When Tony Benn died last year, the obituaries tended to focus on the radical old uncle of the elder statesman years rather than the belligerent troublemaker of the turbulent early 80s. Benn successfully reshaped his public perception and remodelled his legend so that many on the left who were far too young to remember his divisive decades on the frontline of British politics now venerate him as an eternal outsider and keeper of the Socialist flame.
What then of Denis Healey? He achieved far higher office than his ideological rival – entrusted with the vital post of Chancellor by both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan at a time when the British economy was balanced on its most perilous post-war precipice – and defeated Benn in a bitter battle for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party in 1980. With his famously elaborate eyebrows and a catchphrase he didn’t actually utter, though nevertheless remained in the repertoire of every wannabe Mike Yarwood for years (‘What a Silly Billy’), Healey was one of the most recognisable characters in politics for the best part of three decades, a Westminster heavyweight many have often referred to as the best leader Labour never had. Yet, unlike the relentless self-publicist Benn, it’s doubtful anyone under 30 will even know his name.
The death of Denis Healey at the grand old age of 98 really is the end of a British political era. I know every ancient politician that kicks the bucket has that statement attached to them, but it’s hard to think of any major players remaining from the generations whose politics were shaped by the Second World War and the Great Depression that preceded it. Wilson, Callaghan, Castle, Foot and Jenkins are all gone; indeed, Healey was the last surviving member of Wilson’s original 1964 Cabinet. The Tories he crossed swords with during his heyday in the Commons are also gone, including the man he first met at Oxford before the war, Edward Heath, someone Healey remained friends with for life, despite their differences on the political battlefield.
An adopted Yorkshireman from the age of five, Healey’s initial political inclinations were of the Communist persuasion, though the war changed his idealistic view of Stalin. When eventually called-up, Healey served in North Africa, took part in the Allied Invasion of Sicily, and led the British assault at Anzio. Despite failing to win a seat at the 1945 General Election, Healey was politically active, although by the time he entered Parliament after winning a 1952 by-election, the Tories were back in power. He was a friend and supporter of Attlee’s successor Hugh Gaitskell when the Labour Party was afflicted with ideological divisions in the 50s, but his relief at celebrated old soak George Brown losing the leadership election to Harold Wilson in 1963 was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary after the narrow victory of 1964.
He had the Exchequer in his sights when appointed Shadow Chancellor in 1972, and when Labour won another narrow victory in February 1974, he became Chancellor, a job he held for the next five years. It wasn’t the easiest of times to occupy No.11; an advocate of the redistribution of wealth, Healey made enemies, not least the British rock stars of the era, many of whom fled into tax exile. However, Healey’s determination to increase benefits and pensions was derailed by the economic climate of the mid-70s; when he infamously approached the IMF for a loan in 1976, Healey was forced into the kind of wage control policies guaranteed to aggravate the unions. Despite Healey’s avuncular image, he could be ruthless when the situation demanded it.
After failing to win the Labour leadership following Wilson’s resignation in 1976, Healey had another crack at it in 1980, following the 1979 General Election defeat; anticipating he would win due to little competition on the right of the party, Healey had the rug pulled from under his feet when the defections to the SDP dragged Labour to the far-left. He settled for the deputy leadership, but under Michael Foot, opposition was inevitable. He fought off an ill-tempered challenge for the deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981, but the divisions in the party were turning increasingly ugly. Healey was one of the few Labour elder statesmen retained by Neil Kinnock when he was elected leader in 1983, holding a shadow cabinet post until 1987.
Standing down from the Commons after forty years in 1992, Healey was elevated to the peerage and though he supported Tony Blair’s bid for the Labour leadership in 1994, the Iraq War altered his opinion considerably. But life in the Lords enabled Healey to further indulge in his long-time passion for photography, believing politicians should always have a ‘hinterland’ to turn to, an absent factor from the life of Margaret Thatcher that Healey blamed on her reluctance to relinquish power.
Denis Healey belonged to the old school of hard knocks that produced political bruisers who emerged from genuine conflict to march into Parliament applying the same confrontational tactics to Civvy Street. The tempestuous era he and his generation of parliamentarians bestrode was not for the faint-hearted, and anyone who survived it to make it into their 90s deserves respect, whichever side of the political divide they occupied.