Former Labour Chancellor on oil, Europe, and Thatcher
The quasi-state funeral of Margaret Thatcher was a reminder of how planet politics was a land once stalked by big political beasts. She may have been a divisive figure in life but in death, politicians of all sides gathered in St Paul’s to sit side-by-side, to as much, one suspects, pay their respects to her as spot who else was there and, more importantly, who was not. And it was an impressive roll call.
But while the first few rows were inhabited by the shiny potentates and their immediate predecessors, like Blair and Brown, it was the middle to back rows of mourners seated in the pews for Thatcher’s last tarrah that provided the talking point as they offered a unique glimpse of the UK’s rich political past. They were politicians who were still instantly recognisable, despite their years. Characters who had stature borne of their big brains, experience of life and the headline-making travails they had tackled in their times. They also, uncoincidently, came from an era when the electorate was interested enough in them and in politics to bother to vote. A silver-haired gathering – barring Lord Lawson whose dark mane rather obviously defies his years – of a faded band of political aristocracy whose force of intellect and personality predated the need for artificial construct and spin. Big names: Hurd, Heseltine, Howe, Tebbit, Lawson, Parkinson and Carrington – grandees known by their surnames alone, leaving no doubt at all about their import or legacy.
But there were also some significant by their absence. And Denis Healey, now Lord Healey of Riddlesden, a man recognisable by a set of eyebrows alone, was otherwise engaged on the day. Healey had been the last Labour Chancellor before Thatcher’s government was elected in 1979. He had presided over some seriously difficult times. It was, he says, a “Herculean task” clearing up the mess left by Ted Heath’s Conservatives; economic strife, mass industrial action, the aftermath of a three-day week, a biting recession, soaring oil prices and inflation to match, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and being perceived as the servant of the trade unions.
Ultimately, he suffered the ignominy of being part of a fag-end government defeated by a vote of no-confidence and ousted by the Tories. And to add insult to injury, it was down to the UK’s first female Prime Minister to find the muscle to do what he and his party had been unable to – break the stranglehold of the unions and get a grip on public spending.
“The great tragedy in my time was that the union leaders hardly ever consulted the rankand- file,” he says. “And in my experience, the rank-and-file often completely disagreed with what the leaders were doing, especially when you had Jack Jones and Scargill, the terrible twins as they were called at the time, so it was only really when John Smith introduced one man, one vote that the unions got under control and Maggie had the good sense to continue with that.” For many, Healey will be remembered as Labour’s last Iron Chancellor. [His name synonymous with the high taxation ghost that came to haunt the party – the top rate of income tax rose to 83 per cent under his watch. Or famously misquoted for saying he would “tax the rich until the pips squeak” and the man in the grip of the unions that eventually had to go, cap in hand, to the IMF looking for a bailout.] But to others, he will be fondly remembered as the best PM we never had, a bushy-eyebrowed wit, lampooned by the impersonator Mike Yarwood who coined the phrase ‘Silly Billy’ that Healey then adopted. Looking back, he says that you can never understand how difficult government is going to be until you get in but he does now regret that he never did secure that top job.
“At the time, I never wanted to be Prime Minister, really, because I wanted to do something rather than be something but since then I have completely changed my mind because, in fact, a Prime Minister does a hell of a lot and can control every aspect of government so I rather wish now I had been.
“I think I would have been a pragmatic Prime Minister because I am not guided by ideology at all and I think I would have been quite good.” And it is true, Healey is a pragmatist. He describes his political philosophy as “eclectic pragmatism with a strong moral streak”.
He strikes no note of bitterness about lost opportunities, merely a whimsical musing about what might have been. He missed out on No 10 twice and fought a bitter fight for deputy leader of the party with Tony Benn who, he says, suffered from what the character of Gregers Werle in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck had – “a destructive innocence”. “Tony and I get on very well now but we had real hatred at one time but he has softened a lot… and of course, I am much mellower than I was.” He does however, insist that his time as Chancellor was marred by having to make forecasts based on figures from the Treasury which he now understands to be incorrect which also forced him to go to the International Monetary Fund [IMF] for a $3.9bn loan in 1976.
“If we had had the right figures, we would never have needed to go for the loan. It was the most difficult period of my life getting the Cabinet to go for it. The Public Spending Borrowing Requirement [PSBR] estimate was horrific and when I was Chancellor, the PSBR was the key to policy but the estimates on the PSBR were always wrong in my time and in my first three years, they [the Treasury] enormously exaggerated the gap and my last year, they didn’t even realise we were going to have a considerable surplus in tax. They were all guessing what would happen and their guesses were wrong and I didn’t realise that until after it had happened.
It was very hard but I think that in the end I did a very good job and as a result, I was offered the job as the head of the IMF when we lost the election but I didn’t want to live abroad without the family and I felt I couldn’t uproot them so I didn’t accept but all in all, I think I did quite well as Chancellor – it’s a very difficult job.
“I think George Osborne does have a very difficult job, without question, but I think he is also most insensitive compared with other people who have done the job. Gordon Brown was good as Chancellor, not so good as Prime Minister because he didn’t have a wide enough understanding of other issues and I think people should know their limitations.” Healey himself was, of course, always an interesting mix of bruiser and intellectual. He was always a perspicacious student of political allies and enemies alike and he once dubbed Thatcher – “La Pasionaria of Privilege”, a woman who railed against the evils of poverty but who was callous and unsympathetic to the plight of the have-nots. And so, at almost 96, while his physical condition is less able, his mind and his long-term memory remain sharp and he can be excused from making his excuses as his nemesis said her last goodbyes.
“I don’t think Margaret Thatcher leaves behind a particularly good legacy, quite honestly,” he says. “She really believed the things she said about there being no such thing as society, no matter how that was later construed. I think she didn’t really believe in the brotherhood of man or even the sisterhood of women. There was no compassion and that was her trouble and it came out in her policies.
“I think, really, she believed in the importance of the individual rather than society and while selfish is too strong a word because in a sense, I think she did believe in more than just herself and I am sure that in the beginning, she would have been motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, in the end, self was all she believed in and that’s why her own party threw her out.” Lord Healey’s life has been rich and varied and his conversation is littered with references to great historical figures he has met, worked with and even been friends of: Stalin, Picasso, Bogart and even Danny La Rue, to name but a few.
And his political career spanned more than six decades, from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War during which he had served in the Army, to the fall of Communism. He first stood for Parliament in 1945, and gave his first impassioned speech to Labour conference – having turned his back on the Communist Party – still dressed in his military attire. He came into politics to ensure there was no Third World War and without a hint of modesty or indeed humour, says he ensured that happened albeit with the help of the atom bomb. And while he remains a supporter of the idea behind a nuclear deterrent, he is less convinced now about the renewal of Trident given that he thinks the threat of nuclear attack has abated. His only concern now is that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
Healey is, understandably, a shrunken version of his old bombastic self. His beloved wife of 65 years, Edna, died in 2010 and he rarely leaves his rambling and, fair to say, pretty ramshackle old home in the quintessentially English village of Alfriston in East Sussex. His housekeeper of 30 years, Carol, attempts to keep him in check but he is quite clearly still his own man and rebukes any attempts to ‘tidy him up’ or take any mild chastisement about his language or pulling of funny faces for the camera.
His conversation is littered with sexual innuendo but while politically incorrect, it is hard to be offended by one of his ancient years, especially one that requires assistance, time and a stick just to rise from his chair, never mind try and chase you round it. Although, it is also intriguing to wonder whether his Benny Hill-esque repertoire has been affected with age or is simply unchecked from another era of acceptability.
He is surrounded by thousands of books, particularly poetry books, and his numerous photography albums are everywhere – he has been taking snaps since he was a child and has had books of them published – he makes sure he takes one of me before I leave. It is a house stuffed full of memories; a bust of him here, a portrait of Edna there, two Henri Cartier-Bresson (he was a friend) originals sitting atop the piano alongside pictures of the family – Edna and his two daughters, Jenny and Cressida and his son Tim – political awards, honours, certificates, postcards from his days of global travel as a £6 a week secretary of the International Department of the Labour Party and then as Defence Secretary in Wilson’s government, and yellowing newspaper cuttings everywhere. He is certainly not alone surrounded by these ghosts of the past, although he admits to being lonely with Edna now gone.
We sit in the stifling heat of the conservatory overlooking his outdoor pool, in which he still claims to swim every morning in the summer, and there is clearly some organisation to the chaos because among the piles of stuff, everything he needs appears to always be within easy reach. He instantly finds an old photograph of himself, butt naked bar a fig leaf to show me and one he took of an old girlfriend emerging nude from a silvery sea.
Once famous for his sharp-edged wit and playful but often cruelly tinged retorts – he once said that being challenged by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a sheep, described Thatcher as ‘Virago Intacta’ and observed that John Prescott had the face of a man ‘who clubs baby seals’ – today, I’m settling for being told how sexy I am, being sung rude little ditties, quoted risqué rhymes and being asked whether we should conduct the interview with or without our clothes on. It is slightly wearing but we plough on because what he does have to say on politics of now and yesteryear is just as pertinent and incisive now as it was then.
He still tries to take his seat in the House of Lords a dozen or so times a year and says that he much prefers the standard of debate there than in the Commons enhanced, he says, by the experiences and expertise of peers from all walks of life. However, he is clearly more comfortable these days talking about his love of literature and the arts rather than politics per se and gets very engaged in a discussion with the photographer about cameras and technique. But he does keep a close eye on politics and gets particularly exercised about foreign affairs. One regret for him is that he never held the post of Foreign Secretary.
“The only things that really excite me enough to want to intervene are in foreign policy issues and those problems are nearly all created by wars within states with the intervention from people from outside, like in Kashmir or whatever and I think the two areas that really are a mess, which I would like to have more influence on, are Afghanistan and Iraq. To get so involved in the Afghan situation was a disaster. And on Iraq, Tony Blair was a bloody fool. He believed in weapons of mass destruction which was obvious balls, I knew that and said so at the time.
“Syria is also very worrying and actually, nobody really knows what to do about it. Tony Blair has made some mutterings but I don’t worry about Blair getting involved because he doesn’t have any influence anymore – although the Americans are fascinated by him. I think they like the way he talks but my own view about Blair is that although he was very good in his first three years, the later years, with cash for peerages, Iraq and so on, were disastrous. I think he was on some kind of a mission, he certainly thought he was…” I tell Healey that his feelings about Blair are shared by our First Minister, Alex Salmond. He says he has never met Salmond but understands him to be “extremely able”. This leads us into a discussion about the 1979 referendum and the current one. He reveals a certain detachment from issues that don’t directly affect him. He says he relied on his Scottish colleagues, Helen Liddell, John Smith and his great friend and anti-devolutionist, Tam Dalyell, to inform his thinking around what he calls the ‘Scottish Question’ but is also, typically, pragmatic in his view that if Scots want independence then he sees no good reason why they should not get it. He says the rest of the UK has more to lose if that were to happen. He also says that he believes that had John Smith lived and become Prime Minister that might have satisfied the Scots on devolution matters and we would not be in the same position as we are now, facing a referendum on independence. He says that the value of oil to the UK is a prime motivation behind Westminster’s opposition to independence now and in the 1970s.
“I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.” I ask Healey if he had considered establishing a sovereign wealth fund with the oil revenues to invest in the country’s future when he was in office.
“It’s true that we should have invested the money in things we needed in Britain and I had thought about an oil fund, like in Norway but it wasn’t my responsibility by then.” I explain to him that the oil has become a controversial focus in the current referendum debate and wonder if he thinks Westminster is afraid of the consequences of independence.
“I think there are a lot of problems connected with it that haven’t been faced up to, either by Salmond or by the British and they are mainly to do with oil and the income it provides and yes, I think they [Westminster politicians] are concerned about Scotland taking the oil, I think they are worried stiff about it.
“I think we would suffer enormously if the income from Scottish oil stopped but if the Scots want it [independence] they should have it and we would just need to adjust but I would think Scotland could survive perfectly well, economically, if it was independent. Yes, I would think so… with the oil.” I ask Healey what he thinks about claims that Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK given that Joel Barnett, he of the Barnett formula, was his deputy at the Treasury and worked out what share of the national income pot Scotland should receive. He says Scotland “pays its fair share” and that “these myths” are simply perpetuated by those that oppose independence. On Scotland keeping the pound, he says Scotland would gain but adds that so “would the rest of us” and he doesn’t see why Westminster could say the Scots couldn’t have it.
All in all, he is fairly matter-of-fact about the idea of independence and says that he considers it a “natural desire”.
“Being of Irish origin, the idea of independence has always interested me,” he says. “My father always thought he was an Ulsterman because he lived near Enniskillen but in fact, at that time, Ireland hadn’t been divided and he actually came from a little place which was actually in southern Ireland but he never realised that.
“Would Scotland being independent from the UK upset me? No, not really, why would it upset me, it’s a very natural desire, like the desire of the Irish, the Irish Catholics.” I ask him how he would vote if he could and he bats the question away for its clear inanity.
“You have to be a Scot to make that judgement, dear. The Scots are a distinct group of people and much more distinct than the Welsh, who are divided between those in the north and those in the south. Regardless of the result of the referendum, though, I don’t think the Scottish Question will ever go away.” On Europe, he says he would now vote to withdraw from the EU.
“I can see a lot in favour of coming out of Europe and the thing is that we did keep out of most of the European institutions but we still are interdependent because of the relationship and if we decided not to be part of the EU, I think that in many ways, we would gain from it.
“It is a confusing time but now I would vote in favour of leaving Europe. I think there are a lot of problems, particularly around money which so far have not been solved. I firstly don’t think the euro was a good idea because the trouble with Europe was it would never work well because of the olive line; north of the olive line, they pay their taxes and have some controls of their spending and south of the line, they don’t pay tax if they can avoid it and have no control of spending whatever, so [there’s] a disastrous situation developing in the Mediterranean countries.” He says that the biggest changes he has seen politically during his lifetime are the welcome end of the class system but also an alarming reduction in the numbers of people who vote.
I ask him if he finds age frustrating and he leans forward and ends the interview on the tone with which it started, stuck somewhere in a 1970s nudge, nudge, wink, wink, sitcom…
“I’m not frustrated at all, dear… there are some disadvantages but it was Rochester, I think, who wrote the poem: ‘Yet so much had the dismal charm affected that the Venus standard might not be erected…’”