Labour’s Beachmaster

Peter Clarke

  • Denis Healey: A Life in Our Times by Edward Pearce
    Little, Brown, 634 pp, £28.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 316 85894 3
  • Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins and Healey by Giles Radice
    Little, Brown, 376 pp, £20.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 316 85547 2

The sudden death of Roy Jenkins took us all by surprise. He was over eighty, of course, and with a heart problem that had required major surgery. This latterly gave him a good excuse to sit down at receptions: all the better to conduct vigorous conversational campaigns while maintaining eye-contact, not least, at suitable intervals, with the wine waiter. And during his last couple of years he had tenaciously brought his major biography of Churchill to publication, achieving a widespread critical and popular acclaim that certainly denied his years, if not mortality too. Yet in the end his death has given his old friend and rival Denis Healey the satisfaction of having the last word, explicitly criticising the founder of the SDP for having had such a silly idea, while implicitly celebrating his own good sense in sticking with the Labour Party. Which of them had the more fulfilling career remains worth exploring.

Writing at length about the life of Denis Healey was obviously a good idea, such a good idea, in fact, that it did not escape the great man himself when he retired from the Labour front bench in 1987 and promptly set about producing his autobiography, The Time of My Life. This turned out to be one of the most successful volumes of memoirs from any British politician of the 20th century. Churchill, it’s true, remains the record-holder, not only in length and magniloquence but in sales, too, worldwide and in many translations, sustained over a period of more than half a century. His six volumes of The Second World War formed a massive literary buttress to his pre-existing reputation as the saviour of his country, the spokesman of freedom in its frailest hour, and the architect of a predestined alliance of the English-speaking peoples. It is not just that he was one of a very small number of players in a very big international league: he was the only man of letters among them, with the arguable exception of de Gaulle. For all these reasons, any subsequent attempt to rival Churchill might seem doomed (though that didn’t stop Harold Macmillan from publishing his own six volumes, more conspicuous today on the shelves of second-hand bookshops than in the hands of a new generation of readers).

It’s a rule of thumb in reading – or weighing – politicians’ memoirs to infer some correlation between their length and the strength of the ghostly influences pervading them. This applies to Churchill, of course, who was shameless in his exploitation of ghost-writers; but even here he was unique in escaping the predictable side-effects of a literary syndrome (‘spectral pall’) that can readily be diagnosed in many other cases. And Healey? Self-evidently a man of catholic literary tastes, formed and sustained by a lifetime of interstitial reading amid busy days and nights, he was formidably equipped to rise to the challenge of authorship.

His grand strategy was brilliantly simple: to write his own book, and at manageable length. His tactics were more subtle and complex. Drawing on the cultural resources of what he aptly termed a personal hinterland, he conveyed a distinctive sense of himself that had flavour and texture as well as taste (not all of it conventional good taste). Reviewers noted that it was one of the appealing features of Healey’s memoirs that he still manifested the intellectual energy to engage in serious appraisal of political arguments at every level, from abstract theoretical propositions to concrete political instances. Here was a rare example of a politician who, while hardly humble or reticent about his own role, showed himself candid and self-revealing, in a manner free from rancour and petty self-exoneration.

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