I interviewed Denis Healey as part of the research for my biography of Aneurin Bevan in February 2011. He immediately seized on Bevan’s remark that ‘the right kind of leader for the Labour party is a kind of dessicated calculating-machine’. While Clement Attlee was still leader at the time the remark was made in September 1954, it has generally been taken as an attack on Bevan’s great rival Hugh Gaitskell.
Healey passionately defended Gaitskell: ‘He was not dessicated and he was not calculating.’ Healey was never part of Gaitskell’s inner circle, the ‘Hampstead Set’ of the 1950s of Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland; yet he had lost none of his combative nature. For he was a great debater: strong and witty. He once dismissed an attack by the mild-mannered Tory Geoffrey Howe as ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’. With his trademark bushy eyebrows, and his ‘Silly Billy’ catchphrase (from the comedian Mike Yarwood), he became a household name.
Healey was born in Kent on 30 August 1917. In 1922, his family moved to Yorkshire where his father was principal of Keighley Technical School. Healey excelled at Bradford Grammar, and won a place at Balliol College, Oxford. There he became convinced of the intellectual certainty of communism, before serving for five years in the second world war, including spells in north Africa and Italy. He attended the 1945 Labour party conference as a major, and narrowly missed election to the Commons in 1945 for the seat of Pudsey and Otley. Instead, he served as secretary of the Labour party international department from January 1946, becoming a strong supporter of the Atlanticist policy of foreign secretary Ernest Bevin. In February 1952, he was elected to the Commons for Leeds South-east; the seat was renamed Leeds East in 1955 and he held it until 1992.
Healey became a respected expert in the Labour party on defence and foreign affairs. He was the natural choice as defence secretary when Labour won power in 1964. Prime minister Harold Wilson kept Healey in post until Labour left office in 1970, allowing him to make his mark. His 1966 defence review sought to reassess defence commitments around the world and match military commitments with available resources. He was able to cut defence spending while at the same time investing in new technology, including fighter aircraft.
Back in opposition, Healey made himself a contender for even higher office in a future Labour government. He put forward a ‘wealth tax’ and predicted ‘howls of anguish’ from the very richest. When Labour returned to office in 1974, he might have been foreign secretary. Harold Wilson thought of giving Callaghan a role dealing with industrial relations, sending Healey to the Foreign Office and making Roy Jenkins chancellor for the second time. Callaghan refused, took the Foreign Office, Healey the Treasury and Jenkins returned to the other ‘great office of state’ he had previously held, becoming home secretary.
As it was, Healey faced the sternest of tests in his five years as chancellor. Opec’s oil embargo, which began in 1973, produced an upward spiral in the price of a barrel; inflation in the United Kingdom soared to over 25 per cent. In 1976, Healey had to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund. On 28 September, due in Hong Kong for the IMF annual conference, with a torrid morning’s trading on sterling, Healey turned back from Heathrow and came to the party conference in Blackpool. Amid calls of ‘Resign!’ he gave a barnstorming three-minute address from the rostrum asking for support in the negotiations, and for the deep cuts in public spending demanded by the IMF. Callaghan said in his autobiography Time and Chance that he was impressed by Healey’s ‘clarity and force of argument he employed, his penetrating mind as well as his remarkable stamina, ensured his authority in cabinet and parliament, as well as in international financial circles’. By the summer of 1978, the balance of payments was showing a surplus, and history might have been very different had Callaghan called a general election that autumn. As it was, Margaret Thatcher won power in May 1979.
Healey had finished a poor third in the leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation in 1976, and, when Callaghan resigned in 1980, he looked to be in a great position to succeed him. Yet factors conspired against him to lose by 10 votes (among members of parliament) to Michael Foot, some MPs allegedly voting for Foot to give them an excuse to leave the party altogether; others put off by what they saw as Healey’s abrasive style; others still preferring the more leftwing option of Foot. Thus, Healey became deputy leader but, as soon as the as electoral college method of electing the leader and deputy was introduced, Tony Benn challenged Healey for the position. The historian Kenneth O Morgan dubbed what followed ‘a herculean contest for the soul of the party.’
A contest between two such great and contrasting figures of the party was never going to be a debate of merely presentational differences. Healey was trenchant in his assessment of the consequences of a Benn victory: ‘a haemorrhage of Labour defections to the [newly-founded] SDP both in parliament and in the country. I do not believe the Labour party could have recovered.’ Benn wrote in his diary that the debate was essential: ‘People want to know what the Labour party will do and I think this process is long overdue.’ In the end, Healey triumphed by the tiniest of margins: less than one per cent of the vote. He became one of the party’s elder statesmen as shadow foreign secretary under Neil Kinnock, before leaving the frontbench after the 1987 general election. In later life, he became a vociferous member of the House of Lords.
Healey’s dictum was that every politician needed a hinterland. His was certainly picturesque. He was interested in film, photography, literature, poetry and art. In 1989 he published his autobiography, The Time of My Life. Beautifully written, each chapter begins with an extract from a poem. In a more reflective passage, summing up what he had learned in his long career, Healey wrote, ‘Despite all its frustrations and disappointments, I know that political action is both necessary and worthwhile.’ That is a sentiment that can lift all of us who are engaged in politics today.
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is member of parliament for Torfaen and author of Attlee: A Life in Politics. He tweets @NickTorfaenMP
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