Seeing it all

Peter Clarke

  • The Time of My life by Denis Healey
    Joseph, 512 pp, £17.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7181 3114 2

Considering that they have rejoiced so often in wrapping themselves in the Union Jack, Tory governments have an inglorious record on defence. Churchill’s notorious entry in the index to The Gathering Storm (‘Baldwin, Stanley ... confesses putting party before country’) may not have survived as an objective historical judgment, but even fifty years on, Britain’s preparations for the Second World War hardly look inspiring. The next long spell of Tory government in the Fifties saw Britain’s conventional forces run down without revealing how her nuclear capability, which was supposed to justify this, could be made plausible. It was Macmillan’s lot to discover that, when he could no longer rely on British technology, the American weapons on which the ‘independent’ deterrent had become dependent were equally liable to end up on the junk heap. The Thatcher Government proved incompetent to defend even the Falkland Islands, though its gambler’s throw in belated overcompensation for its negligence hit the political jackpot on the rebound. And yet Tory prime ministers from Balfour to Home have found an excuse for clinging to office in the contention that the defence of the homeland simply could not be entrusted to their political opponents.

There is reason to suppose that the efficiency and economy of Britain’s Armed Forces may have benefited more than once from the intelligent stewardship of ministers who managed to surmount the crushing disability of not belonging to the patriotic party. When Haldane was sent to the War Office under the last Liberal government, the piquancy of the situation was not lost on him. ‘The General is in uniform and booted and spurred,’ he wrote of an early encounter, ‘but the Secretary of State is in a tweed suit with a soft hat.’ One of the most patently cerebral members of the Cabinet, Haldane was prepared to turn a powerful and well-schooled philosophical mind to the unresolved dilemmas and incoherence of British strategy. The Prime Minister’s comment, ‘We shall now see how Schopenhauer gets on in the kailyard,’ employed an idiom with which the Army Council was soon to become familiar. When they asked Haldane what sort of an army he had in mind, his reply was: A Hegelian army.’

Denis Healey calls his six years at the Ministry of Defence in the Sixties ‘the most exhilarating period of my life’ and ‘the most rewarding of my political career’. These are, of course, relative judgments, reflecting the barrenness of Labour politics in the subsequent years. But his achievement in rethinking Britain’s strategic role-matching the means to the ends and defining ends that were within her means – entitles him to comparison with Haldane. They are comparable, too, as intellectuals in politics who reached out to books as part of their political resources. One of the engaging features of Healey’s memoirs is the explicit but unpretentious way that he brings this out. Explaining his position as ‘an eclectic pragmatist’ when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, he comments: ‘Karl Popper played a far more important role in my thinking than Karl Marx-or Maynard Keynes, or Milton Friedman.’ Perhaps he was wise, however, not to have declared a Popperian policy as his objective.

As Defence Secretary, Healey found the work ‘all-consuming’. In proving himself a highly capable departmental minister, he became somewhat insulated from the mainstream of politics. Perhaps, indeed, his detachment from the immediate pressures and conflicts of the Labour Party helps explain his unique interlude of positive job-satisfaction. He justly rebuts the charge that he was simply a ‘technocrat’. Though deeply affected by his own wartime experiences, notably as a beach-master at Anzio, Healey did not lose sight of his essentially civilian role in making the defence establishment accountable. With his soft hat on his hard head, moreover, he was intellectually capable of responding to the challenges posed by defence strategies in the context of a shifting balance of power and a rapidly evolving nuclear technology. If he was a reluctant convert of the abandonment of Britain’s posture East of Suez, nonetheless the decision to withdraw, once taken, was implemented expeditiously so as to save money where Britain could no longer save face. He looked beyond the ‘illusions of grandeur about our post-imperial role in Asia and Africa’ which he discerned in Wilson. As Healey writes of the withdrawal from Aden: ‘All alternatives would have been worse.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in