or doctrine. His record is his programme.

But Healeyism will always be a living force, so long as there

are politicians who do not believe in abdicating to market forces, who do believe in using instruments and institutions deliberately to shift power and wealth from rich to poor, at home and abroad, who believe in military restraint and multilateral international policies – and who believe, in the final analysis, in telling the truth and doing the right thing.