Denis Healey: old Labour's cold warrior

Denis Healey was intelligent, honest and charismatic, but epitomised the high-handed and unimaginative politics of Labour’s successor generation.

Carl Rowlands
5 October 2015


Denis Healey, who died on Saturday, worked for the Labour party his entire working life, in one capacity or another, from 1945 onwards. His was perhaps the first generation of Labour leaders who, regardless of background, could command an upper-middle-class salary for the duration of their career.

By the time he became Labour’s International Secretary in 1945, Healey was already hugely educated and experienced. As well as being a distinguished soldier, who had fought in the beach landings in Italy in 1943, he was well-travelled, having cycled across Europe before the war, and as International Secretary he was to become increasingly knowledgeable about the world. He was also one of the most conspicuously cultured of Labour’s up-and-coming young people, and was especially pre-occupied by art and sculpture. This itself differentiated him from the rank and file members of the Labour party. The fact that he was not especially interested in the movement also differentiated him from other ‘renaissance men’ in Labour’s ranks, such as Michael Foot.

Healey was a capable intellectual – he had an intimate knowledge of classics and history – but was seemingly lacking in any deep political aspirations to shape society for the better.  One can, with some degree of certainty, ascribe this to his experiences in the 1930s and 1940s, as a young Communist at Oxford, as a tourist in Nazi Germany and as an officer on the beaches of Italy. As witness to dictatorships of the right and, increasingly in the post-war period, dictatorships of the Stalinist left, he observed the manipulation of popular opinion in pursuit of ‘higher goals'.For a lifelong politician, he was somewhat sceptical about politics. He was an early enthusiast for the Bilderberg Group and their closed-door approach to policy.

When Healey started working for Labour in 1945, many of post-war Britain’s most immediate problems were being successfully addressed by the then Labour government, and efforts to build quality housing, hospitals and provide comprehensive medical cover were yielding tangible results. Once the 1945 cohort left the scene, perhaps finally marked by the untimely passing of Hugh Gaitskell and Nye Bevan, Labour was effectively to be dominated by a successor generation of party leaders, Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, George Brown and James Callaghan, in association with a handful of major right-wing union leaders. Healey, having been gifted a safe seat in his native Yorkshire in time for the 1952 election, was probably as clever as any of his colleagues, and possibly more honest than most – a quality which perhaps damaged his political prospects over the long term.

What nearly all of Healey’s main contemporaries of this period offered, and which he also excelled at, was a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to politics. This led not only to technocratic solutions, but also allowed financial factors to increasingly take precedence. As the Conservatives came to dominate national politics in the 1950s, a certain kind of meanness to the post-war rebuilding of Britain had become more evident. The provision of housing, education and care for patients was increasingly based upon a set of raw, de-contextualised numbers, abandoning many of the quality-based considerations that had driven the immediate post-war rebuilding at the behest of Nye Bevan and Hugh Dalton, among others. At the same time, aspects of the welfare state and publicly owned facilities were slowly coming to be associated with decay and complacency. An example can found in Gerry Hassan’s description of run-down Glasgow housing estates, controlled by a politically dominant and corrupt Labour machine for many years.

Not only were the large housing estates in Labour’s heartlands being wilfully neglected, but the redevelopment of British cities (usually controlled by Labour) was often both architecturally questionable, and notable for a penny-paring approach whereby both materials and due processes were compromised. The working-class Leeds estates that Denis Healey represented for 40 years were no exception, whilst, in contrast, the Sussex manor house in which the Healey’s lived was (and is) fairly typical for a leading Labour politician representing a loyal constituency in Britain’s rustbelt.

The Labour party became dominated by people from the upper- and lower-middle classes who brokered projects in order to renew cities in which they would not, usually, have to live. Arguably, Labour’s dominant conception of the de facto working class in this period remained one based upon passivity; even when waves of strikes and student unrest occurred from the mid-1960s onwards. It was as if Labour’s political vocabulary couldn’t extend to participatory agglutinates: the party was the plaything of minds forged in Oxford debating societies, and had developed an elitism all of its own. All of this wasn’t Denis Healey’s fault, but in some ways he came to epitomise a high-handed political approach, and internally he was perhaps its most overt advocate. His pre-occupation with the managerial theories espoused by Robert McNamara in the 1950s, following an extended visit to the United States, gave Healey a technocratic perspective on many political questions.

Following Labour’s victory in 1964, Harold Wilson made Healey Defence Secretary, a role he held for six years until Labour’s shock defeat in 1970. Healey disliked Harold Wilson, despite achieving a stable Cabinet position at the relatively young age of forty-six[i]. Wilson remained somewhat detached from the powerful Gaitskellite right-wing grouping which he had inherited. The Wilsons weren’t personally popular among the families who comprised the Labour leadership of the time; far too parochial, even petite bourgeoisie. But perhaps part of this dislike on Healey’s side stemmed from the fact that Wilson was, on one level, a man who pursued ideas, who liked playing with theories and concepts.  Wilson’s initial promise of a society unbound by class distinctions, forging ahead with new forms of industry and commerce, may have been flawed, and went largely unrealised, but it did represent a vision of sorts; and one gets the feeling that Healey was always dubious of any expression of political vision. Wilson’s own centre-left faction were in a minority in most of the 1960s cabinets and it’s possible to argue that the retreat into financial and economic orthodoxy was primarily engineered by the right of the party. At the same time, the personal rivalry between major players such as Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey was bitter and intense, making any attempt to depose Wilson impractical, even if all of them came to regard it as highly desirable.

Healey’s cuts to the armed forces in the 1960s made him the financial henchman of the Wilson administration; in fact many of the major decisions during his ministerial career remain strangely defined by finance, with only the incidental glance at more traditional Labour preoccupations[ii]. Healey’s support for abandoning the arms embargo on the apartheid regime in South Africa was motivated by the ongoing financial crises faced by Wilson’s administration[iii]; yet, it also illustrates the poverty of aspiration which afflicted Labour at this time.  It was this same logic that led to the creation of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) – a determined, and ultimately successful attempt to use public money to support British arms exports around the world. This partially formalised an industry which had been covertly gaining ground in any case, with Britain, for example, having played a crucial role in helping Israel develop nuclear weapons throughout the 1950s and 1960s. With hindsight, the continuities between Labour and Conservative governments appear in many ways more striking than any discontinuities.

After a spell in Opposition, Labour clawed back into office in 1974 amidst a deep economic crisis. By the time Healey became Chancellor, disposable income was beginning to replace shortages as the main economic issue following the oil shocks of the early 1970s. Circumstances were outside his control, but there appeared to be little in terms of overall direction, and the sense of economic chaos – though, it would seem, hugely overstated at the time – served to illustrate the lack of a wider governing vision. Despite the achievements of the 1974-1979 minority Labour governments – and indeed, there were achievements – its totality can still be said to represent a political and philosophical dead-end.

As part of a fragile minority government, he had to deal with frequent crises, but opportunities also presented themselves. A chance to positively reject austerity was lost, ceding crucial ground to the nascent Thatcherite right, whilst the Bullock Report in 1978 provided a basis for the kind of economic democracy which had the potential to lock capital into a closer relationships with workplaces. The Callaghan government, with Healey as Chancellor, failed to push.  Whilst Tony Benn was ridiculed by the Civil Service, Denis Healey won their respect and, acting on their advice, he made a series of historically important misjudgements. Following the advice of Treasury officials, he opposed the setting up of a Norwegian-style sovereign fund from North Sea Oil receipts. And again led by the Treasury, he steered the Labour government into the jaws of the IMF in 1976 and, as a condition to a loan which was not actually required, initiated a severe round of spending cuts. His apparent intention to ‘squeeze the rich till the pips squeak’ (though actually strictly meant in relation to property developers) was undermined by the tendency, accelerated during his Chancellorship with no small assistance from the darkest depths of his own department, to exploit the status of the British Dependencies for tax avoidance purposes.  

Marxist criticisms of Wilson government in the 1960s based on accusations of managerialism and parliamentarism were acute and could be applied with even more vitriol against a Callaghan government which, with Healey as Chancellor, had adopted a form of austerity economics. But the case can also be made that there was a more general failure to offer a social vision extending beyond that of the 1945 government; a failure to develop democracy and update the definitions of what a socialist government might be able to achieve. This failure wasn’t unique to Healey – it extended through much of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations – but Denis Healey’s distinguishing feature was that he was openly contemptuous of those who regarded this as a failure!  In this sense, he differed from previous Labour leaders –including those on the right – who had always retained a degree of utopian and aesthetic intent. Some radical Labour branches in London (e.g. Holborn, St Pancras and later Camden) and other major cities suggested possibilities which went beyond catering for the ‘minimum existences,’ which, it seemed, increasingly determined Labour’s politics. At their most creative, different elements of the London Labour party were to suggest solutions based on cultural possibilities, suggesting, for example, that design could be more explicitly placed in the service of the public, rather than being a background activity, or something imposed by experts in the interests of a remote technocratic leadership.

Philosophical differences within the labour movement are highlighted by Healey’s fraught relationship with the New Left. He was opposed to the 1968 student movement, preferring De Gaulle’s stifling, autocratic exercise of power to the unpredictable outpourings on Parisian streets. Yet, disturbances were never restricted to overseas. The Labour party was becoming increasingly rancorous by the close of the 1970s. The challenge from the left of the party, somewhat dormant on the national stage through the 1960s, had re-emerged, with a Tony Benn as the figurehead of an extremely disparate set of groups mainly based in Britain’s urban areas. In 1980, Michael Foot narrowly beat Denis Healey in the leadership contest of 1980, which was restricted to MPs. Healey’s consolation position of Deputy Leader, backed by most of the centrist Parliamentary Labour party, became the first big test of Labour’s new electoral college in 1981. His extremely close victory marked the turning point in the fortunes of the left in Labour.  In some ways Healey was a more skilled media politician than either Tony Benn or Michael Foot, and that the left may have underestimated the extent to which politics had become mediated – even directed – by a relatively small group of people in print media and broadcasting.  But whilst Healey’s narrow victory is still seen by some as the moment that the Labour party was saved from certain destruction, it was in many ways a pyrrhic victory: it didn’t disrupt the media narrative of the ‘loony left’ and didn’t prevent defections from the Labour right-wing to the SDP.

Denis Healey had a reputation as a tub-thumping Cold Warrior; he certainly subscribed to the centralisation of politics which this entailed. According to some early Cold War analyses, the concentration of political power in post-war Soviet systems provided an advantage over the ‘democratic’ systems, and Healey, along with other NATO insiders, believed this demanded a response moderating the degree and extent of popular representation in the West.  As a disciple of Robert McNamara, he subscribed to various management theories based upon cost-benefit analysis, as well as the nascent cult of the management consultants.  At the same time; though, he was passionately opposed to the UK participating in Vietnam[iv], and strongly backed Harold Wilson in refusing to send the UK’s regular forces to Vietnam. Healey argued for a UK nuclear deterrent in order to provide an insurance policy against US dominance – thereby, he argued, forcing the US to take the UK into account. If anything, Healey was a sincere multilateralist.

As a NATO establishment politician, Healey understood, maybe even partially sympathised with anti-nuclear and pacifist causes, but he came to consider the ongoing risk of nuclear war to be less significant than  the threat of destabilising the existing system of deterrence. When the approach based upon detente apparently changed in the early 1980s with the arrival of the initially gung-ho Reagan administration, there is little doubt that Healey was as shocked and terrified as anybody else. His view of the Eastern Bloc was obviously influenced by the trauma of seeing first-hand the fledgling Eastern European democracies snuffed out one by one from 1945 to 1950. But he also sympathised with the ostpolitik of Willy Brandt in the 1970s as a way of initiating a genuine dialogue between East and West.

Healey was a competent critic of Margaret Thatcher and as the 1980s progressed- and he became increasingly detached from active politics- his attacks on other politicians appeared more articulate and succinct than many of his younger, if, by then, more senior colleagues. His authority as an opposition spokesman was significant, and his unquestioned political (and military) clout amongst the more senior, equally pragmatic, Conservative grandees in Parliament might have set some weight against the wilder instincts of Thatcherism. 

The Labour right’s relationship with the Thatcher government was more complex than it might appear. As part of Wilson’s, and then Callaghan’s governments, Healey and others had tried to fix long-term problems with UK’s economy and were perceived as having failed. Thatcher’s response was based decisively upon abandoning many of the heaviest industries in favour of financial services, with the state being one of the main clients of the new financial services – and with many of the tax receipts from North Sea Oil indirectly recycled into a property boom. Privately some in the senior ranks of the Labour party were relieved that the focus of debate had shifted, meaning that Labour ministers in the future would no longer have to reckon with militant trade unionism and a party which aimed to aggressively hold its politicians to account. To a certain degree, the SDP was as much a response of the Labour right to Thatcherism, as it was a reaction against the Labour left. By remaining within the Labour party, Healey showed loyalty as well as his own characteristic scepticism when confronted with yet another grand political project.

Whilst it’s far from certain that Healey would have been an inspiring leader, he had populist strengths which remain unusual amongst Labour leaders. For a moderate politician, he became quite famous for being bad tempered, and there are many anecdotes of him directly confronting supporters of the National Front and later the British National Party, as well as engaging in shouting-matches with far-left hecklers. Rather than illustrating a weakness though, this arguably demonstrated that he was a skilful communicator, excellent at addressing smaller groups of people in a more intimate fashion and larger crowds and rallies. And it would seem that it was Healey’s personal charisma, rather than his overall approach to politics, that provided much of his appeal to the public.  But this also may explain why an intelligent, decent and humane man with a long and distinguished career left a political legacy more slender than his talents might have warranted.  His combination of intelligence, scepticism and disinterest in wider social aspirations set a template of sorts for many of the younger Blair/Brown generation in the Labour party of the 1990s and 2000s.   

The old right of the Labour party, which, if anything, Healey represented, barely exists in a form which is discernible from Progress, Labour Students and other Third Way post-Blair detritus which lean in some ways more towards neo-conservatism than any recognisable form of leftist politics.  Healey’s sombre recognition of the horrors of conflict and the true status of the UK military, which underpinned much of his pessimistic analysis during the Cold War, can barely be discerned within the celebration of Armed Forces Day, and the increasingly hollow veneration of military personnel. At the same time, Healey might have sheepishly claimed some credit for the rapid development of the UK’s arms trade, perhaps one of the most conspicuous long-term successes of the Wilson governments’ economic policy. That, perhaps, is the ultimate indictment of ‘political pragmatism’, whether delivered by cynical Tory or moralising Labour politicians.

[i] Pimlott, B., Harold Wilson, 1993, p.161

[ii] Castle, B., Fighting All The Way, 1994, p.354

[iii] Healey, D., The Time of My Life, 1990, p.335-336

[iv] Healey, D., The Time of My Life, 1990, p.224-229

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