Denis Healey: “I rather regret I never tried but I didn’t want to be prime minister”

"I went into politics because I wanted to stop a third world war, and you have to be a politician to do that"

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Denis Healey died on 3rd October 2015 aged 98. This interview was first published in Radio Times in May 2015

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Baron Healey of Riddlesden [“Call me Denis”] opens the door of his large home in East Sussex and, leaning on a stick, the 97-year-old former defence secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and deputy leader of the Labour Party, leads me into his conservatory.

“What’s all this about?” he asks, as he shuffles along. I explain it’s a four-part BBC2 documentary commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE Day and a tribute to men and women, like him, born in the First World War who lived through the Depression, fought in the Second World War and whose stoic achievements helped create modern Britain.

He stops, turns to stare at me beadily through large bifocals, smiles, and asks, “What’s the French for ‘balls’? Oh, I know – couilles.” It’s a splendid summing-up of his personality – humorous, learned, self-mocking and pithy – harking back to a time before spin doctors extracted the personality from politicians. “I never worried about dignity – ever.”

He was on The Morecambe and Wise Show, “made a fool of myself” with Dame Edna Everage and Mike Yarwood, and appeared in a Sainsbury’s ad for smoked salmon and champagne. “They paid me £30,000. Obviously that’s why I did it. I was called a champagne socialist because I’ve a nice house but I’m not a great drinker of champagne.”

We sit in two comfortable, but very low, armchairs and I begin to shout at him. Even so, I’ll have to repeat questions 27 times in 45 minutes although, when he does hear, he bats back answers with alacrity. His memory is sharp and he gives a number of responses identical to those I’ve heard before. He even vaguely remembers a lunch we had 26 years ago when he introduced me to porcini mushrooms – exotic in those days – and said he would buy some the following month in Florence.

He’s frail, as to be expected, and mostly toothless. “I have dentures, but don’t wear them. I have enough teeth for my purposes.” He wears a fawn corduroy jacket and dark trousers, and we look out to his pool and the five-acre garden beyond.

“Lovely, isn’t it? I swim every day from May to September. We’re lucky here with the sea nearby and beautiful countryside. I visit London several times a year. It’s changed, but not for the worse.” He lives alone but insists he isn’t lonely. His wife of 64 years, Edna, died in 2010, aged 92.

“She was a wonderful woman, beautiful, understanding, and it was a terrible loss, but I have a loving family who I see a great deal of. Jenny [his oldest child, aged 64] comes down almost every other weekend and Cressida was over from San Francisco, where she lives, for a fortnight last month. I have five grandchildren, one great-grandchild who I see quite a lot, and friends all over the country. It’s been a full life, and I’m generally an optimist. I haven’t made any enemies for some time.”

He has a reputation as a jolly flirt, joking to a woman journalist two years ago that whisky and rumpy pumpy were the secrets of a happy old age and asking her to take off her knickers. Now he laughs and adds, “It’s largely a question of physical accident. I’ll probably reach 100 before I pass away. I don’t fear death at all. You’re gone and that’s it.”

Far from being the bruiser of legend during his 40 years as an MP for Leeds East [he retired in 1992], he insists he was really the Miss Lonely Hearts of the party – “and a psychiatric wet nurse. I had to help them through problems. Politicians are much more professional now. In my day very few went into it until their 30s and had experience of the world. Today they tend to go straight from university, not a good thing, but the world has changed. The strange thing is that differences are inside the parties rather than between them. There’s not so much passion. People care more about whales than the world – quite a good phrase, but it’s true – up to a point, Lord Gnome.”

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He mistakes, by design or not, Lord Copper, the newspaper magnate in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, for Lord Gnome, the “proprietor” of Private Eye.