Sunday, October 04, 2015
Healey: The antithesis of the machine politician
I could not, of course, let the death of Denis Healey pass without comment. On my Facebook page I described him yesterday both as my political hero and without doubt the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had. As those are bold statements I feel the need this morning to amplify them a bit.
There have been many politicians I have admired down the years - Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, David Owen, Charles Kennedy and Robin Cook to name but five. What was it that made Denis stand out in particular?
I think it was probably summed up in the word he himself used - his "hinterland." A WW2 hero and genuine polymath, Healey was the very antithesis of today's machine politicians who progress effortlessly from uni to MPs' research assistant to parliamentary candidate without experiencing anything resembling the real world.
Opinions will invariably differ about whether Denis was a great politician. His tendency to make unnecessary enemies at the height of his career in the 70s and early 80s probably cost him the leadership of the Labour Party, but it was that very refusal to 'play the political game' that made him, in my eyes, such an attractive figure.
An alternative history of Britain in the 1980s would have had him as Prime Minister in place of Margaret Thatcher, using the benefits of North Sea Oil to build a Swedish-style social democracy instead of the American-style market economy we became. I happen to think Britain would be a kinder and fairer society now had that been the case.
Could it have happened? Probably not. Denis's best chance of becoming PM probably came in 1976 when Harold Wilson retired, but he came a poor third behind Jim Callaghan. By the time Callaghan stepped down in 1980, the left was in disarray and the Thatcherite hegemony was in full swing.
Denis as leader in place of Michael Foot might have limited the scale of Thatcher's victory in the post-Falklands election in 1983, but I don't, in all honesty, think he would have stopped it.
Where a Healey leadership would have made a bigger difference is in terms of the internal politics of the left. Had he succeeded Callaghan in 1980, the marginalisation of the hard left would have begun five years earlier than it actually did, and the impact of the SDP breakaway would have been greatly reduced.
In this respect, it is tragic that Denis should have lived to see the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader - an outcome he sought to prevent in what proved to be the last political intervention of his career.
Ever since I first launched this blog more than ten years ago, the footer has contained a quote from Denis's autobiography 'The Time of My Life' - a comment about his old friend and rival Roy Jenkins which says just as much about himself.
"He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change."
Why do I like this quote so much? Well, partly because it references Trollope, but mainly because it sums up in a single sentence the tension which makes politics such an endlessly fascinating business.
It is, more often than not, Jenkins' definition which prevails. But Healey's definition of politics is the way it probably ought to be.