Saturday, 26 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Denis Healey

3rd October 2015 – Denis Healey, 98

("Denis Healey" by Rob Mieremet - . Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Commons

Labour politician who was MP for Leeds South East from 1952 to 1955 and Leeds East from 1955 to 1992.

One of the first MPs elected after the death of King George VI (the by-election was held the day after he died), Healey had previously served with the Royal Engineers during World War Two. A graduate of Balliol (where he read Greats, and met Ted Heath and Anthony Crosland), Healey won an MBE in 1945 for his war service, having seen front line action during the invasion of Sicily and the Italian campaign. In his autobiography, Time of My Life, published 1989, Healey writes about several near death escapes during his time in the War.

“The upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent. The struggle for socialism in Europe ... has been hard, cruel, merciless and bloody. The penalty for participation in the liberation movement has been death for oneself, if caught, and, if not caught oneself, the burning of one's home and the death by torture of one's family ... Remember that one of the prices paid for our survival during the last five years has been the death by bombardment of countless thousands of innocent European men and women.”
Denis Healey, Labour Conference speech, 21 May 1945

Prior to his 1952 election (he had previously stood in 1945 for Pusey but lost despite secure a 13% swing from Tories to Labour), Healey had been active on the international committees for the Labour party, and traveled behind the Iron Curtain – it was these travels that cemented his political views for life. Having been a Communist pre-war, he was now avowedly democratic Socialist.

As one of the Gaitskellites who abhorred the notion of George Brown as leader of the party, he switched his vote in the 1963 party leader election to Harold Wilson.

“A boon to cartoonists and impressionists through his beetling brows and colourful turn of phrase, Denis Healey combined a formidable intellect with an ability to communicate with the man in the street. No other politician of his era could have held their own playing a pub piano in a Christmas television special, yet no one doubted his seriousness in government. Healey was, with Rab Butler, one of the tiny band who could count themselves unlucky not to have been prime minister. For two decades he was Labour’s most substantial figure after Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, in each of whose Cabinets he was a senior member. Yet two factors denied him the ultimate prize.  One was timing: Healey’s best opportunity to lead his party, if not the nation, came after Labour’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher, which cast it into opposition for 18 years. The other was his refusal to suffer fools gladly, which earned him powerful enemies on his own side. He never concealed his contempt for Left-wing theorists and those he judged careerists, and over the years he bruised many egos.”
Telegraph obit

When Labour won the 1964 election, Healey became Defence Secretary, a post he had been shadowing for the six months prior to election. Healey spent his six years in Defence cutting the numbers of ships and aircraft, and withdrawing troops from places like Singapore and Aden. He also, equally controversially, was responsible for the removal for the Chagossians.

When Labour returned to power in 1974, Healey became Chancellor of the Exchequer under both Wilson and Jim Callaghan. He inherited an economy which was in serious trouble, as the inhabitant of the office in the Heath era had taken the surplus created by his predecessors Roy Jenkins and Iain MacLeod, and ran it entirely into the ground. [Tax cuts, combined with a heavy increase in bank and home investment speculation designed on a long term success reliant on their not being a war in the middle east or industrial action at home, which were dealt with by floating the pound, which made things worse, as did the increasing period of stagflation – that’s the basic gist, anyhow.)

“There were moments when Healey came close to taking the foreign office. Had Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour leader, lived on beyond 1963 and won the following year’s election, he might have landed the job then. Wilson preferred to give it to Patrick Gordon Walker. When Gordon Walker lost his seat in the 1964 election, Wilson stuck with him, even though he was not an MP. However, when he lost again in a byelection at Leyton, east London, the next year, Wilson sent not for Healey but for Michael Stewart – chiefly, some colleagues believed, because he intended to keep foreign policy in his own hands and judged Stewart as more malleable than Healey.When in March 1968 the then foreign secretary, George Brown, walked out of the government, Wilson again considered Healey, but instead recalled Stewart. Then when Labour came back to power in February 1974, Healey lost out to Callaghan. And when Callaghan succeeded Wilson as premier, he gave the foreign office to Tony Crosland, keeping Healey as chancellor. After Crosland’s premature death in 1977, the doors closed again as Callaghan picked David Owen – though as Healey wrote in his memoirs, at the time he felt he ought not to leave the Treasury.”
David McKie, Guardian obit

“It did not take long for Healey to realise that he had been given something of a poisoned chalice. In his first year as Chancellor inflation touched 27 per cent, and Healey’s dogged five-year tenure never really recovered. With Wilson opposed to any compulsory incomes policy, the only way forward was through negotiation and agreement with the unions; and, although there were some successes, not least with the £6 flat-rate offer of July 1975, by which the country’s workforce generally abided, the pressures on sterling led to the bailing-out IMF loan of the end of 1976, with all the concomitant cuts in public expenditure. The months that preceded this denouement, with interest rates rising to a then unprecedented 15 per cent, Healey was later to describe as “the worst of my life.” It was characteristic that he should apply that description to a policy reverse rather than a personal rebuff. Earlier that year, on Wilson’s sudden retirement from the Prime Ministership, he had, after some hesitation, thrown his hat into the ring to be his successor. In what was then a purely Parliamentary ballot, Healey attained only 30 votes, seven fewer than Tony Benn and only just over half Roy Jenkins’ 57. It was a humiliating showing for a Chancellor, scarcely redeemed by a typically stubborn refusal to withdraw and the derisory reward of a mere eight extra votes in a second ballot where the only other candidates were Foot and Callaghan.”
Anthony Howard, Independent obit

“A mixture of Hamlet, Rasputin and Tommy Cooper.”
Denis Healey on Sir Keith Joseph

Healey was forced to take the decision which seems to stand as his legacy in some quarters, to go to the IMF for a loan to steady the British economy. Healey’s basic principle as Chancellor was that the poorest and most vulnerable needed protection ring fenced, so those that could pay above that had to pay considerably more in taxes. (The tax threshold, incidentally, was annual earns of 30k in today’s money.)

“But before you cheer too loudly, let me warn you that a lot of you will pay extra taxes, too. That will go for every Member of Parliament in this hall, including me ... There are going to be howls of anguish from the eighty thousand people who are rich enough to pay over seventy-five per cent on the last slice of their income. But how much do we hear from them today of the eighty-five thousand families at the bottom of the earnings scale who have to pay over seventy-five per cent on the last slice of their income - and thirty thousand of them actually lose twenty-five new pence or more, when their wages go up a pound?”
Healey’s famous Conference speech in 1973, translated in the press as “taxing the rich until the pips squeak”

In 1979, Labour lost the election to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. When Callaghan resigned as party leader the following year, many expected Denis Healey to be elected as the new Labour leader.

However, his slightly abrasive style which had worked so well as a bulldog for the government didn’t lend itself well to looking for personal votes in the party. A combination of people unconvinced with Healey, Healey’s own bullishness on the matter (which he later regretted) and a number of MPs who sabotaged the result before they left for the SDP, were all factors which led to Michael Foot becoming Labour leader instead.

Healey was Deputy leader, and survived a fractious election contest against Tony Benn. A long standing rivalry with Benn was patched up, acrimoniously, later in the 1980's for fear of party collapse in the face of the new Social Democratic Party, but they mellowed over the rest of their life – Healey thought of Benn as a “destructive idealist” rather than any malignant force.

““And who is the Mephistopheles behind this shabby Faust Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe? To quote her own backbenchers, the Great She-elephant, She-who-must-be-obeyed, the Catherine the Great of Finchley, the Prime Minister herself!”
Healey on Margaret Thatcher in the Commons, February, 1984, quoted in The Independent 3 Oct 2015.

“Hinterland, German for ‘beyond the horizon’, is the term made famous by Healey to denote the skills, hobbies and pleasures that statesmen enjoy outside of office. Alongside a love of art and music, he has authored books on photography and proudly recalls using one of Kodak’s earliest cameras, the Box Brownie, at the age of eight. I ask him what his advice would be to students at York looking to pursue a career in politics and his response is immediate: “Live. Pursue all of your interests at university and don’t enter a career in politics straight away. You cannot speak with conviction about things you do not know”. Britain’s two most controversial recent prime ministers, Blair and Thatcher, were guilty in Healey’s eyes for this. Blair was “all right for the first three years” but after 9/11 “got most things wrong” while Thatcher was a “disaster for students”, whose legacy and ideology of privatisation has resulted in today’s state being unable to offer proper support for the cost of tuition. He remains “very surprised” that there isn’t greater revolt against the rise in tuition fees and that students increasingly accept the maximum cost of £9000 that the University of York imposes.”
George Dabby, Interview: Denis Healey, York Vision 29 April 2014

After moving to the House of Lords in 1992, Healey was an ally of Tony Blair’s who turned severe critic, spoke against the Iraq war,  and his sense of humour continued to rub people up all the wrong way. Intendre deliberately intended as tribute.

His wife and best friend, Edna, died in 2010 after sixty-five years of marriage. An early visit after Edna’s death came from his one-time bitterest rival, Tony Benn, who himself had lost his own wife, Caroline, in 2000.

Healey continued to make TV appearances well into 2015, slowing speech not diminishing his “call a spade a shovel” approach to all politics.

He told off students for being too apolitical to tuition fee changes, waded into the middle of the Scottish independence referendum debate to suggest Westminster was fearful of losing North Sea Oil, and was often on hand to tell bad jokes, make further candid comment, and make honest but fair assessments of colleagues who had passed on.

When colleagues would use obituary space to air dirty laundry (and I won’t name names), Healey would refrain.

And so we shall do him the same luxury here.

Denis Healey could have been Prime Minister if he had been more of a smooth people person, true, but he shouldn’t have blamed himself, as seen in Labour The Wilderness Years, for the Thatcher era. The SDP split would have torpedoed any Labour leader in 1983, and if the circumstances had been better in 1980 leading to a Healey leadership, there might not have been the threat of Thatcherism in the first place to worry about.

Throughout his life, Healey refused to sugar coat his views to his enemies and friends alike, and made enemies out of thin skinned PR seeking fools. Before I read Time of My Life, I thought Healey was your typical right wing bogeyman, like everyone thinks when they are younger and foolish and binary in their own self-righteousness. After reading, I realised that Healey had his flaws and successes like any other person, and if one took put ones’ Tony Benn fandom at the door, there was a lot of mutual agreement going on there.

After all, you know where you stood with Denis Healey. Who knows what David Camerons own views are, given he changes them for political expediency at least three times a day?

Besides, Healey was the last of the giants of the 1964-1970 government. Unfashionable as it is, I feel history will look back on that tenure as the equal of Gladstone’s longest, or Peel, or Asquith. Or, dare I say it, that shadow of Attlee that still hangs over the Labour party. Their greatest achievement was to take things which were controversial then but which we now take for granted. Why shouldn’t gay relations be legal? Why shouldn’t it be illegal to discriminate on sexual or racial grounds? Why should we put criminals to death? The governments in which Denis Healey stood as a senior member took large liberalizing scythes through British life, despite the shrieks of anguish from all quarters. And now? Now we take these things as self evident in society.

Never mind TINA. That was Healey’s greatest achievement. He might never have been Prime Minister, or even Foreign Secretary, but some of the views he held are now the fabric of modern British society.

That is a legacy which lasts far, far longer than a term of office.

“First rule of holes: if you’re in one, stop digging.”
Healey’s First law of Holes

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