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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Denis Healey at 90
By Elinor Goodman
Presenter, Archive Hour

Denis Healey
Denis Healey twice ran for Labour leader
Modesty has never been one of Denis Healey's strong suits.

Now, approaching his 90th birthday, he still takes pleasure in being outrageous.

At one point during my interview with him for a special edition of BBC Radio Four's Archive Hour to mark his forthcoming birthday, he claimed to have personally succeeded in stopping further world conflict in the period since the end of the Second World War.

He had become a politician, he said, to stop the Third World War, but couldn't help adding: "I don't know if you'd noticed - but I succeeded."

To be fair, he added that he had had "some help from the atom bomb".

SDP breakaway

His pronouncement may be a little over the top, but he can claim with rather more justification to have ensured that the Labour Party remained as the main alternative to the Conservatives at a time in the 1980s when there was a real question over whether it would survive as a major political force.

As he says, had he joined the SDP when it was set up in 1981, there could have been a haemorrhage of support form Labour to the breakaway party.

As it was, he stayed in the Labour Party and saw off a challenge from Tony Benn for the deputy leadership.

Denis Healey has always been a mixture of the bruiser and the intellectual.

Sometimes he used his intellect to deliberately intimidate his colleagues.

Tony Blair with Lord Healey
Lord Healey thinks it is time for Tony Blair to leave office

At others he used his gift for humour to give his insults added potency - most famously equating being attacked by his Conservative opposite number, and as it turns out his friend, Sir Geoffrey Howe - to being "savaged by a dead sheep".

He began his political life as a communist and made his first appearance at the Labour Party conference as a leftwing firebrand.

But he rapidly became more pragmatic. Indeed he describes his political philosophy as "eclectic pragmatism with a strong moral streak".

The other strand running throughout his political career is a contempt for those in the Labour party he branded as "oppositionalists": Nye Bevan and more recently Tony Benn, whom he describes him as a man of "destructive innocence - a charming man, silver-tongued, but with very, very bad judgement indeed".

Nowadays he and his wife Edna spend most of their time at their house in East Sussex.

He is thinner since becoming an elder statesman, but his intellectual confidence remains undimmed as is his ability to draw on a huge canvas of memories and interests outside politics; and his trademark eyebrows are as bushy as ever.

'Not clubbable enough'

He admits to very few regrets, other, perhaps, than not becoming foreign secretary.

He never became prime minister either or Labour leader, despite standing twice.

He acknowledges this may have been because he was not "clubbable enough" and nor was he ever totally single-minded about politics.

There was always what his wife described as his "hinterland" of other interests which set him apart from most politicians, and which sustain him in retirement : photography, music, art books and poetry.

Denis Healey with wife Edna on Budget day
Don't tell Edna: the then chancellor kept his problems out of the home

But if he didn't get the top job, he did have a huge impact on two Labour administrations.

As defence secretary in the 1960s, he was responsible for withdrawing British troops east of Suez.

It was the job he enjoyed most of his career because it enabled him to use all the contacts he had developed in his post-war years in the United States, the Middle East and Europe as International Secretary for the Labour Party.

Then in l974 Harold Wilson made him chancellor.

It was, he says, a "Herculean task" clearing up the mess left by the Heath's Conservatives.

His inheritance was a very difficult one: the aftermath of a miners' strike, power cuts and the three-day week.

His difficulties were compounded by successive shocks from the outside world.

Blackpool rocked

The financial markets lost faith in the Labour government, and eventually Healey was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a conditional loan.

At the very last moment, he was forced to cancel a foreign trip and fly to Blackpool to urge the party to accept more spending cuts.

It was widely perceived as a humiliation but, 35 years later, he denies it was.

"There was more support for me at the end of my speech than the beginning."

He also reveals that despite the closeness of his marriage, he had not told Edna of the crisis facing him on the economy, and that she was totally shocked when they suddenly had to head for Blackpool.

"I didn't want to worry her," he says.

The one mistake he admits to making was in imposing too strict a pay policy in l978.

That led to the "winter of discontent", when public sector workers went on strike, arguably paving the way for Mrs Thatcher's victory the following year.

Thatcher years

He thinks the government could have "got away with" a higher pay ceiling of perhaps 10%.

Instead it went for 5% in the face of union opposition and the strikes began.

"It was silly to expect to get it. That was a mistake".

To that extent he acknowledges contributing to Labour's downfall, but, he says: "I don't believe we deserved the alternative we actually got."

Looking at his various Labour successors, he is probably most praiseworthy of John Smith's one-member-one-vote reforms on the union block vote.

As for Tony Blair, while complimentary about his achievements and approach in his early years, he now believes it is time to hand over to his chancellor.

"The sooner Tony goes the better."

The Archive Hour on Denis Healey is broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Saturday 31 March at 2002 BST

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