3 October 2015

‎Denis Healey: Labour and Britain lose a flawed giant


Denis Healey was one of the greatest of the nearly men: characters such as Austen Chamberlain, Rab Butler or Reggie Maudling who seemed to have everything needed for the Premiership but somehow never made it. He had a good war, reaching the rank of Major. A beach-master at Anzio, he was unlucky not to pick up a gallantry award. He always claimed that he had been supposed to count the men coming ashore: an impossible task. So he just made up plausible numbers and no-one complained.

Intellectually, he ranked very high among post-war politicians (as he would have agreed). In debate, he was a formidable bruiser who never took prisoners. “You can’t have it both ways” the Tory Robert Carr once said to him during a TV exchange. “Ho-ho-ho: oh yes I can – and I will” chortled Denis. As Secretary of State for Defence between 1964 and 1970, he imposed his personality on the department, assisted by his war service, and pushed through controversial decisions, such as the withdrawal from East of Suez. It helped that by then this former left-winger had become a convinced anti-communist and also thoroughly pro-American.

But there was a problem. What did he really believe? In 1945, he was virtually a Marxist and seemed to welcome the Soviet take-over of Eastern Europe. Twenty years later, he was a social democrat, but what was social democracy? There is a charge that could be laid against him and which helps to explain his ultimate failure. Although he was hugely well-read – in several languages – and steeped in old European high culture – probably the second-best educated MP of his era, after Enoch Powell – he never took enough intellectual interest in politics or economics. Like many on the Left, he made an implicit assumption: that the power of the state had increased, was increasing and would increase further. The state had mobilised the resources to fight and win the war: why should it not do the same to win the social and economic battles of peacetime? This fitted well with his personality. Naturally decisive, indeed authoritarian, he gave the impression that he had never known a moment’s self-doubt.

He had a further difficulty. Throughout its post-war history, the Labour party had been split between all-out socialists and those who believed in social amelioration. This made it difficult to lead, and for those who wanted power, there was always the temptation to trim in order to woo both sides: Harold Wilson was the classic example. Denis Healey did his fair share of trimming, especially on Europe, on which he once regretted that “he had re-ratted too late.” But he was no good at wooing while his trimming earned him the distrust of both sides. The trouble was that he regarded himself as the best qualified candidate to rise to the top – not an absurd claim – and could not see why anyone serious would disagree with him. That is not how politics works.

Moreover, he was no good at building a faction: winning over supporters and then keeping them. There were lots of Jenkinsites. There were never many Healey-ites. That leads on to another weakness, and not just for Denis Healey. In the early seventies, Labour was well-supplied with big beasts, but they were usually at war with one another. Anthony Crosland, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins all regarded themselves as the outstanding candidate. Crosland was jealous of the other two, while Healey always insisted that Jenkins was a closet homosexual. John Campbell’s recent biography reveals that Crosland and Jenkins did have an affair, but from his mid-twenties onwards, while Denis settled down to uxoriousness with his wife Edna, Roy more made up for his slow start with the opposite sex. The closet gave way to the boudoir. In his Memoirs, Roy is clear that he would have found it impossible to work under Healey, who often behaved like a bombastic know-all and was impossibly un-collegiate. The Labour party was seriously weakend because its three best players found it hard to play in the same team.

Although it might seem surprising, Denis Healey did get on with David Owen: one might have thought that it would be two bulls in the same kraal. When Denis was at Defence, David was one of his junior ministers. The young David did something of which senior officials disapproved, so he was summoned to the Secretary of State’s office for a rocket. Denis’s private secretary was asked to withdraw, as he had expected, and he rapidly heard – as he had also expected – his boss’s raised voice. Then, to his surprise, he heard the junior minister’s raised voice. Denis shouted louder. So did David. Denis roared. David roared back. Then there was silence, until the door opened and Denis appeared round it: “We need a bottle of whisky.”

Then Mr Healey found himself in a match which strained even his self-confidence. In 1974, when he became Chancellor, the British economy was in a mess. But that was not the main problem. No-one knew how to put it right. The old Keynesian instruments no longer worked. For thirty years, it had been assumed that you could always stimulate growth if you were not too worried about inflation. By 1974, that was no longer the case. The stimulus passed straight into inflation, with no intervening phase of growth. The term ‘stagflation’ came into general use to describe the new circumstances. There were widespread fears that this would become routine in the UK. How long would it be before an economic crisis turned into social breakdown?

In response, Denis Healey tinkered. In his five years as Chancellor, there were fifteen budgets, assuming that you define a budget as a significant change in fiscal or monetary policy. Many of them were necessary to correct the mistakes of the previous one. His political standing declined. The Santa Claus ho-ho-ing would have been fine in good times. In bad times, it grated. As for having it both ways: fifteen ways was nearer the mark, while the Anzio beachmaster’s approach to calculating figures did not work in the Treasury. By 1979, Jim Callaghan had lost confidence in his Chancellor, and would have moved him, had he won the Election.

As it was, the electorate moved both of them. Then followed the most unexpected outcome: a disaster for the Labour party, a great escape for Great Britain. By a majority of ten, Denis Healey lost the Leadership election to Michael Foot. This brought the SDP into being and ensured Mrs Thatcher’s re-election. Although she might also have defeated Mr Healey and a united Labour party, it would have been much harder. In that Leadership race, Denis Healey came second. Britain came first.

But he was a splendid fellow, always excellent company: a life-enchancer with a wonderful gift for enjoying life, and an enviable constitution. “The Time of My Life” is a thoroughly good read. Even if he never reached No.10, it is a formidable figure who has now passed from us.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.