The admonition not to speak ill of the dead is an ancient and honourable one but it has been taken far too far in the case of Denis Healey, who died on Saturday. All too often the obituarists, in articles with headlines such as “Best Prime Minister Britain Never Had” have failed to point out an awkward reality. He was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer Britain has ever had, who brought this country to the brink of national bankruptcy in peacetime.
The British are famously indulgent when it comes to elderly politicians, turning them into cuddly national treasures regardless of what they did in their prime, especially if they are on the left. It happened to Tony Benn and Michael Foot, is happening to Shirley Williams and is even going to happen to Neil Kinnock. Having reached the splendid age of 98 it was always going to happen to Denis Healey, but that doesn’t excuse the Sunday Times obituary by the novelist Robert Harris which described Healey’s five years at the Treasury in the 1970s as “bruising” when they were in fact catastrophic and humiliating for a western democracy.
They were the years of going cap in hand to the IMF, of the winter of discontent when the rubbish lay uncollected in the street and the dead went unburied, of the confiscatory 98 percent top rate of income tax when Healey deliberately chose to tax the rich till the pips squeaked (a phrase he unconvincingly afterwards denied using). All of these national humiliations were Healey’s fault, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the adulatory obits on the BBC and other media.
Healey showed great personal physical bravery on the beach at Anzio in the Second World War, but it was not mirrored in the great moral cowardice he showed before the overmighty trade union barons thirty years later, with whom he had beer and sandwiches as they gave him his orders.
Wage inflation and industrial unrest were clearly wrecking the British economy he was meant to steward and he did nothing meaningful to tackle the malaise. The decay was so marked that the Wall Street Journal famously declared: “Goodbye, Great Britain. It was nice knowing you.”
Healey might have turned against the communism of his youth but the tax rates he imposed on British businesses and individuals would leave Labour new leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell breathless with admiration. It took years of free market economics after 1979 to restore the economy Labour and Healey had so nearly destroyed, and in a way the one thing we genuinely should thank him for is that his economic incompetence, negligence and fanatical class warfare did at least leave open the door to the Thatcherism that followed. It might not have happened had he proved an even halfway decent chancellor.
When Neil Kinnock said that Healey never became Prime Minister because he didn’t suffer fools gladly, what he was saying in politico speak was that he was a bully, something everyone in politics and the media knew but no one has said in this avalanche of praise for the old brute. I always felt when I crossed swords with him that his aggression and unpleasantness stemmed from the secret personal knowledge that in the great trial of his life in 1974-79 he had been found desperately wanting. Whatever the reason, he had to face the next 36 years of his life seeing everything he had believed in proved utterly, catastrophically wrong, which can’t be easy for anyone.
The only thing that could possibly help Healey’s reputation would be the Marxist John McDonnell becoming Chancellor, not because it could ever vindicate his policy of squeezing the rich but because only then there might be an even worse Chancellor in British history than him.