The lone wolf

Denis Healey: A Life in Our Times

Edward Pearce <em>Little, Brown, 634pp, £30</em>

ISBN 03168589

No public figure over the past half-century has successfully transcended the life of politics in quite the same way as Denis Healey. Even today, after what has been a long-drawn-out retirement - he last held government office 23 years ago, and it is now 15 years since he sat on any front bench, even an opposition one - he remains, in the eyes of the British public, somewhere up there alongside the Beefeaters and Westminster Abbey. He never became prime minister or led the Labour Party, but he is far more popular than most of those who did. His distinctively lugubrious tones and his fiercely bristling eyebrows (to say nothing of the flattering, cuddly attention lavished on him during his heyday by Mike Yarwood) have seen to it that, unlike the contemporary breed of new Labour politicians, he is instantly recognisable anywhere.

The political journalist Edward Pearce has been a long-time admirer, and in the wake of Healey's not notably self-critical 1989 autobiography, The Time of My Life, he has now contrived to produce an equally adulatory biography. (Its subtitle, "a life in our times", even manages to echo the title of Healey's own book.) But Pearce's is, in fact, an impressive piece of work, offering a range of political background material that the essentially solipsistic Healey felt no need to include. From now on, anyone seeking to understand the decline (and almost fatal fall) that overtook the Labour Party in the last quarter of the 20th century will need to pay attention to the cautionary tale that Pearce tells both vividly and well.

The prudent reader will not, however, swallow it whole. It was not just events that conspired against Healey becoming leader of his party - he brought a good number of his troubles on himself. It was Melbourne, or so legend has it, who once remarked of the Whig historian Macaulay: "I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything" - and undoubtedly it was Healey's intellectual arrogance, combined with an unattractive propensity always to parade his own knowledge, that let him down. Show-offs are no more popular in later life than they are at school. If only Healey could have brought himself to accept that - wide as his knowledge was - there still remained certain areas where other people knew more than he did, he would have done himself, and his prospects of getting to the top, a power of good.

His biographer is altogether too much of a votary to highlight this weakness; by failing to bring it out, he misses an important factor in the Labour Party's internal discontents between 1970 and 1983. There was never any possibility that Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins were going to make common cause over anything: deliberately locked into an intense personal rivalry by Harold Wilson, they also remained, in terms of their aesthetic tastes and social attitudes, incompatible. But Jenkins and Healey - why on earth did they fail to work together to resist the left-wing headbangers who so nearly brought down the party?

In the account given here, Pearce seems to me too ready to believe that the two of them always took good care to maintain friendly social relations. If that was the case, I cannot claim ever to have noticed it. Indeed, the only remark appearing here that rang a bell with me was one allegedly made by Jenkins, in which he is supposed to have said of his relationship with Healey and vice versa: "All our lives we have rubbed one another the wrong way." Although the source given for it is pretty vague, that, I believe, is the way things were - and had been ever since they were contemporaries at Balliol College, Oxford, before the war, when Healey (the senior man by a year) made the occasional attempt to patronise, or show off to, his younger colleague.

But the awkward truth is that these Labour heavyweights - divided, if at all, only by the issue of Europe, on which Healey performed a succession of increasingly undignified flip-flops - should have been fighting shoulder to shoulder to prevent the Bennite takeover of the party. That neither was prepared to make the effort, or to sacrifice personal ambition for a joint political cause, reflects badly on each of them.

Towards the end of this always absorbing but sometimes sprawling and untidy book - even the photographs in the middle were, I noticed, badly out of order - the author rejects the notion that his subject tended to act as "a lone wolf". Yet that has always struck me as the best defence that can be made for Healey's relative failure in Labour politics. What distinguished him from most of his colleagues was his firm belief in the duty of politicians to get things done. That was why, through 11 years of Labour government, he chose to hold only two offices, Secretary of State for Defence (1964-70) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1974-79).

His preference to stay put in one department to see things through represented an important part of his character and outlook. Perhaps the truth was that, at heart, he was always more of an administrator than a politician, the kind of figure rash enough to believe that, if you got the strategy right, the tactics could safely be left to look after themselves. And in the Wilson and Callaghan years, that was just about as unfashionable a doctrine as it has proved to be in Tony Blair's.

Anthony Howard is a former editor of the New Statesman