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.

Little wonder that The Time of My Life appealed to a host of readers who were not myopically transfixed by the minutiae and tribalism of party politics. Yet that was the political game to which Healey had given the best years of his life. Auden may have made a passing allusion to ‘the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’, but Healey had, for forty years, spent taxing days drafting the former and weary evenings attending the latter. It was the struggle to which he had devoted himself: a struggle for the advancement of his own ideas, of his own party and, inevitably, of his own position as the means of achieving the rest. Readers of The Time of My Life were thus presented with a paradox: the more they warmed to Healey’s book, the better they understood the reasons not only for his successes but also for his failures. Little wonder that he had proved less adept in the base arts of political manipulation than colleagues whose vision was more narrow but more focused; or that he had shown less patience for personal ingratiation than rivals whose zeal for self-promotion was more diligent. Nobody who had the gifts to write such a self-revealing book could be expected to have the guile to become prime minister.

What, then, is there left for Edward Pearce to say? His biography is a handsome and informative study, benefiting from the co-operation of its subject, notably by means of unique access to the diary which Healey kept from the age of 16. Evidently a spare and terse record, this has provided Pearce with first-hand documentation of immediate events rather than lengthy rumination on their inner significance. He has also been assiduous in his research in other sources, both published and unpublished, while using Healey’s own memoirs with discriminating restraint. The fact that Pearce’s manuscript had to be cut at a late stage may explain some of the discrepancies in the references which mar an otherwise well-produced book. All told, this is as good an account as could reasonably be expected of the life of an important living statesman. If it is sympathetic, it is well this side of hagiography, with a readiness to identify Healey’s mistakes where necessary.

An implicit theme is that the trajectory of Healey’s career was shaped by the external pressures on his particular generation; and this becomes an explicit theme in Giles Radice’s study, Friends and Rivals. Radice faced an enormous challenge in writing a triple biography of not only Healey but Jenkins and Tony Crosland, too. Born within a span of little more than three years, 1917-20, the three men were to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s as the obvious standardbearers of what was then called either revisionism or Gaitskellism in Labour politics. All three had been enthused by Gaitskell’s call to fight and fight and fight again to save the Party they loved. Here, it seemed to true believers, was the cadre of talent that would (once the inconvenient hiatus represented by Harold Wilson had duly disappeared) surely supply the leader to fulfil the revisionist prophecies.

It would obviously be fallacious to suppose that personal ambition burns less strongly today in Labour politics than it did a generation ago. Indeed, it may be nearer the mark to think that the disabling rivalries that intermittently impaired the friendship between Jenkins, Crosland and Healey indicate some carelessness in assessing career advantage. This was not mere inadvertence: more an open-eyed assertion of relative values. Even friends noted Crosland’s intellectual arrogance; but he had quite a lot to be arrogant about, as the author of a book as influential as The Future of Socialism. Nor have Jenkins and Healey always shone as models of humility. Radice quotes an exchange between them in the mid-1970s. Healey says: ‘I don’t want to be a politician like you, Roy. You are not concerned with the centres of power.’ Jenkins replies: ‘What about your centres of belief, Denis?’

If this rhetorical question is taken literally, many of the answers can be found in Pearce’s searching biography. Brought up in Yorkshire in the late 1930s, Healey trod the scholarship boy’s path to Oxford and a heady intoxication with student Communism. This appealed to his robust and combative temperament without leaving much intellectual trace, neither enthusiastic engagement with the insights of Marx nor subsequent torment about the light that failed. Pearce comments: ‘The tantalising thought occurs that Healey may have become a Communist without ever having been much of a Marxist’ – a suggestion which might profitably have been expanded. It may not be fanciful to see a mindset that was always more pragmatic than theoretical. In this sense the appeal of Communism has to be understood in the context of second-best choices in confronting Fascism rather than as a visionary commitment to building utopia. Healey’s own road back to reformist politics was not premised on disillusionment with the Soviet Union, which he still defended in 1945 as a Labour Parliamentary candidate.

More deeply formative than Healey’s Communist phase was his other stereotypical experience, common to Oxford contemporaries like Crosland and Jenkins, of wartime service in the Armed Forces. At just 26, Healey found himself acting as landing officer (‘beachmaster’ in Naval parlance) in the Allied landings on the southern Italian coast in the late summer of 1943. These operations were run on the cheap, given that the eyes of the High Command were fixed on preparations for a North European invasion, with the main costs falling on human life when things went wrong. Military efficiency was calibrated on a scale from improvised to shambolic. Healey’s fragmentary diaries of the landings at the little Calabrian town of Porto Santa Venere yield a searing and sobering chronicle: ‘His eyes were wide open, the eyeballs turned up, only a thin slip of pupil showing under the lid. The dressing was soaked with blood that oozed in a damp puddle. Clots of blood dribbled from his nose. “He’ll die in ten minutes. Can’t do a thing,” said the doctor major.’ Little of this found its way into The Time of My Life, but Pearce uses his opportunities well to remind us that the stirring metaphors of party political warfare had a rather empty ring for a man who had lived through the real thing. Arms and the man hardly constitutes a novel theme in either literature or politics. But martial concerns have rarely been fashionable on the Left, except as a target of derision or anger. It was by no means to Healey’s advantage within the Labour Party, therefore, that he displayed a lasting preoccupation with an inescapable military dimension to the geopolitical conflicts that divided the postwar world.

For social democrats, the Cold War had a clear ideological dimension. Healey was not alone in starting from a position of some sympathy for Communists, who had often provided the muscle for resistance to Nazi occupation. The behaviour of the Soviet Union, as the Allied power that had suffered most from German aggression and done most to thwart it, was initially viewed with indulgence, even if its ostensible quest for security seemed to cloak other ambitions. It took some time for the penny to drop that British-style social democracy could not serve as some kind of third way between American capitalism and Russian Communism. The fate of Czech-style social democracy became the object lesson. The choice was now between the flawed democratic systems of Western Europe – and of the United States – and the totalitarian command structure of Soviet Eastern Europe.

The Labour Government was quicker than the bulk of the Labour Party to see it that way. Healey, not for the last time, found himself mediating between the two. It was as the Party’s International Secretary, following his unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament in 1945, that he first voiced, from a back room, an analysis of international policy that he had little subsequent cause to repent. Cards on the Table stands the test of time as a pamphlet that is neither flat nor ephemeral, offering as early as 1947 a cogent analysis of the need to check Russian ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe. This was not simply a matter of rival national interests, with their own historical legitimacy. Healey pointed to the concentration of power within the Soviet system, with its lack of responsibility to public opinion, as ‘an inestimable advantage’ in conferring on the small group of men in control a ‘freedom to fit policy closely to the scientific calculation of a fluctuating national interest’. Healey staked out a justification for the foreign policy that his new-found hero Ernest Bevin was to develop with increasing confidence and authority. None of this won him any friends on the Left.

If Healey was to find friends in the Labour Party, they would have to come from the Right. In the context of the tribal warfare that consumed the Party in the early 1950s, that might have made him a natural Gaitskellite, but this was a role that chafed for a young MP with a reputation for being too outspoken for his own good. Not for him the plan of prudently joining a faction and loyally working within it – still less of disloyally manoeuvring between factions in an adroitly judged pursuit of preferment. ‘The point of Healey is that he was Harold Wilson’s antithesis,’ Pearce writes. ‘The fact that Wilson became Prime Minister and Healey did not is merely a pendant observation.’

The point of Healey, however, needs more positive definition. It may not be the sole criterion of the success of a political career simply to become prime minister (leaving aside the question whether it is all that simple anyway). But a lifelong commitment to the toils of the political process needs to have some point. How does a reading of Pearce’s biography suggest that Healey will be remembered?

First, surely, in his appointed role as the warrior social democrat. He transmuted his own experience into a clear-sighted appreciation of the need for a tough-minded commitment to Western defence in the era of the Cold War. At a time when the Labour Party periodically tore itself apart over the ethics of nuclear armaments, Healey showed that there were other dimensions to the argument. Left-wing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament often mirrored an atavistic right-wing fallacy: the assumption that Great Britain was still a great power, with great influence, and that great consequences would therefore flow from whatever, in her great wisdom, she chose to do. Healey had a more brutal understanding of ends and means, importing a hard-won realism into discussions that often struck him as frivolous or naive. ‘Can I get it into your heads, comrades,’ he demanded of the 1960 Labour Party Conference, ‘that Mr Khrushchev is not the George Lansbury type?’

At another level, it was the subtlety and sophistication of Healey’s approach to defence that made the difference. He had acquired an expertise about modern weapons systems which gave him authority in arguments about matching strategic objectives with available resources. As Secretary of State for Defence under Wilson from 1964 to 1970, Healey had many hard decisions to make; but one of them turned out to be relatively easy. This was the decision to retain the Polaris missile-delivery system – because the terms on which the Americans had agreed to supply it made it a cheap option. More characteristically, the escalating costs of deploying military capability, especially overseas, made it necessary to choose which of Britain’s historic roles could be maintained and which must be abandoned. This was ultimately the logic of withdrawal from east of Suez. It was, it must be said, a logic that Healey himself accepted only after fighting a strong departmental rearguard action in Cabinet where his inevitable departmental adversary was Jenkins, a Chancellor intent on deep cuts. This, however, was an institutional battle rather than a personal conflict between the two men. Healey’s lack of political finesse while at Defence, moreover, is a cause of critical comment from Pearce: ‘He understood the issues, his strategic thinking was large-minded, he made an impressive case, but lost through a want of the low arts of charm and alliance-forming.’

Second, Healey is remembered as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the only other Cabinet post he ever held and similarly for more than five years. But whereas he had been the predestined, prefabricated Secretary of State for Defence, confronting problems of which he had already established a mastery, he was pitchforked into the Treasury with little formal preparation. The fact that he wasn’t a doctrinal Keynesian, imagining himself equipped to cope with the unprecedented and successive crises of the years 1974 to 1979, may have helped him to break free from the conventional wisdom, as Pearce implies. It would be a nonsense, however, to suppose that Healey became a convert to what, in The Time of My Life, he called ‘the Monetarist mumbo-jumbo’. Indeed, his real irritation was with self-styled Keynesians ‘who had usually read no more of Keynes than most Marxists had read of Marx’. Again, it is Healey as tough-minded pragmatist whom we recognise, making light of what the label on the bottle said and trusting his own palate to tell him all he needed to know about the new wine.

Finally, Healey is remembered for not becoming leader of the Labour Party. ‘What fools we were not to have chosen Denis!’ is the title of Pearce’s last chapter, quoting the comment of an unidentified left-wing Labour MP, a year after the Party had instead chosen Michael Foot as its leader in November 1980. The Parliamentary Party, in its last chance to determine the leadership before constitutional reform overtook it, had given Foot 139 votes to Healey’s 129. There are many ways of explaining – or explaining away – that result. Needless to say, Healey had given personal offence to some MPs and thereby alienated a few votes that might have made a difference. But other MPs were looking over their shoulders, fearful of constituency activists more militant than themselves, which shows that the real reason for Healey’s defeat lies deeper.

Healey was not chosen because a social democrat of his stripe was no longer acceptable as leader of the party that Labour had now become. In that sense, his failure to be elected to the post may have spared him an almost inevitable failure as leader; for he would have been tainted and taunted as a right-wing candidate jobbed in against the wishes of activists whose current agenda he would have been able neither to respect nor to contain. Here was a dilemma that some social democrats – notably Jenkins, of course – resolved by quitting the Party, once they had lost the crucial battles within it: not an option that appealed to Healey, ready to the last to affirm himself ‘a good Party man’. Accordingly, he loyally stuck with his Party, loyally served as its deputy leader – and loyally fought the next two elections on policies that repudiated some of the most deep-seated beliefs of his whole political career. What a blessing, then, that there was more to his life than this; that the hinterland remained intact throughout; that he still had a good book inside him; and that, in due course, an appreciative biography has done justice to his achievements.