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.”

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

He won a double first at Balliol, Oxford, in Mods and Greats. “I was enormously influenced by the Master, Sandy Lindsay, who got me to read writers like Kierkegaard, Shestov and Ouspensky, Christian philosophers.” He became a Communist but didn’t join the Union, breeding ground of so many politicians. Instead, he set up the New Oxford Arts Society and held an exhibition of Picasso paintings.

“I often wonder if I wouldn’t have done better to become a lecturer in aesthetics.” He was proud to be called “the last Renaissance figure”, but I suspect that he was au fond (bursting into French is catching) an aesthete of clay?

“I went into politics because I wanted to stop a third world war, and you have to be a politician to do that. The risk today is enormously reduced. I don’t feel strongly one way or another about nuclear weapons, although we should have them if others do. Whether it’s a submarine [Trident] or not, I don’t know.”

There have been many wars since. “They have divided people with whom I agreed on most things. Iraq was the best example. I disagreed with it entirely, but you can never really be quite sure because you don’t know what would have happened otherwise.” His generation went through many sacrifices for what they thought would be the new Jerusalem.

“To an extent we’ve done it. We supervised a transformation of society, the world and Britain for the better. So many issues that divided the country have disappeared completely, like class. When I grew up you could tell which class people belonged to by what they wore, how they behaved and what they said. It’s still a factor, but much less important.”

He’s proud of the welfare state, “although people are fed up with the nannying. The unions had too much power, but they don’t now, which is a good thing. It’s easily forgotten that we got rid of the Empire very successfully, whereas the Americans buggered things up in Vietnam with millions killed. My proudest achievement is winning the war of Confrontation with only 114 British killed.”

In the four-year “confrontation” between Indonesia and Singapore, which ended in 1966, Healey refused permission for the RAF to bomb ports of entry in Eastern Borneo. “I wouldn’t allow it because bombs make more enemies than friends. That has always been the case.”

During his time at the Treasury he raised the top rate of tax on unearned income to 98 per cent – “a mistake,” he says now. “I made a lot of those. Politicians do. I was a little upset by personal attacks but never by being misquoted. I didn’t say I’d tax the rich until the pips squeak [it was just property speculators] but I’m remembered by that. It doesn’t matter. I have a thick skin.”

Perhaps it’s true that all political careers end in failure? “I don’t know. I enjoyed my time. I tried twice [unsuccessfully] to become leader of the party because I wanted to keep control of it and at the time there was a great problem with the Left and Tony Benn.”

He was often described as the best PM we never had, but his son, Tim, a broadcaster, says he would have been “rubbish”. He laughs. “I rather regret I never tried but I didn’t want to be prime minister. I preferred to have specific obligations but I realise now it’s the most important job. You decide what line to take when there are disagreements in Cabinet. The job I really wanted, which I never had, was foreign secretary.”

He preferred family life to politics and says the most dangerous are those who use politics as a surrogate for domestic failure: Eden – “a mess”; Gaitskell – “a confused domestic life”. He recalls other prime ministers and battles.

“Harold Wilson was an opportunist, which he didn’t have to be. Tony Blair was good to start with but then everything went wrong – cash for peerages and stuff like that. Cherie was a great friend of my wife. She’s a very nice woman.” Some papers, like the Daily Mail, aren’t kind to her. “Really? I didn’t know that. I read The Guardian and Financial Times, which is the only one you need – good on the arts as well as politics.

“Nice people can go into politics. Sometimes it’s knocked out of you, but I haven’t noticed it much. Some of my best friends have been Tory like Geoffrey Howe.” He famously compared being attacked by him as like being savaged by a dead sheep. Now he claims that was a joke. “Tony Benn and I were very hostile at first, but our attitude changed in later life, especially after our wives died.”

In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, he writes little about his wartime exploits, which included being British landing officer for the assault on Anzio. “There’s a chapter or so,” he says laconically. He recalls meeting General Montgomery, whom he disliked. “He was so vain and wore it like a foulard [a scarf]. Maybe he had to be like that to do the job.”

In Healey’s hallway are framed tributes to him – honorary member of the Italy Star Association, certificate of honour from the city of Anzio. “I speak Italian quite well. I learnt it there when I had a girlfriend, Theresa.” He pauses. “I wasn’t married at the time of course.”

He’s not quite sure where he was on VE Day – “Florence, I think. I don’t remem- ber anything in particular, although it was an exciting time. I drove to Austria and Yugoslavia. I knew Tito through a good friend, [diplomat] Fitzroy Maclean.”

After the war, the country rejected Winston Churchill as prime minister. “He had no understanding of ordinary people. I remember a broadcast in which he said, ‘And you, who listen to me in your cottages…’ Absolute balls. There was a lot of that sort of thing around in those days.”

Ironically, Healey’s middle name is Winston because his father, an engineer, was an admirer (his mother wanted a girl and had already named him Pamela). Today Britain is unrecognisable from the country in which he was brought up. We discuss a couple of points: gay marriage? “I don’t mind that. Homosexuality was taken for granted in the Greek world and nothing was thought about it. It was only after Christianity came along that opinion changed. Now most people believe it should be accepted if it’s there.”

Immigration? “”e probably let in too many people because it was a way of getting cheap labour. You could reduce the amount by putting a cap on it. Ukip is dangerous because it’s limited in its views and a little bit racist. But I’m not very interested in the election, partly because I’ve had my day and partly because my main interest is music. It’s amazing everything is now available on CD, and I can see all the opera I like on TV.”

“But the election is open. Miliband could become PM, although he doesn’t have any charisma. His brother David had lots but didn’t have the support of the unions, which is why Ed overtook him. Attlee didn’t have charisma either, but he attracted a great deal of respect.”

And he didn’t have to submit himself to daily TV performances or intense exposure sometimes leading to humiliation. “They have to put up with it today. It doesn’t lead to good politics, but it doesn’t necessarily destroy the possibility. I do think the demand for nationalism in Scotland is a potential problem: it produced division in Ireland, although there was a religious dimension there, which makes it different.”

He’s tiring and it’s time to go. I struggle to get out of the chair. He blinks in the sunlight, alone again with his memories.

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Denis Healey: The Best Prime Minister Labour Never Had? is on BBC2 at 8pm on Wednesday 7th October