Denis Healey was a giant and lived in an age of giants.
His name shares breath with the icons of postwar Labour: Wilson and Callaghan, Gaitskill and Castle, Crosland and Benn. One need not be a misty-eyed nostalgist to lament the absence of such big beasts from today’s parliamentary party.
Healey had hinterland. He fought with distinction in World War II. His was the last generation of men who greased guns and took lives and neither gloried in death nor wallowed in self-reproach. There he is at the 1945 Labour conference, starched in his uniform, rallying his comrades, unselfconsciously proud of his country and hungry for the power to change it.
As defence secretary under Harold Wilson and chancellor under Wilson and James Callaghan, he was the face of two policy areas heatedly contested by the Labour right and left. Healey supported Nato and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and was scornful of unilateralists. Despite promising to soak the rich and “squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak” in conferences speeches as chancellor, he would later dole out the bitter medicine prescribed by the IMF.
He towered over his party in these years and for a time power seemed within his grasp. The winter of discontent put paid to that and brought Margaret Thatcher to power. “The workers,” he remarked ruefully, “voted against the consequences of their own irresponsibility.” In the 1980s leadership election party members rejected him in favour of socialist romantic Michael Foot, though Healey put little effort into his campaign.
He was a “right-winger” in the mad parlance of 1980s Labour. Fresh-faced Corbynistas are sombrely tweeting out passages of early Healey on the virtues of socialism. They are too young to know they are supposed to hate him.
The grammar school boy was, by his own admission, “a bit of a thug” but he had intellectual muscle too. He refused to concede the mantle of Labour authenticity to the hard-left, then led by Tony Benn, an aristosocialist who did all he could to live down his privileged upbringing. “He read Marx for the first time when he was in his fifties and thought he was absolutely marvellous,” Healey purred.
Had he won the leadership, Mrs Thatcher’s tenure in Number 10 would likely have been shortened by some years. Healey went on to become Foot’s deputy and only narrowly fended off a challenge from Tony Benn — “I won by half an eyebrow,” he quipped — but could do nothing to save Labour from its 1983 rendezvous with the voters.
By now he was 66 and Neil Kinnock the preferred candidate to unite the party. Healey spent another decade on the green benches, much of it as shadow foreign secretary, but the air of imminence was gone. He retired to his home in the South Downs with his wife Edna, making only occasional interventions in public debates. A 2013 interview in which he conceded that “we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism” stirred controversy north of the border.
All political life ends in failure and for Healey that was doubly true. He became known as “the best prime minister Labour never had” and in his final months was to witness the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. If he casts a long shadow, it is one in which his party is now barely perceptible. Healey is carried out as Labour enters its darkest days, finally seized by the very faction he strived to keep at bay.
He was contemptuous of purism and self-righteous oppositionism, telling the Labour conference:
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 living on this earth at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power. We shall never get power unless we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.
That was 1959. The history of the Labour Party is a timeline of lessons learned and fitfully unlearned.
That gap between Labour and the voters is wider than ever today but there is no Healey to narrow it, only pale pretenders. Labour centrists still think of themselves as “moderates”, as though the Corbynites are real Labour and those who want to win elections and change public policy are fainthearts. The opposite is the truth. Labour’s tradition is one of reformism not revolution and it’s time that tradition reasserted itself.
Denis Healey’s life was spent fighting impossibilism and in death his party still finds itself on that battlefield. Too much of Labour’s century-long history has been wasted on internal disputes that at root all posed the same quandary: Principles or power? Every now and then a leader comes along who wins this argument but soon enough the dull ideologues reemerge and it’s back to square one. A political party that constantly needs to be convinced of the benefit of winning elections is a lot of effort for modest rewards.
Labour has outlived Denis Healey but by how long?