Tom Peterkin: Denis Healey lamented today’s politicians

Denis Healey was a man of enviable talents and interests beyond the world of politics. He had a double first in Greats from Balliol college, Oxford. He was an accomplished pianist, a talented photographer, an excellent artist, and a lover of literature.
Denis Healey in 1974 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Picture: GettyDenis Healey in 1974 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Picture: Getty
Denis Healey in 1974 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Picture: Getty

With that sort of background, no wonder his repertoire of party pieces was extensive.

One of his “turns” was singing the wartime ballad collected by Hamish Henderson The D-Day Dodgers – a song which moved him greatly.

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As an old soldier who fought in the Italian campaign in the last war, Healey found the brilliant and biting lyrics particularly poignant.

Set to the tune of the wartime favourite Lily Marlene (the original was famously sung by Marlene Dietrich), The D-Day Dodgers is a satire of remarks attributed to Lady Astor, Britain’s first femal MP to take her seat.

Lady Astor is said to have used the phrase “D-Day Dodgers” disparagingly to describe men of the 8th Army, who were fighting in the Italian campaign.

Both Henderson, a formidable poet and a totemic figure in Scottish cultural life, and Healey served in the 8th Army in Italy through a long and bloody campaign Contrary to Lady Astor’s verdict, it was in its own way just as heroic as the Normandy Invasion.

A gift for sarcasm is apparent in the first verse.

“We are the D-Day Dodgers out in Italy,

“Always on the vino, always on a spree,

“Eighth Army skivers and their tanks,

“We go to war in ties and slacks,

“We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.”

“But it was the final verse, which Healey admitted often moved him to tears.”

“When you look ’round the mountains, through the mud and rain “You’ll find the scattered crosses, some which bear no name. “Heartbreak, and toil and suffering gone “The boys beneath them slumber on “They were the D-Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy.”

Such was the breadth of Healey’s interests and accomplishments in and outside politics it it seems entirely typical that this former chancellor of the Exchequer and defence secretary would share the poetic taste of a radical Scottish folklorist, who had had similar wartime experiences.

In his obituaries, much was made of how Healey’s “hinterland” enabled him to put politics into perspective.

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Of course, it has been a huge blessing that succeeding generations of politicians have been spared the horrors of war.

But Healey himself lamented that so many modern politicians are bereft of the wide and varied experiences that had so informed his political life.

On Desert Island Discs in 2009, he said modern politicians were at an “enormous disadvantage”, because they had not been exposed to the courage and administrative talent required to fight wars.

But even if one puts war to one side, one cannot help notice that few of today’s career politicians at both Westminster and Holyrood have anything like the cultural interests that so enriched Healey’s private life.

So many appear to have dedicated their lives to politics and politics only.

Needless-to-say public life is very much poorer as a result.