THE TIMES – June 28, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Times2 finds that Lord Healey, the political giant who now lives for painting, music, poetry and his family, still retains his sense of mischief

It wasn’t until the end of an hour or so with the Labour Party’s elder statesman — “Elder, certainly,” was his response, when I asked whether that’s how he saw himself — that I was emboldened to serenade Lord Healey thus: “Remember my interview with Denis Healey/ When he came over all touchy-feely/ Saying ‘What a shame, no time for rumpy-pumpy’/ Which made me laugh/ Which made him grumpy . . .”  “Very nice. Thank you, dear,” he said, clearing his throat.

This was from a song I wrote for the Petronella Wyatt character in last year’s Soho showcase of David Blunkett The Musical. She earned her role as one of the dramatis personae because of her own rumpy-pumpy relations with Boris Johnson — part of the Sextator quartet subplot — but the lines were inspired by her coquettish copy as a famously flirtatious interviewer at The Daily Telegraph. Her charms clearly brought out Lord Healey’s inner goat back then (the rumpy-pumpy line was allegedly his parting shot to Petsy), but now he is not entirely sure whether Petronella is Woodrow’s widow or daughter.

The mental filing cabinet may not be as orderly as it once was — his memory started fading at 75, he says, from the vantage point of an 88-year-old — but Lord Healey’s entrances as well as his exits remain as frisky as ever. After asking me to pose for a photograph — a request that he has put to several interviewers in recent years, the female ones at any rate — he growls “Take your clothes off” into my tape recorder. This would have been more startling if I hadn’t read about the opening gambit before. It’s rather touching, really, that he still bothers to make the effort.

While he is often described as “the best prime minster we never had” and sometimes as “the man who saved the Labour Party” (when he fought the bitter battle against Tony Benn in 1981, narrowly defeating him to become deputy leader to Michael Foot), Healey seems to be a figure who is compelling nowadays more because of the success of his long and fruitful marriage to his writer wife, Edna, than for his impact on the political landscape of half a century of postwar Britain (the history of which is covered in his exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, 1989 memoir The Time of My Life, which has been recently reissued with a new afterword).

We talk in one of the spacious, light-flooded reception rooms of the Healey residence in the village of Alfriston, which sits substantially at the top of a winding drive and looks over the Sussex Downs. We have had several short telephone conversations over the preceding weeks, prompted by Lord Healey’s concern that we have the right date and time. When I arrive he is at the door, looking a little anxious and a little relieved, the robust frame and jowly good looks of his much-photographed middle age now somewhat etiolated. But he stands unbowed and is dressed partly youthfully in trainers (not Converse, thankfully) and a slightly eccentric, sort of Ian Fleming Out of Africa short-sleeved safari jacket. The killer eyebrows still bristle luxuriantly but the eyes beneath them burn less brilliantly.

Healey’s manner during the interview could hardly be sweeter but he also seems a bit distracted, partly because he is quite deaf; many of my questions (I have a booming voice) are met with a polite but quaint “Pardon?”.

Behind the table at which we sit, covered with albums of Healey snaps of friends and family, is a giant black and white photograph of Edna. She looks so young and somehow questing, standing in snow at the foot of an icy cave. The expression on her face is entrancing. I have the sense of her watching protectively over the proceedings as though she were no longer here when, in fact, she is sitting in the next room working away at her own writing. I am thinking that only a public figure so conspicuously happily married as her husband could afford to make such concupiscent verbal flourishes towards women journalists.

Since l’affaire Prescott is still very much in the air when we speak, I ask Healey what he makes of it: “Well, it’s a shame but that’s life, isn’t it? I mean, I like Pauline. I like John. And I’m very sad for Pauline, but if you’ve fallen in love with someone, that’s that — isn’t it?”

You’ve always said that it’s in the nature of political life that there’s enormous temptation to go astray. “Well, you tend to be separated too often from your wife, especially — thank God, it never was in my case — if she lives in a constituency 200 miles away.”

People get lonely? “They do, and they tend in the end to have affairs with their secretaries, don’t they?” But you were never tempted? “No, never. Never.”

I had always thought that it was Healey who had upbraided his fellow politicians for lacking “hinterland” — meaning that they had no other interests beyond politics and were therefore lacking as well-rounded human beings — so I’m surprised to discover in the memoir that it was Edna who first identified it as a flaw, in relation specifically to Margaret Thatcher. Lord Healey, at any rate, has always had hinterland in spades with his various passions for music, poetry and painting. He wrote in The Time of My Life: “Some of my friends complain that . . . I have far too much hinterland. My wife and family have always meant more to me than the House of Commons . . . nothing is more dangerous than the politician who uses politics as a surrogate for an unsatisfactory personal life.”

Among his favourite poets are Emily Dickinson, Yeats and Eliot — and he is devoted to Virginia Woolf, his “literary idol”.

Healey is living history. He read Aldous Huxley’s books “when they came out”; he became close to Leonard Woolf after Virginia died, when they worked together for the international bureau of the Fabian Society — Leonard as chairman and Denis as secretary.

At Balliol College, Oxford, where Healey left his parents in Bradford to read Mods and Greats (classical Greek and Latin literature, writing prose and verse in both languages; ancient history and philosophy, and some later philosophers up to Kant); he was inspired to write his own poetry to his girlfriend at home, Pat. This is highly romantic and emotionally charged stuff, fuelled with the longing of distance and desire:

“Dim slid the Wharfe at Christmas, as we walked/ Swimming through green soft grains of misted night,/ Under an arched immobile wave of darkness talked/ About our love, and sipped the old delight.”

Four days later: “Today your letter came; hope turned about,/ Saw me lie heaving, with a thousand tongues/ Sang love and freedom, snapped the circling bars,/ Bounded exultant in a dazzling dance,/ Covered the sky, and made the whistling stars/ Shiver with joy at its new brilliance.”

These lines were from poems that Healey wrote as an undergraduate in 1938; the first and last time he committed his feelings to verse. It seems a shame that he didn’t persevere, since however derivative they may seem stylistically they also surely show considerable promise. It is also interesting that he has held on to them through the decades, particularly for someone who affects to care so little about how he is viewed when he is gone.

He writes in his book about what has motivated him politically with an eloquence that seems somewhat spent in person (“I’m not so interested in politics now,” he tells me): “I am a socialist who believes that the Labour Party offers the best hope for Britain’s future. More than 37 years in Parliament, and 30 on Labour’s front bench, have left me with few illusions. I do not believe that I or my colleagues are perfect; nor have I ever believed in the perfectibility of man. But my faith in the moral values that socialism represents, and in those who try to put them into practice, however imperfectly, remains undiminished.”

Tony Blair has become too imperfect for Healey to bear: “He did very well in his early years but in the past two years it has been one disaster after another [Healey remains an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq], finishing — well, not finished yet, unfortunately — with cash for peerages.”

He is very pro Gordon Brown and believes that he will succeed Blair in the next election: “I think he’s the best chancellor we’ve ever had, including me” (Healey held the position from 1974 to 1979 and has described it as “a lonely . . . five-year ordeal”).

He has said “a thousand times” that a date for this succession should be announced, although he doesn’t believe in formal time limits being set: “If parties have any sense they get rid of a leader if he’s no longer acting sensibly, and that’s what’s happening to Labour.”

Does he believe that Blair wants to have his place in history? “I’m sure he would like one.” Does Healey have the same wish for himself? “Bugger history, as far as I’m concerned.”

He does have an occasionally earthy turn of phrase. I ask whether he has ever felt embarassed by his tendency to weep, something that he inherited from his father. (He was once so moved by his own playing of a Mozart sonata that he broke down completely after the first two bars — which was captured, expletives and all, by the television cameras.) “Oh no. Sod ’em,” he says, stoutly. “Or Gomorrah, if you prefer that.”

His father was always much more open with his tech students than at home, “but I was very keen on my mother, that was the great thing,” he says, “and I think, on the whole, ‘Oedipus schmoedipus’.”

Healey says that he wishes he had become leader of his party (he lost the leadership contest to Michael Foot in 1980). He says now, for the first time that I could find, that he wanted the top job: “I would have liked to be prime minister — and, you know, run the country. But in my time I was never keen because I always felt that if you were prime minister it was being something rather than doing something.”

So what has made you change your mind? “Because I now think that Britain’s role in foreign policy — which is my passion — is very limited, whereas we were one of the great powers after the war.”

Looking back on his long career, he says that he is most proud of his handling — as defence secretary — of the war in Indonesia “with fewer deaths than on a Bank Holiday weekend on the roads in Britain, because I wouldn’t allow the RAF to drop a single bomb. The Americans, at the same time, tried to win the war in Vietnam by bombing and they caused millions of casualties and they lost. And I’m also proud of refusing to allow us to get involved in Vietnam, because Wilson was tempted and I said ‘Absolutely not’.”

On terrorism, he says that it tends to be in countries that are poor (although there are exceptions — the middle-class Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades in the Seventies come to mind): “If you don’t have the ballot you use bullets and, you know, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Robin Hood was a terrorist.”

He is gloomy about the future: “I’m always worried that terrorists may explode a nuclear weapon in a port like San Francisco or New York or London or Liverpool and then literally millions could be killed.”

He is least proud of supporting arms to South Africa: “The more I think about it, the more ludicrous that was.”

Would he say that in politics you can’t always tell the whole truth all the time? “Well, this is obviously the case,” he says. “Your job is to do what is needed and what you want to do — which is a question of your values — and you have to be able to win power and then hold on to it, which can be a nasty business.”

I wonder whether he was ever responsible for being “economical with the actualité” (as Alan Clark once put it). I do find a couple of instances — back in the mists of time — where Healey has suggested this.

But he never, he says, did anything as serious as misleading his country in order to take it to war. He has attacked Blair on this front (over the unsubstantiated existence of WMD): “But I don’t remember doing anything like that. Not telling a lie like that. That’s an absolute lie.” But then he wonders whether Blair convinced himself that it was true.

He speaks mostly generously about his fellow politicians on both sides. David Cameron is the first proper Tory leader the party has had for a long time: “He is, of course, a Tory Blairite, isn’t he?” Charles Kennedy: “I don’t think he had enough personality really to do well. He didn’t have strong charisma but I think Ming will develop it and will probably do quite well in the end.”

Even Tony Benn is “enormously improved. He’s much less aggressive than he once was. We get on very well nowadays and we used to be deadly enemies, as you know.”

Margaret Thatcher: “I see her once or twice a year, usually at the Buckingham Palace garden party, and we get on quite well. I feel very sorry for her because nobody in Britain gives a damn what she thinks or says about anything. She only has influence now really in Japan and Russia. Even in America she no longer has the influence she once had. Denis’s death was a great blow to her — and she has no interest outside politics, you see.”

How does he feel now that Edna is more in the limelight, with her books, than him? “I love it,” he says. “I’m her bag carrier.”

He also loves seeing all his children and grandchildren and proudly shows me their photographs. He once said that Edna had taught him to love people, too: “It’s true, and I find that now I’m older I am more interested in people — and I understand them more, too, of course. If I sit opposite someone on a bus I can think now about what they’re like.”

There are some sadnesses. At the end of every day, he and Edna would walk up the slope behind their house to sit on their bench and gaze upon their four acres, with the Downs stretching beyond, and remind themselves how lucky they were. But that ritual is a thing of the past. Both Edna’s hips have been replaced in recent years and now her knees have started to go, so she walks with difficulty, leaning on two sticks. Does it get her down? “I don’t think so but she can’t go for long walks with me any more and so I don’t either because I don’t like walking on my own,” Healey says, a little forlornly.

I talk to Edna while her husband orders me a taxi, and find her so captivating — with her lovely eyes and keen mind, as well as an indefinable quality of goodness — that I feel Denis must be a very lucky man, indeed.

I asked Healey if there was anything he particularly wanted to do before he dies. Nothing new, he said: “I just want to go on reading my favourite poetry and listening to my favourite music, and so on.”

As a young man he had suffered from depression for a short time, something that his son Tim had also been engulfed by: “It’s what Yeats called ‘the ignominy of boyhood’ changing into man. It’s always a difficult period. I remember very much, one evening, thinking: ‘Gosh, you know, this is the first time I’ve been happy for a year.’ It wasn’t that I was unhappy, I just wasn’t particularly happy. And now, you know, I’m happy all the time.”

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HEALEY’S PROGRESS

1917: Born in Kent. Grew up in Yorkshire

1940-45: Served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, reaching the rank of major. Mentioned in dispatches

1952: Became an MP

1964: Became Secretary of State for Defence

1974: Became Chancellor of the Exchequer

1980: Lost leadership contest to Michael Foot; became deputy leader

1992: Entered the House of Lords