Denis Healey, who died on Saturday, was not, as some say, the “best Prime Minister we never had” – he was much more important than that. As a person, Mr Healey led an extraordinary life and his death signifies the last fading of a generation of British politicians who had fought in the Second World War. As a politician, Mr Healey’s life was just as remarkable: he started as a Communist, became a Socialist and ended up declaring himself a Blairite – the original one, forty years before Tony Blair became Prime Minister.
Mr Healey observed Hitler’s Germany in 1936, cycling through the country and seeing through the Olympic-year artifice that had been carefully constructed to hide the hatred. He enlisted when war broke out and saw service, real service on the beach at Anzio in Italy as the Allies pushed into Western Europe in 1943. He started the war Mr Healey, he ended the war Major Healey.
This experience served him well. He was unquestionably the best qualified Defence Secretary this country has ever had. Perhaps it is of little surprise he was also the best. But Major Healey also represented a generation of MPs that had fought their way through Europe and had the traumas (and the excitement) hard-wired into them. It made them – on all sides of the House – more interesting & interested in the world than perhaps would have otherwise been the case.
Stalin and Ernest Bevin, the Labour Foreign Secretary who he worked for from 1945, cured him of the Communism he had picked up at Oxford. He was finally elected in 1952 for a seat in Leeds, near where he grew up. On being elected, Mr Healey was flung into an argument that never really stopped. It was an argument about what the Labour Party was and where the Labour Party was going. In the end it was Mr Healey vs Mr Benn.
We in the Labour Party are still fighting that one. Mr Healey was of the opinion that the Labour Party is not an inward looking pressure group but is, and should be, a party of government. If this means compromising to win then fine: the people who Labour are meant to represent will not be helped by pious opposition.
He was not shy in pushing this case. He was an intellectual, yes, but also aggressive. Of course he was aggressive – what fear did Major Healey have of an angry conference delegate shouting abuse at him when he’d spent six years being shot at?
Mr Healey would make impromptu speeches from the floor of the Labour Party Conference, sweat pouring down those famous eyebrows, taking on the left of his party, telling them hard truths. Perhaps the hardest truth came when Mr Healey was Chancellor in those difficult years of the late 70s. It was his boss, the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who said in 1976, in the wake of Britain’s humiliating crawl to the International Monetary Fund for money:
“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists”
But these were Mr Healey’s words. Mr Healey recognised that post-war Keynesian system was dead when the opposition leader, Mrs Thatcher, was still gingerly finding her feet. 1976 was the most important year for post-war British politics, not 1979.
After losing office, Mr Healey then set about rescuing the Labour Party. He beat Tony Benn, just, to be deputy leader in the early 80s and was the voice of sanity throughout that decade of self-destruction. He eventually quit as an MP in 1992, rather incongruously becoming Lord Healey. Less than two years later, Tony Blair was leader of the Labour Party: a man very much in the mould of Lord Healey. Mr Blair’s version of the Labour Party – careful to reassure people that they could trust him with their tax pounds, but quietly radical – dominated British politics, and did more to help the poorest than any Government since 1945; just as Lord Healey has argued would be the case for all those years.
I think it obvious that Mr Healey is a hero of mine. Whilst most politicians take the path of least resistance, Mr Healey refused to. He combined an incredible intellect with the sort of aggression that you need to make your voice heard in the messy, fractious politics of a major political party. And he had, in a word that he made popular, a “hinterland”. When you have fought your way across Europe then I suppose politics might seem a bit of a sideshow. Mr Healey had a life outside of Westminster, a point that he made to contrast himself with Mrs Thatcher, who did not – and it showed. Mr Healey even found time to achieve that rarest of things for a politician, writing an actual readable autobiography.
So back to that question of the “best Prime Minister that we never had”. Why define somebody by what they were not? The achievements of Denis Healey are extraordinary enough to stand on their own, as they do. He was 98 when he died; it seems remarkable to me that he managed to pack so much in in those 98 years.