A life lived in history

In light of his recent death, Adam Somerset reviews Denis Healey’s autobiography ‘The time of my life’.

Denis Healey

The Time of My Life

Penguin 1989

607 pp

The obituaries were fulsome. The Telegraph, perhaps surprisingly, outdid the Guardian in both the fullness and fairness of its judgement.  French Ministers may still be poets or novelists in the way that Cabinets of Britain might once have contained a philosopher or a novelist. “He reached the heights” wrote the Telegraph’s obituarist “by managing to conceal from most of his colleagues how cultured he actually was. Few if any British Cabinet ministers could have sat in the stalls at La Scala and conversed about the merits of the singers in faultless Milanese.” An enthusiasm for culture- the incumbent Chancellor does not make a noise about it- is something of an embarrassment; whether its presence makes for a better political life is moot.

Denis Healey wrote his autobiography in 1989. The obituaries made mention of “The Time of My Life” as an addendum but omitted that on its publication it was acclaimed as a substantial piece of political writing, a life lived in history rather than the more common catalogue of minutiae and post hoc facto self-justifications. In his first pages Healey asserts philosophy’s significance- “not to learn rules of good behaviour but in order to understand a little about how the human mind and the nature of language influence your understanding of reality.”

History is inevitably read to provide parables for the present, more often than not selectively and subjectively. Healey maintained total media silence through his post-power period. He would have had much to contribute in these months of May to September, not least on the mangling of language that did little to ease the Opposition’s travails.

The view from power’s peak is illuminating. Eighty percent plus of published economics papers are now extrapolations of mathematical models with no base in primary data. Economics, declares Healey, is not a science. “It is a branch of social psychology” he writes with a nod forward to the era of Sunstein, Dubner and Levitt. That the micro-economic decisions of individuals can be separated from a total life and social space is “an absurd assumption.” From student times Healey had preferred Kantian epistemology over Marx, whom he dismisses as a poor heir to Hume and Hegel

Healey’s generation was different from those that followed. The Internet commentary included a contributor whose father had served under the young Major in the battle for Italy. Across the floor of Parliament Carrington and Whitelaw were both holders of the Military Cross. The Kremlin was occupied by men who knew from personal experience the chaos of war. Nonetheless, looking back to 1980, “when the decade began, the prospects for peace seemed worse than at any time since 1945.” Russia’s Christmas Day invasion of Afghanistan broke the treaty process on armaments limitation.

Healey’s perspective on foreign entanglements was based on experience. He lands in Aden at a time when two British combatants have been killed and, to press outrage, been beheaded. Britain’s 1960s wars in both Yemen and Borneo had, unlike Vietnam, the right soldiers and the right equipment but “we had drifted into both these wars…misguided expedients…without considering Britain’s real interests in the long-term.” Healey’s writing on the fate of the region that emerged from the Ottoman Empire is hideously truer now than at the time of his authorship.

Healey held two ministries at times of the highest financial duress. Old military hands on the web in 2015 were damning him still for the cancellation of TSR2. The Cabinet split twelve against ten. To put the balance right another writer saw Mountbatten’s influence, his objective having nothing to do with the most effective defence but to ensure the navy’s primacy in hosting Polaris. Sir Michael Howard, writing in the Times of 6th October, recalled Healey’s achievements. One was that he was the first Defence Secretary to address the topic of rivalry between the Services, that policy should reflect defence as a unified purpose.

In the Chancellorship a wartime experience serves him well. A task requires the counting of soldiers travelling on six platforms of a railway station in wartime black-out conditions. He discovers that all his corroborating figures have been invented by the ticket collector. The result is “a lifelong scepticism about the reliability of statistics, which served me well when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer.”  In office “Adverbs and adjectives are often far more important than numbers, even if far less precise. As I was to discover at the Treasury, the precision of numbers often bears no relation to the facts.”

The world of “the Time of My Life” is remote. The China he visits still has an ailing Mao although, in Healey’s telling, is under the direction of Chou en Lai “the most impressive political leader I have ever met.” At the hub of Empire, Government House in Hong Kong, visitors still enter the dining room paired off with women in long white gloves. The menu is made up of boiled mutton with lumpy mashed potato, followed by suet pudding and custard. But a look back to the financial disruption of the nineteen eighties is all too familiar. The price of oil might have rocketed in the opposite direction and flash traders are undreamt of. Nonetheless even in 1989 technology, deregulation and globalisation in parallel are drivers for volatility.

The reader of 2015 is taken back to a violent and unstable world order that has both continuity and disconnection with that of today. But it is also a view of the Labour party. Healey places Ernest Bevin as “one of the two greatest democratic politicians this century; the other is Franklin Roosevelt.” Bevin’s successor, Herbert Morrison, “was a poor Foreign Secretary, who made little effort to master his brief.”

Richard Crossman “had a heavyweight intellect with a lightweight judgement.” He should have led the LSE- “as a politician, and even more as a minister, he left much to be desired.” Wilson in office had “neither political principle nor much government experience to guide him.”

At the bilious conference of 1959 he observes “the growing gap between the Labour activist and the voter.” He is behind the leadership. “Hugh Gaitskill was absolutely right when he said that what gets cheers at conference does not necessarily get votes at elections” runs his own speech. He looks to the legacy of the former Lord Stansgate and the ministerial career which “left only two monuments behind- the uranium mine in Namibia he authorised as Energy Secretary, which helps to support Apartheid and is in territory illegally occupied by South Africa, and an aircraft that is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fares are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers.” Concorde in the Healey view is financially ruinous, albeit “of great convenience to businessmen and officials.”

Forty years ago the governing party lost its second election, the leadership taken by an outsider. A fellow Labour MP from Leeds had drawn Healey’s attention back in 1960 to a newly elected MP, a thirty-four year old, sitting for Finchley. “For some reason he had taken her under his wing. He told me to watch her, saying that she was exceptionally able, and also a very nice person.”  It was the common view of colleagues of seniority that her leadership might at best manage a year, perhaps eighteen months. History rarely follows a course of easy expectation.

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

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