Skip to content

“A bastard but not a shit”: Remembering Denis Healey

October 4, 2015

healey

Denis Healey, 1917-2015, was so described.  I recall hearing this description being put to him on the radio and he gruffly acknowledged it.  Indeed, he did more than acknowledge it, he had pondered it and came up with an intellectually satisfying distinction between being a bastard and being a shit.

It’s not a bad epitaph I think.  One I might be proud of – though I’m not sure I’ve earned it.

Healey’s peculiar personal achievement was to be brusque, arrogant, sometimes downright rude, and yet strangely likeable.  No obituary has used the phrase “disabled by false modesty” while describing Healey and his wonderful autobiography is festooned with literary allusions and esoteric turns of phrase that reminds us that twenty-first century political discourse, compared to Healey’s, is a truly philistine domain.

Denis Healey made many enemies in the Labour Party but he never left it, or encouraged others to leave it, or stopped campaigning for it.  Described as being on the “Right” of the party, he was of course, by the end of his long long long life, to the left of almost any prominent British politician until a few weeks ago.  Having lived such a long long long life, he had the opportunity to appear on a great many obituary segments of news stories dealing with the deaths of colleagues and political contemporaries.  On none of these occasions did he ever descend into sentimental gush.  When trying to sum up his relationships with people like Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he never lied, or soften the legacy of animosity.  Although he acknowledged the kind and informed words about bereavement that Benn had offered him after the death of his own beloved Edna, the extent to which he felt that Benn had hurt him was still expressed.  So whenever any prominent politician died, I was always waiting for the Healey interview, where I thought I might hear something true.

Possessed of the most famous political eyebrows since Charles James Fox, Healey dominated much of my perception of politics as a child.  Everyone did impressions of him.  He was one of the three or four politicians everyone had heard of, and perhaps the most popular.  Beachmaster at Anzio, former communist turned Atlanticist, aesthete yet populist, charmer yet bruiser and perhaps, paradoxically – lacking the killer instinct to properly scheme a leadership bid.  Healey lacked the ingratiating long term Machiavellian gamesmanship to claw his way into No. 10.  He didn’t have what it took to be a Francis Urquhart or a Frank Underwood, and nor did he want to have what that took.

He would have liked to have been Prime Minister, but his attitude of “Here I am – you know me – you know my talents and achievements and I’m here if you want me” is not the attitude that builds campaigns and majorities.  Some might say that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, but it might be more accurate to say that he enjoyed fools a bit too visibly.  He knew that he was cleverer than almost anyone else, and didn’t know how or why to hide the fact.  At least he never picked up that hideous rhetoric tick of claiming to be “humbled” by everything.

Denis Healey never felt “humbled” by success.  He felt tremendously pleased with himself and grinned a lot.  I can respect that.

So Denis Healey’s death is one of the last nails left to be hammered into the coffin of the political world of my childhood – the world of  Harold Wilson and Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan and Willie Whitelaw and Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot.  There are a few nails left to be hammered – but none of them quite so big.

And of course with the dewy eyed idiocy of middle age, I regret that political world as somehow a kinder, gentler, more civilised and erudite time.

A world of bastards instead of a world of shit(s).

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: