Healey’s Bully Pulpit is Worth Revisiting

The memoirs of one of our most able and most cultivated politicians provide a useful reminder of the virtues of ordinary politics

Communism Critique Europe History Literature Military Politics UK Politics Westminster

The unexpectedly high quality of Alastair Campbell’s published diary, The Blair Years, which I came to late and have just finished reading, leads me to wonder if we spend enough time being grateful for living in a post-imperial culture whose politicians and political operatives manage, in a gratifying number of cases, to write their memoirs on a human level. We don’t necessarily have to like the person doing the talking. Alan Clark, for example, would have been reprehensible for his opinions if he had not been so patently unhinged. But his Diaries have been compulsory reading ever since they came out. There are so many good books on this particular shelf, in fact, that some of the best ones, after their early fame, forfeit the continuous respect that they deserve.

High on that list, in my opinion, should be placed Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life. The book is a delight to read, and would be significant even if it were dull, because Healey was such a substantial representative of that generation of British left-wing idealists in the late 1930s who favoured Communism as an answer to Fascism, until they found out the hard way that the two brands of totalitarianism were effectively identical. To put it bluntly, they learned that grand plans kill. Idealists of today, though they are less likely to pledge allegiance to a foreign power, are just as likely to be impatient with the imperfections of liberal democracy and its ordinary politics. A reminder that ordinary politics are the only kind that count is always useful. Healey’s memoir embodies that truth, as well as providing a model of prose. Since Healey, it seems fair to say, is of an age when we should not hang about if we want to praise him while he is still with us, perhaps it is time for someone to give an account of just how good the book is.

Before discussing its enduring merits, however, we should face the possibility that younger auditors might need reminding of just how big a wheel Healey once was. Let the following few sentences stand as the brief biography that the reader needs in order to appreciate the fact that Healey’s autobiography, published in 1989, would have been an event even it had been bad. Healey was born near London in 1917 and raised mainly in Yorkshire, as the Scholarship Boy of a hard working family. After grammar school, he gained a double first at Oxford, spent a brief period as a starry-eyed young Communist, and went on to serve in the British Army during the Second World War. At Anzio, a graduate course for those who survived it, he was Military Landing Officer for the British assault brigade. His experiences in the frustrating Italian campaign, a grim education in the art of the possible, translated readily to postwar British politics. After six years as the Labour Party’s International Secretary, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Leeds in 1952, and served for 35 years on Labour’s Front Bench both in power and out. In Government he was both Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in Opposition he was Shadow Foreign Secretary. Whatever the post, he showed such conspicuous ability that many still wonder why he was never Prime Minister, but the best answer is probably the most obvious: though he had the common touch, his superiorities were too striking. Among them was a wide range of learning, worn without pretension but not easily emulated.

Delightful from start to finish, his autobiography is an education in itself, disheartening only in its implicit suggestion that it takes the near-breakdown of civilisation to produce a generation of politicians who can appreciate the value of what was almost lost. But perhaps we should try to demonstrate its quality with an initial quotation. Try this:

“I was worried by a streak of intolerance in Gaitskell’s nature: he tended to believe that no one could disagree with him unless they were either knaves or fools. Rejecting Dean Rusk’s advice, he would insist on arguing to a conclusion rather than to a decision. Thus he would keep a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet going, long after he had obtained its consent to his proposals, because he wanted to be certain that everyone understood precisely why he was right.”

That comes from page 154 of my paperback edition, and there is something to equal it on almost every other page of the book. One doesn’t say that cultivation ensures political acumen. If it did, Neville Chamberlain would have been the most effective Prime Minister in British history. But an empty mind is rarely reassuring. A cultivated man across the whole range of the arts, Healey was a gift from war to peace. If there had been no war, the dazzling Double First in Greats might have gone on to be an academic, a scholar, a critic, a writer, a star broadcaster, or any combination of those five things. But the war sent him into politics: real politics, Labour politics, not the Communism he had briefly embraced when too young to know the difference. (Sir Isaiah Berlin once said that most of those bright young people who enrolled in the Communist Party in pre-war Britain didn’t really want a revolution: they were just liberals who wanted to feel serious.) In parliament, Healey’s mere presence on the Labour front bench was enough to make the Conservatives look like philistines. Not all of them were, but few of those who weren’t had a mind as well-furnished as his. Their culture was part of their inheritance. He had to acquire his, and went on acquiring it throughout his career, out of a passion that was never stilled even by the crushing, necessary boredom of political committee rooms. So it was unsurprising, if gratifying, that he marked his retirement with one of those rare books of political memoirs that connect politics to culture. A book like Noel Annan’s Our Age, while of comparable quality, is really coming from the other direction, in which the going is far easier. At the end of the war, Annan, as a leading light in the Allied Control Commission, played a key role in fostering the reconstruction of Germany’s civilised institutions. It was a difficult task requiring much tact and ingenuity; but that was as far as he went with politics. Post war, Annan was a cultural grandee, which for a man with his qualifications was easy street. Healey, once he had made his choice, never saw the ivory tower again.

As often happens, the hard road makes for the more revealing journey. There are not many appreciators of Verdi who have been Secretary of Defence. Healey’s real university was not Oxford, where he was merely brilliant, but wartime Italy, where he learned the prickly realities of making decisions that could lead to no clear result, but only, at best, to something that might have been worse. The Anzio beach-master’s bitter experience (the landing went smoothly, but Kesselring’s counter-attack almost undid the whole enterprise) was behind the easy-seeming grace of Healey’s slippered prose as old age approached: a grace – and here I switch to the present tense, because his style is still alive – that sins only in its undue fondness for semi-colons, and in the occasional dangling participle. But he isn’t being lazy. He is just breathing out. After arguing for a living all his life, now at last he can settle down to be unanswerable.

Nevertheless he is careful to put in plenty of self-deprecation. Opponents are allowed their opinions. If it turns out, as it almost invariably does, that Healey’s opinion was better, he tries not to crow. He forgets to record that in 1945 he advised his fellow Labourites not to be panicked by evidence “that our comrades on the Continent are being extremist”. Annan does not forget: in Our Age he quotes chapter and verse of what Stalin was up to, while conceding that Healey changed his mind the following year. But on the whole Healey is convincing when he makes himself sound reasonable. Though he had the reputation of a bully among those he dominated, there was always evidence that the tolerance he claims in retrospect was genuinely there all along, if sometimes well shrouded. I remember that after the first televised session of the House of Lords in 1985, Healey called Lord Stockton’s speech “a lulu”. Since Lord Stockton had started life as Harold Macmillan, and Healey had publicly denounced Macmillan’s part in the Suez enterprise as a disgrace, unstinting admiration for a shameless piece to camera was a pretty tolerant reaction to the decrepit lurk-man’s latterday pose as a wise old bird who had seen it all.

Pushing tolerance to the limit, Healey even has good words for Harold Wilson. At the time, Healey’s contempt for Wilson’s opportunism matched Wilson’s fear of Healey’s competence: the multilingual Healey was uniquely qualified to be Foreign Secretary, so Wilson kept him busy with every post except that. The good words make Healey’s portrait of Wilson even more devastating. In R.H.S. Crossman’s long, detailed and hilariously self-approving parliamentary diaries, the portrait of Wilson is devastating too, but Crossman was a zany man who amply merited Healey’s one-line dismissal: “A Machiavelli without judgment is a dangerous colleague.” Healey is too well-mannered to argue for his own intellectual superiority over most of his coevals, but the superiority is plain. As with Roy Jenkins, you wonder about the amount of coincidence it must have taken to ensure that he did not become Prime Minister. In a Presidential system, Healey would have for certain taken the top spot, because he was dynamite on TV. In the British system, however, the party must be pleased before the people, and never since Gaitskell has an intellectual managed to please the Labour Party, unless, like Wilson, he is ready to wear disguise, or, like Michael Foot, to talk shapeless waffle on his feet in order to offset his scholarly precision on the page. Besides, Healey was an unequivocating advocate of nuclear deterrence, and would have had a chance at the leadership only if he had equivocated. (Foot, who was helped to the leadership by his advocacy of the opposite, equivocated in the other direction in order to win the general election, and the strain helped to ensure that he clamorously lost it.) Healey never flaunted his culture, but he could not conceal it. It was there in the way he talked, and even in the way he listened. He might demolish somebody else’s argument in a few sentences, but he took it in first.

So Healey had the credentials to detect intolerance in Gaitskell. Our quoted passage is made energetic by the analysis of why the Cabinet meeting goes on too long. But the way the passage is illustrated is what shows why Healey’s memoir is of such unusual quality. The reference to Dean Rusk is not dragged in. It just appears at the right spot with perfect naturalness. Healey works the same quick magic at least once per paragraph throughout the book. Other people’s observations decorate his. If his were not so good, the co-opted aphorisms would look like medals on a dummy. But they are not just worthy of their place, their place is worthy of them, and so everybody shines. Churchill never sounded better than when quoted by Healey. As Secretary of Defence, Healey frequently played host to Montgomery, who would drop in for a chat when he was up in London visiting the House of Lords. Montgomery was a lonely man by then, with no object in life beyond getting the rules changed so that nobody except him could be called a Field Marshal. The reminiscence is almost touching. But Churchill’s verdict on Monty is quoted to stiffen it up: “In defeat, indomitable; in victory, insufferable; in Nato, thank God, invisible.” Healey has an ear for rhythm, and anyone who has that will hear rhythm wherever it occurs. He was delighted by every sharp mind he met. His reputation for brutality might have arisen among those who knew that they did not delight him. There was a sharp critical ability at the heart of his wide powers of appreciation, and his excellent memoirs are a reminder that we should value the kind of figure more interested in cultivating his mind than polishing his image, even though he is likely to be sidelined by a man who is better at the latter than the former.