Where are they now? Denis Healey

He of the bushy eyebrows, the most notable living Labour politician never to have been Prime Minister of the UK.

I caught a red doubled-decker bus once in Whitehall. Sitting on one of those seats on the lower level close to the open entrance, I was surprised when at a stop by parliament an elderly Denis Healey hopped on, plonking himself beside me. We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments before he jumped off again near Smith Square. I'd been delighted to meet him as he'd always struck me as an entertaining and clever fellow with extraordinary gravitas.

Denis was born in 1917 in Mottingham, near Blackheath in London. His father was an engineer, and when Denis was five the family moved to Keighley in Yorkshire. He attended Bradford Grammar School and, being a bright lad, won an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. 


Denis read Greats, or Literae Humaniores, a classics degree. At Balliol he developed a life-long friendship and political rivalry with Teddy (Edward) Heath, a young man who later became the Conservative PM 1970 - 74. (Heath famously took on the miners and lost, during which lengthy strike electricity rationing led to a Three Day Week. Heath was also the PM responsible for British entry into the Common Market, now EU.)

But Denis had Left-wing leanings so joined the Communist Party in 1937, not such an unusual step for the intelligentsia in those days. His timing was out, as the decision coincided with the Stalinist purges. He resigned after only two years at the signing by Joseph Stalin's protégé, Vyacheslav Molotov, of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact: a deal devised to carve up much of eastern Europe between the Russians and Germans. 

Denis graduated with a double first in 1940.  

World War II 

War was raging, so he joined up as a Royal Engineer, serving in North Africa, Sicily and as military landing officer at Anzio, south of Rome. In 1945 he demobilised, leaving the Army to become a career politician in the Labour Party. 

Entry into Politics 

He delivered a vehement left-wing Conference speech when dressed in his Major's uniform. Standing at the July 1945 election, which swept Labour under Clement Atlee to power, he only just failed to to win a Conservative seat in Yorkshire. So Denis accepted a foreign policy research role at Transport House in Smith Square to advise on international affairs. He was also actively engaged within a high-level international policy NGO, a think-tank, and in the Fabian Society for many years. In December 1945 Denis married Edna, a teacher and later author, whom he had met while at Oxford where she read English at St Hugh's. They went on the raise three children and live in Alfriston near Lewes in East Sussex.

In 1950 Labour led by Atlee just scraped back in, but lost to the Tories under Winston Churchill in October of the following year. Four months later, in February 1952, Denis won the Leeds West by-election. 

The Defence Portfolio

The Conservatives dominated British politics from 1951 - 1964. Labour was in turmoil. Denis supported Harold Wilson for the leadership in the belief that he held the best hope to unifying the party. And after Wilson's victory he was rewarded with the shadow cabinet Defence portfolio.

When Labour won the 1964 election Wilson appointed Denis Healey the Secretary of State for Defence. He slashed expenditure and decided in 1968 that the UK must withdraw from all bases East of Suez such as Aden in Yemen and Singapore. Equally contentiously, Denis ordered the removal of Chagossians from the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to enable the US to build a formidable base. Diego Garcian Chagossians remain exiled on Mauritius or in the UK to this day.

When Ted Heath won the 1970 general election, Denis moved onto the Opposition benches in the Commons under Wilson, holding onto his Defence role. 

The Finance Portfolio  

In 1972 he was appointed Shadow Chancellor and in 1973 caused a rumpus when he told that year's Labour Conference "I warn you that there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75% on their last slice of earnings". According to The Times at a 1974 speech he warned that he'd "squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak." Eric Heffer and other left-wing MPs claimed Denis was jeopardising Labour's chances of re-election. But that wasn't to be the case, as the variable performance of Heath's administration would see to that. 

The vaguaries of the first-past-the-post system were such that even though Labour garnered less support than the Tories they managed to win a few more seats, and Denis was awarded the Chancellorship by Wilson on his return to Downing Street. Seven months later Wilson went to the country for a proper mandate and won by a handsome margin.

Denis pursued a policy of wealth distribution, as both he and Wilson saw it, by raising taxes to 98p in the pound on the ultra-rich. There's evidence to prove that the policy raised little extra yet stimulated a brain-drain and forced many of the mega-wealthy into tax exile. At the same time Denis increased benefit payouts, food subsidies and pensions to those most in need.

Quite unexpectedly, the PM left politics in 1976 to retire to his home in the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall. He was replaced at No.10 by his deputy Jim Callaghan, whom Denis had endorsed during the leadership campaign following Wilson's resignation. Denis hung onto the finance post under Callaghan's leadership and, quite unexpectedly, brought the UK under IMF supervision. This led to public sector wage controls and protests.

After a "Winter of Discontent" during which public sector workers striked and caused mayhem (rubbish piled high on street corners as garbage collectors refused to work), Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives were ushered into power in 1979. Denis was back on the Opposition benches.

The Leadership Campaign

Callaghan resigned as Labour Leader in 1980 and a race ensued for the leadership. Denis was touted as a front-runner and rather took the support of his party's right-wing for granted. But Labour was splitting as fast as the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) could receive defectors. Parliamentarians crossed the floor as Labour centrists and right-wingers joined the new force. Denis was sunk by the change in numbers, as left-wing intellectual and unelectable Michael Foot was chosen as Leader. Denis was elected the Deputy Leader.

With left-wingers in the ascendency, and right-wingers either now in the SDP or keeping very quiet indeed, Tony Benn decided to challenge Denis for the Deputy Leadership in what was billed as a battle for the soul of the Party. Denis won by the slimmest of margins, less than 1%, keeping the Deputy Leadership until 1983. 

The Foreign Portfolio 

Alongside his role as Deputy Leader, Denis was Shadow Foreign Secretary both under Michael Foot and his successor as Opposition leader, Neil Kinnock. He kept that job until 1987, and retired from the Commons on his elevation to the Lords in 1992

By 2006 Denis was calling for the UK to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, his view being that the end of the Cold War had made these less vital to national defence. Some would argue that the type of nuclear weaponry which had been stockpiled would be of little use should precise tactical weapons be needed in the event of rogue terrorist aggression.  

As Margaret Thatcher is alleged once to have said, you can't uninvent them. 

Recent Times 

Denis has always had a great sense of humour, once allegedly remarking at Leeds University Labour Society that "these fallacies [pronounced 'phalluses'] are rising up everywhere."

In January 2011, Denis Healey and others attended a meeting of the Mile End Group, an offshoot of the University of London where high-brow theory and political experience mixes with gossip in an attempt to learn how the UK really operates. Healey was invited to talk of his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Having lost none of his considerable wit, he spoke of George Osborne, the present incumbent. 

The Independent reported said that "he said he knew “absolutely nothing” about economics when he became Chancellor; but he had since learnt that “it’s not a science, just a branch of social psychology."  Denis continued: “It’s an almost impossible job. I feel very sorry for the present Chancellor. Despite his politics. And his character.”

Of the Mile End Group, a Guardian editorial proclaimed that "by reconnecting present and past, a group concerned with Britain's hidden wiring is doubling up as a constitutional hard drive."

Edna Healey, Denis' wife if sixty five years, died in 2010; their son Tim is a successful broadcaster, writer and record producer. 

Denis Healey, now the Baron Healey of Riddlesden, is still with us and reached the grand age of ninety-four on August 30 this year.

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