Denis the menace

He questioned my paternity so I praised his virility.
– Denis Healey in 1989, recalling a public bust-up over spending cuts with a left-wing Labour MP in the 1970s

Sometimes things are as they seem and there are no interesting angles or intriguing paradoxes to be found. I was just 19, a junior reporter who had spent the evening trying to keep up with the big guys in terms of downing the products of the Morland Brewery of Abingdon, when I flopped into an armchair in my lodgings and clicked on the radio.

It was 10 November 1980 and the big news of the night was Denis Healey’s defeat at the hands of Michael Foot in the second ballot of Labour’s leadership election. Befuddled though I was, and scarcely an authority on either British politics or on anything else, I knew Foot’s election would be a disaster for the party – and I was right.

Others thought they knew better, including my parents (traditional in their veneration for education and qualifications, Bohemian in their politics), who assured me that Foot, ‘a great House of Commons man’, was an inspired choice. Here was a politician, my mother noted, who read William Hazlitt, while Margaret Thatcher just about managed to get through the works of Jeffrey Archer. There was no contest.

Well, they were spot-on there, although not in quite the way they had intended.

Healey at the head of the Labour Party is one of those ‘what if’ questions that pops up from time to time and has never been satisfactorily settled. One version has his leadership constantly under siege from the left, with endless running battles fought in public, not least at the annual conference. The 1982 Falklands campaign, ostensibly a gift to a former defence secretary, might have brought forth an uncertain response from the later Healey, anxious to avoid another colossal row with the party’s neutralist/pacifist left wing. Labour’s defeat in 1983 would have been less cataclysmic than under Foot’s leadership, but it would have happened all the same.

Another version has Healey leading popular resistance to spending cuts and mass unemployment from a position of credibility as a former chancellor of the exchequer, brilliantly exploiting the unpopularity of Mrs Thatcher and stirring up the ‘wet’ Tories to unseat her, or at the very least to make her life impossible. The Falklands campaign may never have happened had a hawk-eyed Healey forced a U-turn on the withdrawal of the British naval presence in the islands. Assuming the invasion did occur, the war hero would have rallied his party to the colours, convincing all but the most obdurate MPs that this was a battle against what his colleague John Silkin described (in real life) as ‘a tin-pot fascist junta’. Come 1983 and Healey would have been on his way to Downing Street.

In this scenario, the conventional wisdom would have had it that the Tories had twice, since 1965, turned to lower-middle-class grammar-school products who, having got themselves elected, had tried harsh economic medicine and anti-union laws only to incur defeat. Edward Heath and Mrs Thatcher would have been bracketed as the ‘confrontation’ premiers, each bequeathing an economic chaos that then had to be resolved by the calm, competent and conventional leaders of the Labour Party: Harold Wilson (1974 vintage), James Callaghan and Denis Healey.

It is thus tempting to see Healey as a ‘nearly man’, but it may be more useful to think of him as the ‘without’ man. In the 1960s, he brought Britain’s defence commitments under control without entirely erasing the country’s significance as a military power, and later he tackled the Heath/OPEC generated hyper-inflation of the mid-1970s without completely crashing the economy – Mrs Thatcher and Healey’s successor Sir Geoffrey Howe (as he was) proved themselves quite incapable of performing the same feat after the second oil shock, the one that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution.


Looked at this way, the antipathy of the party’s left is unsurprising. It is even less so when one considers that Healey was close to the scene of the crime when two cherished left-wing policies were quietly throttled.The commentary since his death has claimed there was no body of thought that might be called ‘Healeyism’ and that there was only ever one ‘Healey-ite’. Well, possibly, although there was no real need for him to invent a philosophy as he was firmly in the tradition of post-war foreign secretary Ernest Bevin: pro-welfare state, pro-trade union (most of the time), pro-nuclear weapons, Atlanticist, Euro-sceptical and intensely patriotic. He fitted naturally into the pro-military quartet at the top of the 1976-1979 Labour government, alongside Roy Mason, David Owen and James Callaghan.

It has been said that no party can get elected to office when advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament. That is not quite true. Here is what Labour’s manifesto for the October 1964 election had to say:

We are not prepared any longer to waste the country’s resources on endless duplication of strategic nuclear weapons. We shall propose the re-negotiation of the Nassau agreement [under which Britain had arranged to buy the Polaris system from the US]. Our stress will be on the strengthening of our conventional regular forces so that we can contribute our share to NATO defence and also fulfil our peacekeeping commitments to the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

Labour may have just scraped into office with a majority of four, but it did indeed have a mandate to abandon the effort to maintain an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. As it was, Labour in government went ahead with the purchase and deployment of four of the planned Polaris submarines, cancelling an option to buy a fifth. The defence secretary from 1964 to 1970s was, of course, Healey.

Come the February 1974 election and Labour’s manifesto pledged the nationalisation of aerospace and shipbuilding (which went ahead). However, it promised a lot more than that:

But we shall not confine the extension of the public sector to the loss-making and subsidised industries. We shall also take over profitable sections or individual firms in those industries where a public holding is essential to enable the Government to control prices, stimulate investment, encourage exports, create employment, protect workers and consumers from the activities of irresponsible multi-national companies, and to plan the national economy in the national interest. We shall therefore include in this operation, sections of pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, machine tools, in addition to our proposals for North Sea and Celtic Sea oil and gas.

Of these state-owned, profit-making companies, no more was heard. The government’s economic policy supremo was, of course, the chancellor, Denis Healey. When the left was on the prowl, looking for the source of these ‘betrayals’, they did not, by their own lights, have far to look.

No reflection on Healey’s career would be complete without at least one anecdote. This one was first chronicled by the late Simon Hoggart. I haven’t seen it elsewhere in the last couple of days, but apologies if it has already surfaced.

Healey was addressing a public meeting when a frightening-looking skinhead made threatening gestures and shouted abuse, including a suggestion that the chancellor was in the pay of the Soviet Union. Healey leaped off the platform and smashed into the thug, having to be restrained by his Special Branch bodyguard.

It was, noted Hoggart, probably the only occasion on which a crazed attacker had needed protection from a cabinet minister.


2 thoughts on “Denis the menace

  1. Thought-provoking piece Dan – I started my career in journalism too in Abingdon too. Look forward to reading a similar such Geoffrey Howe story now that he’s also gone to meet his maker!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Following on from the anecdote about Healey attacking a skinhead, it is worth remembering that Healey fought for 4 years in WWII leaving the service with the rank of Major. He wore his military uniform while campaigning in the 1945 election. His war record and his evident loyalty to his country were the reasons why he was held in great respect by non-Labour voters.

    One aspect of Healey’s record that has only emerged in the last 15 years or so was his long involvement in Bilderberg. It would be wrong to look at Healey’s role from the perspective of today and not that of the 1950s, when Western Europe was struggling for reconciliation and faced by another totalitarian threat in the form of the USSR. In his own words, Healey explained his involvement: “Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn’t go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.” Nevertheless it would be interesting to know whether Healey felt that cross-border capital flows have got out of hand or whether corporations have too great an influence over government. It would be interesting to know how he would have voted in the EU referendum and whether he would have followed David Owen over to supporting BREXIT.


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