Observer Review: Denis Healey By Edward Pearce Essay, Research Paper
The great contenderDenis Healey: A Life in Our TimesEdward PearceLittle, Brown ?30, pp634Speculation about what might have been is the sort of self-indulgence for which Denis Healey has only contempt. Looking back on his own career, he said – and I have no doubt meant – that doing something was far more important then being somebody. But those of us with less robust emotions, who worked with him through the traumas of the late Sixties, cannot resist occasionally imagining what would have happened if he had won the Labour leadership election in 1980.He lost because a couple of dozen Labour MPs believed, wrongly as it turned out, that if Michael Foot led the party, the activists in the constituencies would let them lead a quiet life. Their cowardice was compounded by the perfidy of four or five defectors to the soon-to-be-formed SDP who supported Foot because they wanted what was worst for the party and an excuse for their defection. Had Healey won, Labour would not have split. Or, at least, as he said to me during the years of bitter division, the fault line would have been located differently.With Denis Healey leading the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher would still have won the 1983 general election, but Labour would have been defeated, not humiliated. And Healey would have lived to fight (and probably win) another day. The irresponsible Left would never have taken control of an intact party which looked as if it had a chance of seizing power and Blairite Christian Democracy, which was a reaction to the years of failure and the damage done by extremism, would not have been born out of desperation.It is impossible to read Edward Pearce’s splendid biography, made all the more intimately informative by the author’s clear bias in favour of his subject, without coming to a poignant conclusion about Healey’s failure to reach the oily top of the greasy pole. He would have been a great prime minister because he possessed in abundance the two essential requirements of that office – courage and intellect. And he was hideously unequipped to win the parliamentary election which would have made him party leader and given him a crack at the title.From the very beginning of his political life, Healey found it almost impossible to trim his sails and, in defence of what he knew (without the slightest doubt) to be right, he could never resist grinding his opponents into the dust. Pearce reminds us that in the great unilateral disarmament debate at Labour’s 1960 conference, Hugh Gaitskill made his national reputation with a speech of high emotion and impeccable principle. Healey, the scholar who might have devoted his life to a study of aesthetics and found a solace in times of stress in music, art and philosophy, simply abused the unilateralists.Of course, his speech was logically impeccable, but what the comrades remembered was the question he addressed to Frank Cousins, the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, who had just been humiliated in his attempt to increase bus crews’ wages: ‘Is there anybody in the hall who thinks it is easier to deal with Mr Khrushchev than with the chairman of the London Transport Executive?’When the great test came, it was not the earlier verbal and intellectual success that was held against him – it was his conduct during the campaign. He lost the second ballot and, therefore, the leadership by 10 votes.Putting aside the cowards and the traitors, he certainly threw away enough support to have made the difference between victory and defeat. I told him that by refusing to write a personal manifesto to the Guardian, he would alienate two potential supporters whom I was able to name. His reaction to my advice was unprintable. Pearce’s biography suits the subject. It makes very few compromises with easy reading. Few people will buy it for holiday amusement, but it has real merit.Pearce revives my irritation. But the biography also reminds how simply brilliant Healey was. His sixth-form essays, supplied, like so much of the book’s material, by Healey himself, must have been regarded as pretentious by his classmates. But his masters must have thought them the work of a prodigy.By the time I came to know him well – I was his deputy at the Ministry of Defence in 1969-70 – he had no need to prove how clever he was. I was there when Air Chief Marshal Elworthy (not Admiral Peter Hill-Norton, as Pearce reports) bade him goodbye, on behalf of the Chiefs of Staff, after the 1970 election defeat. He described him as the best Secretary of State since the war.Foreign Secretary was the job for which his early political career, as well as his natural instincts and interests, eminently equipped him. Instead, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer at the moment of almost maximum crisis in the postwar economy.He applied the same strategy which he had employed throughout his earlier political life and, no doubt, both during his gilded years at Balliol and in the course of winning the two mentions in dispatches during his time as beachmaster in the Italian campaign. He was immensely clever, usually right and immensely offensive to those who disagreed with him. It was a technique which I found irresistibly endearing. But I can understand why others, particularly those who suffered from his brutality, thought otherwise.In one sense, his uninhibited attitude to life has been an unqualified success. As Pearce makes clear, Healey was the happy warrior with an idyllic home life and intellectual interests so wide that they stimulated his wife into inventing the immortal phrase ‘political hinterland’, the other interests into which happy retreat was always possible. But for the rest of us, his failure to lead the Labour Party – and the country – was a tragedy.