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Enoch Powell 'had the air of the fanatic'


Denis Healey: 'The cat that walks alone in politics'
Anthony Howard Writer
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Denis Healey was the cat that walks alone in politics. That was true from the very start. He didn’t have, sort of, allies and supporters and subsidiaries. Take Roy Jenkins. Tremendous contrast between Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey. Roy always believed in having a claque of supporters. He was… Healey said it himself: he was a Trollopian politician, it means he came out of Anthony Trollope, 19th century novel, very rude thing to say, but Healey and Jenkins never hit it off. They’d been at Balliol together and they didn’t… I think Healey was a year ahead of Jenkins. They disliked each other in those days and they went on being really incompatible all the way through the politics of the '80s and the '90s. And it’s my view that if they had rubbed along, the whole history of the Labour Party, post-1983, would have been completely different. Maybe post-1980, when Foot became leader. But the lack of… total lack of understanding between Healey and Jenkins was, I think, one of the tragedies that the Labour Party suffered from. They were both able men, firsts at Oxford, this kind of thing. Both been President of the Balliol JCR, but they just never could somehow… and they were… Roy once said to me, we were like chalk and cheese.  And I think though Roy never felt happy with Callaghan, never liked Callaghan, I think he actually disliked Healey more. Oddly enough, the last summer before he died, Jenkins, on the same day, went to lunch with Callaghan and tea with Healey. And I think the tea with Healey was much the greater strain of the two. But they were doing their best, they were both old men by then.

Denis was so arrogant. I mean, this is the real trouble, that he was Mr Know-all. Now he’s obviously much cleverer than most people, certainly much cleverer than me, but he always wanted to know better than you on every single subject. And there were subjects, I think very few, which probably I knew more about than he did, but he would never allow that. And that’s one of the things that grated on people. He was also very thuggish. You know, there was a coarse side to Denis, and he obviously, in a sense, blew the leadership, that he would have won against Foot in 1980 if he hadn’t made himself so unpopular with members of the parliamentary party by being intellectually superior, and also by being brutal, and saying, you know, you’re out of your little Chinese mind, this kind of thing. Well, people don’t like being talked to like that. But he also pretty… he used quite a lot of sort of profane and bad language. He had great ability. He was not a great speaker. Rather a poor speaker, as a matter of fact, both in the House of Commons and on the public platform, but clearly, as a minister, and of course this is the great thing to be said for Healey, that he understood the importance of being on top of a department.

He only held two jobs in government. One was Minister of Defence, which he held from 1964 to 1970, and he really did impose his will on that department. Not the easiest department to run, but he’d stuck there. He wouldn’t… once or twice, Wilson, I think, sounded him about would you like to move? If he’d been offered the Foreign Office, he’d certainly have taken it, but he wasn’t being offered the Foreign Office, so he said, 'No, I’ll stay where I am'. And I think that’s an important thing, to have a politician who realises that if you are to run a department properly, you have got to be really the equal to any argument that’s put against you in the Ministry of Defence, whether by the, you know, chief of the Defence Staff, whether by the Permanent Secretary, you want to be on top of the job. He understood that. And then he became Chancellor in '74, and again, he did five full years as Chancellor... '74 to '79. They were very difficult years, but I think he was right. I mean, at the time when he got the job, he obviously still wanted to be Foreign Secretary more than anything in the world, but as long as Callaghan was prepared to back him, and he was, more or less, he stayed at the Treasury. Again, I think if the Foreign Office had come up, and it did come up, of course, when Tony Crosland died, but that was a very bad moment for him to move, 1977, I think it was. Or was it '76? '77. And so he was stuck there. I think he was a very strong Chancellor.

I think he was lucky in being supported really quite formidably by the Prime Minister, through the IMF cuts and all that kind of thing. He is, of course, a genuine intellectual, and he had a kind of contempt for people who he just thought were wordsmiths, and... you know, journalists were a very low form of life, as far as he was concerned. He thought he knew a great deal about art, and he did know a certain amount. He thought he read widely. He always talked about his hinterland. Terrible show-off, but capable of being genial. So I say, because I was eventually quite a friend of Roy Jenkins, I think I was, sort of, rather turned against Denis Healey, but he was a very considerable public figure, and was, I think, in difficult times, a very successful minister. Whether he would have been a successful leader of the Labour Party, I’ve got a good deal of doubt, because I think he was too altogether, sort of, too hobnail boots and clodhopping and all that. I don’t think he had the gifts for party leadership. And in that sense, though, obviously Michael Foot wasn't qualified for it either but I think the party knew what it was doing when it gave Foot the majority of 10 votes in 1980 to be Callaghan's successor.  There was something flawed in Denis and I don't quite know what it is.

Last time I saw him was a Literary Festival, and it was for Edna who was talking about her book.  Denis, I thought wrongly, though maybe it was up to him, insisted that he join the panel for the second half of the show.  So we had Edna and Denis.  Well, it was Edna's book... what was he doing? And then at the end he, sort of, he dealt this... awful acts of blowing kisses to the audience that I found rather tiresome.  So I never really hit it off with him.  We had lunch that day together... it was perfectly amiable.  But I never was close to him and I think I'm probably not the person to give a fair and accurate appreciation but I think it is right to say that as well as the very great intellectual ability that he had, there were, sort of, defects of character there that probably explain why he never became, which his ability would certainly have entitled him to expect, why he never became Leader of the Labour Party or anything more than Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Balliol College, Oxford, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour Party, IMF, International Monetary Fund, Denis Winston Healey, Roy Harris Jenkins, Anthony Trollope, Michael Mackintosh Foot, Leonard James Callaghan, James Harold Wilson, Charles Anthony Raven Crosland, Tony Crosland

Duration: 6 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018