Denis Healey: 'The best Prime Minister we never had'

Political editor Mark Hookham talks to former Leeds MP and elder statesman of politics Denis Healey

Those famous eyebrows may be greyer and a little less bushy but beneath them his eyes still burn brightly – and with a twinkle of mischief.

Veteran former Leeds MP Denis Healey is taking a picture of me with the small zoom camera he always carries in his pocket; something he does to most journalists who interview him at his home, nestled on a hill above a sleepy East Sussex village and overlooking a spectacular panorama of lush meadows, which had been flooded during the night by the overflowing Cuckmere river.

Sunlight is streaming through the windows of the conservatory, where he spends his mornings absorbing the national newspapers and reading letters.

"You're screwing your bloody face up," he admonishes, as I try and prevent myself being blinded by the sun.

For years photography has been part of what his wife Edna calls his "hinterland", which also includes poetry, painting and music (he doesn't write poetry anymore, but he still occasionally paints watercolours and plays the piano).

The Healeys have been married more than 60 years and have three grown up children. The late Lord Jenkins described them as "one of the most remarkable couples in England". Lady Healey, 90, published her own memoirs two years ago.

A lover of the arts and a fearsome intellect, Lord Healey's life has always been more varied and had more depth than the average politician.

Now 91, the former defence secretary, who withdrew British forces "East of Suez", and former Chancellor, who was at the Treasury during the Winter of Discontent, insists his passion for politics is waning.

"I'm much less interested in politics than I used to be and politics itself it much less interesting.

"That's why the number of people who bothered to vote has fallen, very heavily in the last few decades," he tells me.

Yet teetering next to his armchair is a pile of newspaper cuttings from this week's editions of the Financial Times and the Guardian which is so large it is in danger of toppling over.

And whether the subject for discussion is the government's fiscal stimulus package, the Tory's chances of winning seats in Leeds at the next election or the anticipated priorities of Barack Obama's fledgling administration, Lord Healey is completely and utterly across every topic.

If this is what he is like when he is retired, little wonder he was viewed as such a formidable cabinet minister.

Born in Mottingham, London, the Healey family moved to Keighley when he was five after his father, an engineer, got a job in a technical college.

He served in World War II with the Royal Engineers and was the military landing officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio in Italy.

After the war he joined the Labour Party and in 1945 gave a fiery and (and left-wing speech) to the Labour Party conference, while wearing his Major's uniform.

After being rebuffed by the voters of Pudsey and Otley in the same year, he went on to represent Leeds South East between 1952 and1955 and then Leeds East between 1955 and 1992.

He says he still "very occasionally" visits the city he represented for an astonishing four decades – mainly to drop in on his lifelong friend and former agent Dougie Gabb.

"We always had an office inside the constituency and once in a school oddly enough, where the walls were covered with little children's colour drawings.

"I helped a lot with the housing situation in Leeds, especially in my area in east Leeds and in Hunslet too, which was part of my constituency.

"I think I helped to get people interested in international affairs which in those days had very little impact on ordinary people," he says.

Lord Healey never owned a house in the city, instead opting to stay with friends in Roundhay or in east Leeds when he was carrying out his constituency work or campaigning.

He says he always regretted not buying a home in Airedale or Whafedale, close to the beauty spots he used to visit as a child, like Malham Tarn, Malham Cove, Bolton Abbey and Grassington.

Lord Healey was an MP at a time when West Yorkshire seemed to be a production line for political big hitters.

His mentor and friend was the Leeds South MP Hugh Gaitskell, who died in 1963.

Across the city in Leeds North East was Keith Joseph, the architect of Thatcherism and an as important an intellectual force for the Tory Party as Lord Healey was for Labour.

Between them Healey, Gaitskell and Joseph had an enormous impact on their parties and they helped mould the course of British politics.

The lack of such huge political figures in contemporary British politics is one reason why Lord Healey says he finds politics less interesting now.

He – like most people – sounds fed up with the large number of robotic New Labour careerists and braying lightweight Tories who pack the green benches of the Commons.

He says: "Politics is less exciting.

"You don't feel a personal obligation to be a politician. In my time most politicians had served in the forces during the Second World War and had learnt two great lessons, which are still enormously important.

"The first is interdependence – we all depended on one another – and the second is the importance of planning.

"My generation, which had been in the services in the war, I think we had a background and experience of real life which doesn't exist in modern politics."

He also suggests that his generation of politicians fought the major ideological battles, leaving today's crop to tinker around the edges.

The major political differences are now mainly inside parties, rather than between them, and often to do with foreign policy, like Iraq or European integration, he says.

"The class divisions have practically disappeared.

"People would be surprised if they were asked what class they thought they belonged to and, if they replied, 98 per cent would say middle class.

"I think that is one thing that has made politics less interesting and attracted fewer people into it.

"Now politics is a career and politicians try to get in before they are 30. In my time you were very lucky to get into a cabinet job under forty."

Baron Healey of Riddlesden in the County of West Yorkshire (to give him his full title) is seen by many Labour Party supporters as "the best Prime Minister we never had".

He was considered favourite to win the Labour leadership election in 1980 but amid deep divisions between the left and right of the party he was unexpectedly defeated by Michael Foot and then had to slug it out for the Deputy Leader's post with Tony Benn.

He thinks that he would have beaten Thatcher in 1983 – Michael Foot was of course trounced after publishing an election manifesto described by one of his own MPs as "the longest suicide note in history".

Lord Healey explains that at the time he never regretted missing out on the top job – but he admits it was a regret which did surface in later years.

"I wanted to do something, rather than be something.

"Defence was a job I enjoyed very much. Treasury was not enjoyable but it was very worthwhile.

"I felt that doing something was different from being something but of course I now recognise, as I should have done then, that being PM is doing something.

"I think I might have got the leadership after Michael, if I'd run for it. I might have succeeded Jim (Callaghan) in fact, who was a great, very close friend.

"I think if I had won instead of Michael I would have defeated Maggie. He was a gift to her."

Lord Healey was the last Labour Chancellor forced to steer the country through a period economic turmoil.

In 1976 he was forced to go to the IMF for a 2.3bn bail out loan, saying unemployment and inflation were at exceptional levels (although he now says that the public sector borrowing figures he based the decision on were wrong and he believes he didn't need to go cap-in-hand after all).

Later, his attempts to enforce a pay restraint led to widespread strike action and the Winter of Discontent.

He says the problems he faced were very different from those now faced by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown.

"I think the big difference between now and when I was Chancellor is that you have got globalisation.

"You can get a message to and from Hong Kong in milliseconds these days and all that means is that what happens in one strong country is likely to spread to others."

A vocal critic of Tony Blair – particularly over the Iraq war, Lord Healey describes himself as "pro Brown", supports the PM's response to the economic crisis and believes Labour can win the next election.

"I agree with everything he has done.

"I think he has done very well indeed.

"Although his behaviour is naturally not pleasing to many people, I don't think they've blamed him for the situation and all the evidence is that he has recovered a great deal of the popularity that he lost in recent months and will probably go on recovering so long as the crisis continues."

Before he leads me to his front door and my waiting taxi the conversation briefly turns back to matters photographic (Lord Healey is not a fan of digital cameras).

The vice-chancellor of Sussex University, Prof Michael Farthing, lives next door and recently put on an exhibition of the peer's photographs entitled: 'Denis Healey: Furniture of the Mind'.

Photographs include his appearances on Pathe News as well as his bushy-eyed puppet from Spitting Image.

They also include touching holiday pictures of Edna and their children and a comical photo of a middle-aged Denis Healey having lunch in a field of cows – proving that there is indeed more to life than politics.

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