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Obituary: Denis Healey, last of Labour’s post-war big beasts who helped save his party from self-destruction

Obituary: Denis Healey, last of Labour’s post-war big beasts who helped save his party from self-destruction

🕔04.Oct 2015

Lord Healey, who as Denis Healey was a towering post-war figure in the British Labour Party, has died aged 98. Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale recalls his days with Denis.

I last saw Denis Healey during the 1983 General Election campaign where he had been persuaded, although very little persuasion was needed, to play some lively tunes on the piano at an Oxfordshire old folks home.

Although he was a very senior Labour figure who would probably have become Chancellor or Foreign Secretary had Neil Kinnock managed to win the election, Healey entered willingly into the part of amiable fool – which could not be further from the truth – joking with admirers and even allowing a lucky few to touch the famous eyebrows.

The description larger than life could have been invented for Denis Healey. Although the Labour movement ran through his blood, he had a substantial life outside of politics and was a well-rounded man with a love for life and a huge cultural hinterland. He was, in fact, the polar opposite of some of today’s professional politicians who know little of life beyond Westminster.

He could talk to people, young or old, bright or not so bright, without any requirement for spin or prepared scripts, never turned down the opportunity for a full and frank discussion, and was even gifted a “you silly billy” catchphrase by the impressionist Mike Yarwood, which he used to great effect.

Our paths first crossed four years earlier at the 1979 General Election when Healey, then Chancellor in the dying days of Jim Callaghan’s government, was sent to the marginal seat of Reading North to drum up support for Labour.

As a recently appointed local government reporter, I was the closest the Reading Chronicle and Berkshire Mercury had to a political reporter and was duly despatched to the railway station to “get a few words with Mr Healey”.

The unmistakable figure of Denis Healey on his own, as the Chancellor did not qualify for special branch protection in those dim and distant days, emerged from the train to be greeted by a nervous reporter, with no sign of anyone from the Labour party on the platform. Introductions over, Healey explained “don’t worry this sort of thing happens all the time, they’re probably outside”.

Outside they were, with an ancient Rover car to take Healey to the local street market where he conducted a rumbustious walkabout, and then on to the local party headquarters for interviews. The car wouldn’t start when he came to leave, and had to be pushed with Chancellor in-situ down the road to get the engine going.

The obituaries of Denis Healey have rightly pointed to an extraordinary career at the heart of the Labour movement for half a century or more. A beachmaster at Anzio in the Second World War, few could doubt his physical courage, or his towering intellect.

He was combative, perhaps too much so for his own good at times, in a profession where broad alliances have to be built to reach the top of the greasy pole.

One of his witty remarks will go down for ever in the political lexicon – facing Tory Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe in the Commons was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

Having dubbed Margaret thatcher “Atilla the Hen” Healey went further and accused her during the 1983 General Election of “glorying in slaughter” during the Falklands conflict. Given his own wartime experience, he was probably one of the few leading politicians who could get away with making such a remark.

Denis Healey could, arguably, have claimed to have saved Labour as an effective political force on three occasions.

Firstly, in 1981, when he defeated by the narrowest of margins Tony Benn to continue as deputy Labour leader to Michael Foot thus preventing a cataclysmic slide to the far left.

Secondly, when as Chancellor between 1974 and 1979 he saw off the left to broker a deal with the International Monetary Fund to bail out Britain from hyper-inflation and economic collapse. The agreement ushered in tough public spending cuts and few will forget the sight of Healey, on his way to Heathrow to catch a flight to Washington in 1976 to negotiate with the IMF, being ordered at short notice to go instead to the Labour conference and explain his actions.

There then followed the bizarre spectacle of the Chancellor of the Exchequer being told he could not speak from the rostrum as he was not at that time a member of the National Executive Committee (don’t ask, this is for political nerds only) and would instead have to address the conference from the floor and his speaking time would be severely limited as a result.

The third occasion Healey could be said to have saved Labour from getting into even more political strife was in 1983 when the party leader Michael Foot unwisely backed unilateral nuclear disarmament. Healey, a staunch opponent of unilateral nuclear disarmament, decided not to resign. Had he quit in the run-up to the election, Labour would surely have been plunged into a bloody civil war.

Denis Healey was quite simply the last of the Labour ‘big beasts’ who cut their political teeth in the depression of the 1930s, fought in the Second World War and went on in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to make their mark on the ‘New Britain’. We shall not see his like again.

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