Denis Healey, who has just passed at the phenomenal age of 98, was famously known as an iconic Labour politician: particularly famous for his outspoken manner and purist outlook.
A ‘proper education’ at Bradford Grammar School alongside his own charismatic determination resulted in Denis receiving an Oxford scholarship to study Classics, although he remained highly critical of social hierarchy. This included the “outdated bourgeois fripperies” in the Oxford Union. After serving 5 years in the army, Healey went on to serve first as defence secretary (1964-70), and then as Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (1974-79) during what some describe as “the worst peacetime crisis since the Great Depression”.
His tenure included the infamous IMF loan of 1976, record breaking inflation peaking at 26.9 per cent also in 1976, and run-ins with militant unions (“an appalling lot”) over pay. This ultimately led to Labour becoming a divided party, and Thatcher’s counter-revolution of the 80’s. He claimed his help in keeping the party united in calamity was his greatest achievement… But he also believed he had the ability to beat Thatcher in 1983, when the opposition, Foot, was thrashed. Non-surprisingly his relationship with Thatcher appears to have been somewhat strained, describing her as “that bloody woman”.
A pragmatic response to catastrophic events was the signature of Healey’s chancellorship: sky high oil prices, a credit boom, militant union leaders, rising inflation, plus the secondary banking crash – to mention a few. He learnt economics on the job, so when Labour unexpectedly won the election in 1974, he became chancellor with a combination of both “excitement and fear”.
However, despite his merits Healey’s bluntness did not appear to do him too many favours. He was defeated twice in the competition for Labour leadership – in 1976 and 1980. Many of Healey’s colleagues had been offended once too often by his outspoken manner (notably, “out of your tiny, Chinese minds”). This wasn’t confined to fellow party members, allegedly Healey also threatened to “tax the rich until the pips squeak”.
The happy ending is that, in 1945, Healey spent 65 happy years married to Edna Edmunds, a crane driver’s daughter whom he met at Oxford. In their old age the two of them retired to Surrey, and Healey wrote successful books, articles and did the occasional lecture.
So whether you’re left or right wing, let us not forget the legacy this iconic figure has left behind. He was always willing to change his mind as and when the facts changed, and his desire to “do something rather than be something” serves as an inspirational reminder to us all.