Obituary: The Rt Hon. Denis Healey CH, MBE, PC (Lord Healey of Riddlesden), politician

Rt Hon Denis Healey: Committed socialist who was on the frontline of Labour politics for half a century. Picture: Getty
Rt Hon Denis Healey: Committed socialist who was on the frontline of Labour politics for half a century. Picture: Getty
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Born: 30 August, 1917, in Kent. Died: 3 October, 2015, in Sussex, aged 98

Denis Healey was a towering figure in the Labour Party, a committed socialist with a powerful intellect and a withering turn of phrase. He was twice defeated in his attempts to become the party’s leader and fought a bruising battle with Tony Benn for the deputy leadership. In Jim Callaghan’s government of the 1970s he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and had ignominiously to negotiate a loan from the IMF as the UK economy was in meltdown.

Healey was on the front line of Labour politics for half a century. He said that he entered politics to defeat fascism and left after communism crumbled. He was a political animal to his fingertips and described the young Margaret Thatcher thus: “She’s good-looking and she’s also politically brilliant.”

Healey was a character, a buccaneer and a maverick rolled into one – never afraid to say what he thought. He delighted the media by using colourful phrases such as “silly-billies” and “out of your tiny Chinese minds” (for left-wingers) and describing the House of Lords as “the house of the living dead”.

He famously quipped that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep”. But it was the bushy eyebrows and the broad smile that made Healey so easily recognisable.

Denis Winston Healey was brought up in Yorkshire, the son of an engineer. He attended Bradford Grammar School and in 1936 won a scholarship to read classics at Balliol College, Oxford. Although active in the Labour Club, he did flirt with the Communist Party as he considered it the only real opponent to Nazism. He got a double first in 1940 and made a lifelong friend of his contemporary Edward (who Healey always called Teddy) Heath.

He served with the Royal Engineers during the Second World War, seeing action in North Africa and Italy – serving at the latter as a beach master in charge of logistics at the Anzio landings. Years later he recalled: “We captured some of the German officers in their pyjamas.”

He was demobbed with the rank of major and addressed the 1945 Labour conference in full officer’s uniform. Healey failed to win Pudsey in 1945 but won Leeds in 1952 and he and Hugh Gaitskell formed a formidable team in the late-1950s to maintain the UK’s nuclear weapons. He was never on best of terms with Harold Wilson but served as his Minister of Defence from 1964 to 1970.

It was a gruelling few years at the MoD: Healey had to implement savage defence cuts and close UK bases in the Middle East. The pressure from the Treasury increased – especially after the devaluation of sterling in 1967.

His time as Chancellor was no less stormy. When Labour won the 1974 election Healey was moved to the Treasury and he inherited a dire financial situation: quadrupled oil prices, a runaway credit boom, a secondary banking crisis and rampant inflation. He was quoted as saying that he would “tax the rich until the pips squeak”. He denied having made the comment but he had the unenviable task of keeping the City, financial markets, his backbenchers and the cabinet on side.

As the economy slipped further into the abyss the Chancellor was forced to abandon a flight to the IMF’s 1976 meeting. Instead he drove straight to the party conference at Blackpool and spoke to a hostile and defiant audience. He was heckled and at the end of his speech roundly booed.

When Wilson retired in 1976 Healey was defeated by Callaghan for the leadership and the two pressed forward with an economic policy that had the IMF’s backing. But industry was still lethargic – inflation rocketed to 25 per cent and there was upturn in the economy.

The unions were increasingly militant and the country was in economic turmoil. Labelled the Winter of Discontent, the unrest left Healey virtually impotent to revitalise the moribund economy. Callaghan decided not to call a general election in 1978 and, Healey maintained, opened the door for Thatcher.

The Labour loss in 1979 was not the end of Healey’s woes. He stood to succeed Callaghan as leader but Healey had upset too many people in the party and he lost to Michael Foot. By the slimmest of margins (“by one of my eye-lashes”) he defeated Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981. The malcontents – the Gang of Four – formed the SDP and suddenly the Labour Party had lost some of its biggest hitters. Healey remained under Neil Kinnock as shadow foreign secretary until 1987, when he took a peerage.

He wrote extensively and his autobiography (The Time of My Life) was widely praised. In 2013 he gave a typically robust interview to Holyrood magazine about the importance of North Sea oil to the Scottish economy, saying: “We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns.”

As a final flourish Healey added: “I think there are a lot of problems connected with it that haven’t been faced up to by Salmond or the British.”

Tam Dalyell, long-time friend and colleague, told The Scotsman yesterday: “Denis was loyal to his party – he did not join the SDP. That was crucial. I first met him in 1963 at a Scottish Young Fabian Society meeting. I told my agent that he was a future leader: Denis was extremely impressive. Although he could be fierce, Denis was a generous friend.

“Without question he was the best Labour MP never to become prime minister. He was hugely capable and charismatic: he loved a row and people who love rows do so at some cost.”

Healey was indeed a formidable intellect but he combined it with an ease of manner. No other politician has played a honky-tonk piano in a pub panto on daytime television – and done so with obvious glee. Other interests included photography, poetry, literature and music. Since the death of his beloved wife Edna in 2010 Healey spent many evenings listening to the operas of Verdi and reading.

He had a sound recipe for good health. “I used to do 20 lengths every day in the summer,” he once said. “The odd whisky and plenty of rumpy-pumpy when I was young.”

Healey is survived by his son and two daughters.