Denis Healey – Labour minister who flayed the Tories and his party’s left wing

Denis Healey: August 30th, 1917 - October 3rd, 2015

Denis Healey in Moscow in 1987. In the 1940s he had fought communist oppression of socialists. Photograph: Dominique Dudouble/Reuters

Denis Healey in Moscow in 1987. In the 1940s he had fought communist oppression of socialists. Photograph: Dominique Dudouble/Reuters

 

Unfair though it might be, the life of Denis Healey, who has died aged 98, may well be remembered as a story of what might have been.

Throughout the Labour governments of 1964 and 1966 led by Harold Wilson he served as defence secretary; through the Wilson and Callaghan terms from February 1974 to the party’s defeat in 1979, he was chancellor of the exchequer.

But he never made it to foreign secretary, a job for which he was formidably equipped, nor to party leader, though on merit he undoubtedly should have. And he never became prime minister, though in intellectual range and ability he had a far better claim to the job than several who did.

Denis Winston Healey was born in Mottingham, Kent. His father, Will, was a school principal in Keighley whose own father was Irish and his son attended Bradford grammar school. His academic excellence marked him down for Balliol College, Oxford, where he read classics and philosophy. Throwing himself into student politics, he dominated the Labour club, though by now he had joined the Communist Party. Only the communists, he explained in his memoirs, seemed unambiguously against Hitler.

Having graduated with a double first in 1940, he joined the army, saw service in North Africa and as beachmaster at Anzio in the allied invasion of Italy. He was mentioned in dispatches and promoted to major.

He narrowly failed to win a Tory-held seat in the 1945 general election and shortly afterwards became Labour’s international secretary. Here he made contacts and friendships which served him for the rest of his life. He worked closely with foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, supported socialists in eastern Europe who were being persecuted by communist governments and was a keen supporter of the Nato alliance.

He did not enter parliament iuntil 1952, in a byelection, using his maiden speech, daringly in those days, to argue for the inclusion of Germany in Nato. He was firmly in the camp of party leader Hugh Gaitskell, as against that of the recently departed minister Aneurin Bevan. That reflected his belief that the left’s idealism too often blinded it to reality.

Moral righteousness

“We are not just a debating society. We are not just a socialist Sunday school. We are a great movement that wants to help real people at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power. We shall never get power until we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.”

When Labour eventually won power in 1964, Healey was made defence secretary. He differed with the prime minister on the sale of arms to South Africa – Healey in favour, and Wilson against. Later he would admit that he had made the wrong choice on this issue.

Yet even those he crossed rarely had any doubt about his ability. Roy Hattersley, his junior minister in defence, later spoke of “the bliss of working for somebody who had the subject absolutely at their fingertips, who knew what he wanted and pursued his own concept of defence policy with a critical rigour which I have never seen from anyone else”.

Healey made a bid for the party leadership in 1976 when Wilson stepped down, but took a mere 30 votes in the opening ballot. When James Callaghan resigned 18 months after the 1979 election defeat, Healey began as front-runner, but was overtaken by Michael Foot. Some right-wing Labour MPs who later defected to the Social Democratic Party admitted voting for Foot rather than Healey in the hope of wrecking the party. There were enough of these, Healey himself believed, to give Foot his 10-vote majority.

The most famous, enduring image of Healey’s chancellorship came when, in autumn 1976, against a cacophony of cheering and booing, he defended his decision to throw Britain on the mercies of the IMF as the only way to beat off a crisis brought about by the heavy selling of sterling.

Resort to the IMF meant grievous cuts in public spending, which many of his cabinet colleagues, from both left and right, found unacceptable.

‘Silly billy’

Mike Yarwood

Forced to backtrack and explain over one insult, he said in an interview with the Guardian: “The real trouble is that the only politician who doesn’t make that sort of mistake is the sort who tries never to say anything, and my great weakness as a politician is that I always say too much. I dare say I am a bit of a thug ... On the other hand, you know, every party needs some people who will rough it up from time to time.”

Often his lacerating turn of phrase made him the talk of the town. His most cherished target was Margaret Thatcher; Rhoda the rhino, he called her, and the La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege.

Having failed to become Labour leader he served as deputy leader. But the party left was unhappy even with that. Tony Benn challenged him for the job in 1981. After a nasty campaign Healey won by a minuscule margin. After Foot’s election defeat and resignation Healey continued to serve in the shadow cabinet of Neil Kinnock, whose oratorical powers he greatly admired, though they sometimes differed on policy. He eventually stood down in 1992, after 40 years as a Leeds MP, going to the Lords.

In his spare time Healey was a keen photographer. He also played piano enthusiastically, if not always accurately. His wife, Edna, whom he met at Oxford, died in 2010. He is survived by their three children.