Denis Healey: an international life

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[Denis Healey]
Denis Healey at his home in East Sussex, 2007

Set in four acres of downland and with a commanding prospect of the Cuckmere valley and the English Channel beyond, Lord Healey’s treasured East Sussex home reflects the influence of the international upon its owner’s life.

It is therefore fitting that I met Lord Healey (1936) in a week when an international impasse, following the Iranian capture of 15 British royal marines and sailors, dominated the national headlines. Despite the gravity of the hostage situation, Healey’s recollections of issues ranging from Cold War nuclear deterrence to British imperial retrenchment put the media’s reaction to this latest international ‘crisis’ into perspective.

In a political career which saw him become Secretary of State for Defence, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Healey’s fierce intellect and combative approach made him a politician feared and admired in equal measure. Yet his reputation as a political pugilist has often obscured a more subtle and reflective side expressed through what he terms his cultural ‘hinterland’: a love of poetry, art, photography, and literature. Now in his 90th year, all these characteristics remain undimmed, as does his exceptionally quick wit.

Wars are made by governments quote

A new outlook

The first experience of the international people, places, and experiences which would mould Healey’s life took place at Balliol between 1936 and 1939. “I enjoyed Balliol enormously”, he recalls, citing not only its unusual degree of meritocracy relative to other pre-war Oxford colleges but also the fact that it was “one of the few colleges which had a very large number of foreign students.”

Encounters with such students were to affect Healey’s life well beyond the University. “I made friends for life in foreign countries”, he says, reeling off a list of prominent names such as Walt Rostow, Jim King, Phil Kaiser, and Alex Kafka, whom – alongside British contemporaries such as Edward Heath, Julian Amery, and Roy Jenkins – he met repeatedly in the years to come, as they followed the tradition established by Jowett for Balliol men (women were not admitted until 1979) to forge careers in public life.

Healey describes the late 1930s as “a wonderful period in which to have been at Oxford.” He excelled academically, gaining a First in both Mods and Greats in 1940, while also managing to pursue and expand his cultural ‘hinterland’, establishing the New Oxford Arts Society, nourishing his passion for poetry, art, and literature, and travelling extensively around Europe.

[Denis Healey]
Photography is one of Denis Healey’s many interests.

The shadow of war loomed over Healey’s political education at Oxford. On the eve of the 20th century’s most destructive conflict, Oxford was a place saturated in politics; a third of all undergraduates were members of the Labour Party.

Healey was led in the summer of 1937 to join the University’s Communist Party – the popular front politics of the day rendering the gulf between Oxford Labourites and Communists narrower than it may seem in retrospect. It was, as he saw it, the only force willing to oppose Hitler unflinchingly. He broke with the movement shortly after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939.

Healey fought in Italy during the Second World War, reaching the rank of Major and surviving fierce enemy fire at Porto di Santa Venere. He would later call the army “a school in practical reality”, which equipped him for the pressures of political life that were to follow.

[Deni Healey and Michael Foot]
Rivals for the Labour Party leadership ballot, Denis Healey (Shadow Chancellor) and Michael Foot (Deputy Leader) outside the Houses of Parliament, 1980

Becoming a politician

Following an unsuccessful run for Parliament in 1945 Healey became International Secretary of the Labour Party; a role which would expand his already extensive range of international relationships with leaders and fellow socialists around the world.

Initially viewed as a firebrand following a passionate speech to the 1945 Labour Party conference in Blackpool, the experience of life as a Member of Parliament after 1952 saw Healey develop a powerful belief in the importance of pragmatism. Indeed, he labels himself an “eclectic pragmatist with a strong moral streak.”

It was this moral streak, he says, and his overriding desire to stop a Third World War, which lay behind his entry into parliamentary politics. As he puts it, “Wars are made by governments and to stop them you have to be in government.”

The Labour Party has seen many changes since Healey received his peerage and joined, in his own words, “the house of the living dead.” He argues, with a slight hint of envy, that the degree of political consensus within the Labour Party and the decline in trade union power mean that “it’s a much easier thing now, being a Labour leader.”

When Harold Wilson led Labour back to power in 1964, Healey’s international expertise and background led naturally to his appointment as Secretary of State for Defence. His performance in this role endowed him with a national political profile for the first time. It was, he says, the ministerial job he enjoyed most both “politically and personally.”

Despite the gruelling hours, Healey describes his work at Defence as having been “exhilarating.” Not only was the work challenging but it also provided him with the chance to travel around the world and meet old friends.

[Edna Healey & Denis Healey]
Edna Healey, watched by Denis Healey (Secretary of State for Defence), christens Britain’s latest nuclear submarine, HMS Renown, at a launching ceremony in Birkenhead, 1967.

East of Suez

Healey’s time at Defence is primarily known for the decision to withdraw British military forces from East of Suez. It was, he recalls, a “slow business”, given the need to balance the “very heavy economic pressure we were facing” with the need to “ensure that we left a stable situation behind.” He accepts the lack of recognition for his various other contributions at Defence with his usual modesty. It is, he says with a smile, a natural part of politics: “I was successful and people tend to remember failure more than success.”

Healey faced his most difficult political challenges as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979. Some of these were intrinsic to a job where performance is dependent on events beyond a Chancellor’s control – a feature that became more pronounced as the full effects of the information revolution and economic interdependence took hold.

In 1976 he was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan, conditional on spending cuts and a tightening of the money supply. By this time, he recalls, “I had dropped the straightforward Keynesian view with which I had had total sympathy when I entered the Treasury.” He describes this later period at the Treasury – which also saw international factors once again impact upon his life in the form of a series of global oil shocks – as being “extremely difficult for me to cope with.” Whilst he admits to mistakes which contributed to Labour’s downfall in 1979, he is adamant that “we didn’t deserve the alternative we actually got.”

Perhaps Healey’s greatest political contribution was to ensure that the Labour Party remained a credible electoral force. In refusing to join the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981, and determining to “go on fighting” for the Party, to which he remains ferociously loyal, Healey arguably stopped the haemorrhage of the Labour vote at a critical time. To many he remains the ‘best Prime Minister we never had’.

Interests outside politics quote

Looking back

How does he look back on his political career? Politics, he argues, can be “disastrous on family life”, but he believes that his and his wife’s efforts kept their family together.

[Denis Healey & Joan Collins]
Denis Healey enjoys a drink with Joan Collins at a Foyles Literary Luncheon, 2002.

He also stresses the importance of a ‘hinterland’ in both surviving politics and in being a good politician. “If you don’t have interests outside politics you lose an important part of your personality; you get covered by a horny carapace. To have interests outside politics is important to being successful in it.”

Fittingly, given the range of international experiences that have shaped his life, Healey’s biggest regret is not becoming Foreign Secretary. He consoles himself in typically humorous and understated terms by recalling that “when I was Defence Secretary, a Minister told me that the Foreign Office was divided in two, between those who believed I should be Foreign Secretary and the other half who thought I already was!”

Healey’s interest in foreign affairs remains intense. He confidently ranges over the complexities of issues as diverse as the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, Turkish ascension to the European Union, and Iranian nuclear designs.

In his opinion, the importance of foreign policy will only increase. As he puts it, “The real issues on which the country gets divided, sometimes fiercely, are issues of foreign policy like Iraq, Iran, and before too long over China. These divisions tend to be inside the parties rather than between them.”

This development, he finishes by arguing, is not necessarily a bad thing – so long as people follow his example and pragmatically adapt their moral commitments to the changing realities of the world around them.

Matthew Pennycook (2005) read for a BSc in History and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and has been reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Balliol.