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15 October 2015

No renaissance for Mr Healey

A reflection on Denis Healey (1917 - 2015) in this piece from the NS archive from 1981.

By Bruce Page

Nothing could be more brutally plain than that Denis Healey, one of the Labour movement’s principal chieftains, is an object of hostility, even of hatred, for many of that movement’s members.

By Labour standards, Healey gets a mighty affectionate press. The label of “Renaissance man” is applied without consciousness of hyperbole. The standard profile describes him as unquenchably diligent: as gifted beyond all contemporaries in the absorption of technical detail, but as capable nonetheless of strategic perception.

Who else debates so fluently with foreign statesmen in their own languages, or turns so easily from industrial minutiae to the discussion of music, painting, or literature? Who else so well combines a Balliol First with the common touch of Yorkshire? Usually, the only fault advertised is a rough, tough over-confidence: a brash assertiveness about the product of his own excellent intellect, which emerges in office as a penchant for the brow-beating of civil servants. The virtues are authentic. It is the “fault” which is phoney.

Healey’s failure as Chancellor, with which Labour remains hag-ridden, occurred because the bravura mask concealed a deadly lack of self-assurance. He could not out-face the civil servants, however compelling intellectually the evidence of their unwisdom. He may have brow-beaten them, but only as a preliminary to accepting the seductive comfort of their advice.

The great panic of 1976, when Labour abandoned a decisive part of its social programme, was as usual the climactic moment in a process of deterioration. Months beforehand, the pound was weakening, and indications were that without support it might fall to the alarming level of $1.50 . . . The Treasury claimed it was impossible to raise $10 billion for the reserves. But they also said that $3 billion for exchange-support was impossible . . . Britain stumbled onwards to the crisis when the pound “nearly died” – and Healey lined up with the Treasury – under the melodramatic and highly simplistic threat that the IMF’s Enforcers would otherwise bankrupt Britain like a High Street dress shop.

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Healey’s enemies see here the skilful class-traitor. His friends see the tragedy of a man armed everywhere with gifts – except the crucial intuition which reveals itself when every scrap of political credit must be risked on a challenge to the conventional wisdom. The price of retaining office was Labour’s adoption of interests which the Tories exist to defend. The consequences for Toryism weren’t salubrious, but that’s another story. For Labour, given the existing disaffection of the “bed-sitter radicals”, and the dilapidation of the whole movement’s democratic equipment, schism became an almost inevitable process.

Neither Denis Healey, Tony Benn nor any of their colleagues will admit that the price might have been excessive (though Benn stoutly refuses to pay his share of the bill). For various reasons, they all believe office must never be surrendered.

Healey is not the simple-minded reactionary of left-wing caricature – how many of those who heckle him, for instance, realise that he is opposed to Cruise missiles in Britain? But his conception of politics scarcely extends beyond the wearing-down of opposition, tempered by the occasional touch of what his best friends call “thuggery”. Like an administrator, he believes that
there is only one correct path which is the one recommending itself to him. Sooner or later, the “silly billies” will achieve wisdom: if it looks like being too much later, they may have to be hustled.

His own firm belief is that no government can think. At its best, it can only implement a previously devised plan, and nothing could be more foreign to his thought than that planning is only the precondition for the creative improvisation that must be called forth by stress. To Healey, a government taking office and a student leaving university are alike in having acquired their essential stock of knowledge, which then requires merely to be applied, with more or less success. It would be difficult to think of a more conservative conception – in the non-political sense – or, come to that, of one further from the idea of “Renaissance man”.

Obviously, to some Labour enthusiasts, any evidence of failure by Healey is source for rejoicing. But there is little advantage in it for Labour’s overall cause, for he retains a solid position among a large number of Labour’s voters: something just as necessary to the party as the activist enthusiasm which Tony Benn commands.

Fairly or not, Healey bears the chief responsibility for Labour’s disastrous change-of-path in 1976. Indeed, some large part of his public standing probably derives from the fact that, for all his disputatious skills, he hasn’t really tried to shuffle that responsibility off. It is the kind of broad point which political enthusiasts may overlook in their concern with the intricacies of praise and blame.

Whatever the leader-writers may say, Labour will never succeed as the party of radical change so long as its leadership is dominated by Denis Healey. But a major problem for the party, and one which could yet be too much for its democratic skills, is to eliminate his claim to command without, in the process, destroying its own legitimacy.

Two days after this piece was published, Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn’s challenge for the Labour deputy leadership by 50.4 per cent of the vote to Benn’s 49.6 per cent

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis