on 22 January 2003
In his autobiography Denis Healey does not pause to ponder whether, as in the opinion of so many, he is the greatest prime minister Britain never had. But he holds in low regard almost all of those who held the office during his own time in Parliament. Of the leaders whom Healey himself served, the woolly, short-termist Wilson is held in contempt, although Callaghan is admired both for his management of the cabinet and for his integrity: "once prime minister, he had no ambition except to serve his country well".
And evidently one of Callaghan's great services to his country was to retain Healey as his Chancellor - a role in which Callaghan himself had failed a decade earlier. The chapters dealing with Healey's labours at the Treasury are at the heart of the book. He figures himself as Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, as he restores stability to the UK economy after Tony Barber's calamitous superintendence of it under Heath. Healey arrived the Treasury in 1974 with no grounding in economics, as he admits, and therefore with an open mind - sceptical in economic theory, as in ideology, of all dogma. But he is a layman with a truly giant intellect, and the book is at its most illuminating as he applies his voracious mind to the evils conjured up by Barber's credit boom and by OPEC's trebling of the world oil price in 1973.
A layman in economics, Healey's political training had been in international affairs and defence. The book was written in 1989, unknowingly on the very eve of the revolutions in eastern Europe, and its long treatises on nuclear strategy appear today somewhat dated. But as the book's title suggests, Healey applied his talents within the paradigm of his own age, and by so doing distinguished himself from other clever men of his generation - such as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn, and Michael Foot - whose response to the same challenges was to attach themselves to romantic ideals of one sort or another. Healey is a romantic, but never an eccentric.
Well-known is his devotion to his "hinterland" of art and literature, music, travel, and photography. His passion for culture has informed every passage of his long life, and the book evokes it well. Healey himself wonders whether his failure to capture the premiership was attributable to a trimming of his ambition in the knowledge that there is more to life than politics. That may be. Another factor, which Healey does not discuss, might be the use that he made of the war years, serving with distinction and valour on the beaches of Anzio whilst the future Labour leaders, Gaitskell and Wilson, were learning the ways of Whitehall as temporary civil servants.
Yet another factor, suggested by Edward Pierce in his essay on Healey in The Lost Leaders, is the arrogance which set Healey apart from his fellow Labour MPs, and which encouraged them in 1976 to prefer as Wilson's successor the homely trade unionist Callaghan to the aloof Balliol alumni Healey and Jenkins. Certainly Healey's prose, although not as fluent as Jenkins', is charged with a similar pomposity: the highest accolade that Healey can bestow on one of his fellow men - and he bestows it on many - is that he is "brilliant".
The book makes plain why Healey wished to enter politics - politicized during the 1930s, a witness at first hand of pre-1939 Nazi Germany, he sought to combat totalitarianism and to contribute to peace. Less clear is why he joined the Communist Party as a youth, or, for that matter, why he settled later with Labour. His contemporary Ted Heath had much the same political education but chose differently, and there is nothing from Healey of the kind of indignation at the other abiding image of the Thirties - the Depression - that might have pushed a Yorkshire grammar-school boy into the arms of the Left. On questions of social justice, Healey is silent; nor does he disclose any view on religion. This is a pity. The book's main flaw is that it affords no glimpse of the moral underpinning of Healey's politics. Without that, we have no counterpoint to Jenkins' view of his rival - that he carried only light ideological baggage on the heaviest of gun-carriages.
Denis Healey was known as a political bruiser. At the Labour Party Conference in 1945, still dressed in army uniform, he thundered, "The upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadant" a comment which led a future Speaker of the House, George Thomas, to comment, "Denis, you have the most wonderful gift of vituperation". He never lost it, even as he moved to the Right of the Party, accusing the Bevanites of "a flight from reality into dogma" and abandoning nationalisation and class policies based on "soaking the rich". Yet he warned the 1973 Labour Conference, "there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75% on their last slice of earnings" adding in a later speech that he would, "squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak" It was all good knockabout politics reminiscent of his first electoral campaign when he "spoke with total confidence, based largely on total ignorance." Yet ignorance is no excuse for failure and Healy's bombastic assumption that he would succeed Callaghan as Labour leader was a failure on his part and that of the Labour Party itself.
Healey was a man of unresolved contradictions. A product of the grammar school system he waxes lyrical about the importance of learning Latin and Greek yet joined Crosland, a contemporary at Balliol, in systematically destroying grammar schools in favour of bog-standard comprehensives where neither Latin nor Greek were welcome. Thus Healey, a keen photographer, lover of arts, especially poetry, music and painting, studying ancient civilisations while happily preventing later generations from doing so. Like many intellectuals Healey failed to appreciate the difference between equality as sameness and equality as the opportunity for individual and collective progress. It also led him into hypocrisy, refusing to answer questions about his wife's operation in a private hospital while he espoused the values of the NHS, ending a televised interview rather than admit the conflict involved.
In retrospect Healey accepts the naivity of university politics in the 1930s. "I cannot say that I am proud of all my political activities at Oxford" although he was less committed than many of his generation to Communism as an answer to the inevitability of war. The volte face which saw the signing of Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty and the Soviet invasion of Finland resulted in the formation of a rival Democratic Party led by Jenkins and Crosland. Healey recalls, "I am sorry to say I opposed them," adding "more from inertia and indifference than conviction". Healy's own break with Communism came after the Fall of France. Healy joined the army, an experience he describes as "long periods of boredom....broken by short bursts of excitement." He missed action in Sicily but was beachmaster at Reggio, Italy, vividly describing coming under fire. From his time in the army he learned two vital lessons, the importance of planning and reliance upon others.
With the help of influential friends Healey became Labour's International Secretary immediately after the war. His job was to explain British foreign policy to the Party and the world. The Party was influenced by Communist domination of the union vote while the world, especially the United States, was slow to grasp that Britain could not maintain her pre-war commitments and others would have to secure the West by stepping into the breach against communist expansionism. Healey made many contacts in his five years as International Secretary, most of whom have passed from the pages of history unnoticed thus giving the unintended impression of name-dropping. He is strong on his analysis of various Labour politicians including Bevin, whom he admired, Dalton, who he found sad and shallow and Laski who was widely known as a fantasist. His description of Crossman as "a heavyweight intellect with a lightweight judgement" is accurate. These days the former are rarely seen in politics while the latter appear to have multiplied.
Healey became an MP and spent the 1950s concentrating on defence issues. Thus it was no surprise when he was appointed Defence Secretary by Harold Wilson after the 1964 General Election. His legacy was to liquidate Britain's military role outside Europe and remove troops from East of Suez. He states he "was fortunate in taking office at a time when overdue changes in the planning and organisation of defence were already under way". He also notes that none of his decisions were overturned by the Conservatives when they returned to office. Wilson's duplicity over the question of arms to South Africa and his misjudgements under pressure are revealing, each contributing to Labour's loss of office in 1970. When Labour returned to office in 1974 Healey was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. His description of the challenges he faced provide some of the most interesting observations on how British government works in practice. There was some opposition from within the civil service but "politically, by far the most difficult part of my ordeal was the continual reduction of public spending". It appears very little has changed.
Healey writes, "Modern capitalism has little in common with the system described by Karl Marx. It is the managers, not the owners, who wield the real power in private industry." He poured scorn on Thatcher's "people's capitalism" preferring the Swedish system which he dubs "market socialism". Healey believes family is important to success in politics, citing the example of James Callaghan who visited his wife in hospital every day after she developed Alzheimer's Disease four years before her death and only survived her by eleven days. Healy's wife, Edna, whose support he valued, died aged 92, in 2010. Although he valued his family life Healey attributes much of his success to the opportunity "to refresh myself with music, poetry and painting.". By way of contrast politics is a matter of trial and error. There's much of both in his autobiography which, whatever the politics of the reader, is an excellent volume easily worth five stars.
on 16 September 2003
Throughout this autobiography the personality of Denis Healey is luminous. He is a very attractive as a politician as well as a man. There is a decency and genuiness that is difficult to write about, but it is invested in every chapter of this book. Healey is an hard-working school boy, an intelligent scholar, a brave, honest soldier, a generous, ambitious, loyal politician, and a witty and stylish autobiographer. He appears to be the type of man who we would wish to run the country and, unusually for a Labour man, appears to have attained the gentlemanly ideal of easeful excellence - he spoke French, German, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek. He does not appear to suffer some of the inferiority complexes that his Labour colleagues did. Add to this what he has called his 'hinterlands' which with the reading that he does quote extend far both into the terrain of British and European literature, then we know we are perusing the words of a truly remarkable man.
He did not become Prime Minister: he is not perturbed. He only wanted to be leader of the Labour Party to save it from extremists and no-hopers which in light of the proceeding history is warranted. His life is a success from the point of view that he is recognised as the ablest defence secretary in the post-war years; he saved the British economy, and he was a great family man, which is a point often referred to and appears to be most important to him. I can't help but like and admire Denis Healey. However, and there is always a 'but' in any life, his view of the world is remarkably secure and certain. His beliefs are wide and allow him to absorb mostly everything, and he never appears to be out of his depth no matter who he is with. He has never, it seems, known despair or a great wrestling with himself, or even questioned deeply the whole purpose of politics. His aim, both simple and noble, was to prevent a Third World War. And that is what he spent his political life doing. He was a remarkable man, perhaps he was a great man.
on 6 December 2014
If anyone were to say they remembered Dennis Healey, they'd describe him as a significant right wing Labour politician who held two of the most important positions in government (as Defence Secretary and Chancellor) in the 1960s and 1970s. They might also mention his ability to come up with a good quip in a speech, or that he could have led the party in the late 1970s, or 1980s, and that his leadership in the 1980s might have prevented the split that formed the SDP.
As has been mentioned elsewhere, Healey had his issues in the governmental jobs he had. He was fighting large elements of the pacifist wing of his party a lot of the time as Defence Secretary, and the economy was circling the toilet while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (interest rates rose to 15%, while inflation was north of 25%). You could argue that he kept the economy together in difficult times, but given the UK's storied history, this isn't exactly the most enviable claim to fame.
The book was a decent read. It was a bit self serving in places (he blamed others for the problems he faced a lot of the time), but its' biggest problem is that it's dated (it was published almost 25yrs ago). I doubt people will remember many of the people he talks about now, unless they're keen politics junkies who take an interest in that period.
on 26 February 2014
I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in politics. Healey's understanding and grasp of what was going on around him throughout his lengthy political tenure makes for a memorable read. He left Oxford with a double-first only to find himself joining the army shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939. His war service instilled in him a sense of discipline that would serve him well as he climbed the greasy pole almost to the very top of the Labour Party. Very well written and well worth a look.
on 7 April 2015
I note that I am very much out of step with other reviewers but I did find this book most unsatisfying.
For one thing, the writing is dull. Clear, yes, but passionless. The wit is laboured. It is monotonous, one thing after another.
For another, DH never, or rarely, expands on the human minutiae of his experiences. The book lacks life.
For another, it is packed, jam-packed, with the names of people he met, people of whom I have never heard and whose contribution to history is minimal.
For another, I found the liberal quoting of poetry sat I'll at ease with his own very prosaic style.
For another, I wondered where the 'ordinary' people were, his constituents, those on whose behalf he worked.
And finally, there is an overall air of complacency. Lord Healey seems at pains to tell us that no matter about the defects of his colleagues, he was always right.
Of course there were elements I enjoyed. In particular his trenchant views on Tony Benn are to be relished, all the more in view of lavish praise that followed the latter's recent death.
Lord Healey has had a long life as a dedicated public servant. His autobiography does not do him justice.
PS I must mention two editorial howlers, both in photo captions. 'Grammar' is spelt 'grammer' and Claudio Abbado is feminised to Claudia!
on 26 January 2016
Anybody interested in the postwar history of the UK Labour Party could do a lot worse than read this autobiography. Fascinating observations, stories, and character studies abound in a book as intelligent and entertaining as its author.
on 26 October 2013
The Treasury comes off very badly in Healey's readable autobiography. Inflation busting, interest-rate lowering, IMF loving Healey takes the reader on a whirlwind journey of 70's politics with plenty of poems and culture thrown in for good measure. It is interesting to read his take on nuclear disarmament, and, as an old soldier it is reassuring to hear that America's dropping of the bomb saved a lot of lives in WW2. Along the way there is some unasked for hilarity as Healey is the only person to miss Britain sliding down the league table of nations. It's very well written with some lovely cuttings of Margaret Thatcher's character - very amusing. Healey grows in stature every year.
on 28 October 2015
Solid read for train journey each day
on 24 April 2010
In his long career as a politician Denis Healey managed to project an attractive persona and appeared to hold reasonably moderate views. I have just read the original Hardback version. I learned a lot and I did not like what I learnt.
In the book Denis is adamant that he did not say "I will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak." but he blatantly omits to mention that when he was chancellor the top rate of income tax was 83% with a 15% surcharge on income other than wages, making the top rate 98%. This was certainly an attempt to squeeze the rich. The book as stated by another reviewer is notable for its omissions. He does not even mention Labour's program of Nationalization in the 1940s. Why not? He must have had a view. These omissions are so massive, in my view they amount to dishonesty. This was very disappointing because until I read the book, I had considered Healey a cut above the average dishonest politician.
He makes a big thing of having been a Major in the Army in WWII, so he had real army experience that helped him be a much better Secretary of State for Defence. He also made the valid point that too many ministers don't have any management experience. He then became Chancellor of the Exchequer and tells of his enthusiasm to learn the ropes. It is telling that he consulted a number of prominent left wing academic economists in his bid to learn, but incredibly, he did not report discussing the economy with a single industrialist. He did not even mention reading a book on economics.
Healey managed to obtain a first from Oxford in Latin and Greek. In the book he is at such great pains to point out his intellectual superiority that you have to assume he in fact suffers from an intellectual inferiority complex. Every chapter starts with a long quotation from a poem. Strangely, not one of them is relevant to the topic of the chapter. The choice of poems is dismal. I struggled hard to read each one. It could put you off poetry. The practice of opening a chapter with a quotation usually works really well, but not with Healey's choice of quotations.
He goes on the 'refute' the theories of Milton Friedman by merely insulting him, absolutely no attempt to provide evidence or even discuss the theories. It is a shame that Friedman and Healey never debated on TV. The brilliant Friedman would have quietly torn Healey into shreds without any apparent effort. Healey's delusions and prejudices would have been quickly exposed for mere ignorance in a process of pure logic - each move like a game of chess until a checkmate devastatingly in favour of Friedman who of course won a Nobel prize.
In the book he is scathing about Harold Wilson painting an alarming picture and calling him paranoid. I thought Healey's description of Wilson applies very accurately to Brown.
The book is long winded and quite hard work to read, it is not a page turner. Healey has clearly tried very hard to present himself in the best possible light and in this he fails completely. Healey's own book destroyed my respect for him.