Interview: Denis Healey

Against the backdrop of untainted Sussex countryside in glorious spring, Lord Healey sits in his conservatory guarded by an imperious collection of classical music and literature, much of which he has authored himself. His cavernous and constantly caricatured eyebrows affirm that even at the age of 96 he is not done with the business of life just yet. He rises from his chair with an overdone theatrical groan. But in May, only a week away, he will resume swimming lengths in his outdoor pool.

As an interviewer you cannot escape the fact that you are sitting before a statesman who shaped history. He had his first job in government – as a reforming Defence Secretary – nearly fifty years ago. Before that he met and dealt with the most important people in the postwar world. He is one of the few people alive who can (and does) say: “as I told Molotov … when I saw President Truman.” He dealt with all his contemporaries with unwavering Yorkshire wit and frankness, cultured by adamant democratic socialist commitment. He was part of a political generation that people actually respected, and many saw Healey as ‘the best prime minister we never had.’

To put this in perspective, this is a man who withdrew British troops from Suez, rebuilt a broken economy as Chancellor in 1974, saved the Labour Party from possible extinction in 1981 and has spoken with Gorbachev and Picasso, to illustrate two of the most contrasting figures of his contact book. One expects he was just ‘Denis’ to everyone – and they were just ‘Mikhail’ and ‘Pablo’ to him.
This is not the first time I have met Lord Healey. We had a brief encounter in 2011 and my abiding memory was when he gravitated me towards two photographs that hang in his dining room. “What’s the difference?” he asked. I stumbled. I wanted to say something profound to this man, but all I could see was a group of young, smiling African children in one and a sepia portrait of a rather morose Dutch couple in the other. After a long pause, Healey turned to me and pointing at the sepia portrait he simply remarks, “they have shoes”. Like crucifixes of the socialist household, these photographs seem as good a place as any to start.

“Ah yes, the boring Dutch burghers”. Healey’s famous sense of humour has not left him. After several attempts at a photograph, he eventually stops ‘gurning’, the northern tradition of making contorted facial expressions, and composes for a proper photograph. This is the same Healey who likened parliamentary attacks by his opposite number, Geoffrey Howe, to “being savaged by a dead sheep” (and years later, when Howe attempted a riposte, to “being nibbled by a hearth rug.”) Unsurprisingly, he won an award for the funniest statesman in Europe. He is deadly serious about being funny though, and laments the lack of characters in the current crop at Westminster. He doesn’t think that Ed Miliband “has much of a hinterland”, a trend of today’s career politicians who “don’t have much experience of the real world”.

Hinterland, German for ‘beyond the horizon’, is the term made famous by Healey to denote the skills, hobbies and pleasures that statesmen enjoy outside of office. Alongside a love of art and music, he has authored books on photography and proudly recalls using one of Kodak’s earliest cameras, the Box Brownie, at the age of eight. I ask him what his advice would be to students at York looking to pursue a career in politics and his response is immediate: “Live. Pursue all of your interests at university and don’t enter a career in politics straight away. You cannot speak with conviction about things you do not know”. Britain’s two most controversial recent prime ministers, Blair and Thatcher, were guilty in Healey’s eyes for this.

Blair was “all right for the first three years” but after 9/11 “got most things wrong” while Thatcher was a “disaster for students”, whose legacy and ideology of privatisation has resulted in today’s state being unable to offer proper support for the cost of tuition.

He remains “very surprised” that there isn’t greater revolt against the rise in tuition fees and that students increasingly accept the maximum cost of £9000 that the University of York imposes. I put to him the gripe that students are too apolitical and he concurs that they are. Of course during Healey’s time as Secretary of Defence the world was gripped by ‘the war that never was’ and the very real possibility of nuclear catastrophe.

Despite these events, he feels that the biggest change among students wasn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall but the fall of the “class wall” and with it a symbol of solidarity that protest movements could revolve around. Class in modern politics is “meaningless” he says with an air of deflation. Despite his own attempts to bring this wall down as Chancellor, promising “howls of anguish” from Britain’s richest earners (he spiked Britain’s top rate of income tax to 83%), we cannot yet equate the absence of class in political discourse with an absence of class in political structures.

An adoptive Yorkshireman, Lord Healey still retains a great love of York. He recalls a campaign trip to York in support of a Labour MP in 1983. To the annoyance of his advisors, his schedule became “hopelessly derailed” when he came across one of York’s then plethora of bookshops that engulfed the city. The death of independent bookshops in York is a real concern for Healey, as are the proposals for the Coppergate shopping mall, which will infringe upon and diminish the sight of Clifford’s Tower. Alongside his late adversary Tony Benn, Healey put his name to a petition against the construction of the shopping mall and shares the concern of York’s citizens that the city’s heritage is increasingly under threat from new developments.

My afternoon with Lord Healey has left me longing for a different era of government. The qualities of statesmanship that Healey exudes makes you long for an era where correctness meant standing up for principles and political invective meant more than stale charges of being ‘out of touch’. To conclude the interview, he urged the students at the University of York to cherish our time at university and never postpone the chance to cultivate new interests. The final imperative, he says, is to protect and preserve the “beautiful and unique city” of York and to that I say: Amen.