Denis Healey: Obituary of former Labour minister

Denis Healey Image copyright BBC News

He may never have achieved the highest office in the land, but Denis Healey, who has died aged 98, will go down in history as one of the biggest and most memorable figures in post-war British politics.

For many, the defining moment of his career came in 1976, when, as chancellor of the exchequer, he was forced to apply for an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an effort to save the pound from collapse.

In September of that year, he abandoned a planned trip to Hong Kong, as he was about to board his plane at Heathrow, because the markets were so nervous.

Three months later he pushed through an emergency package of spending cuts and tax rises to comply with the IMF's demands.

Denis Healey dies aged 98

Denis Healey: A life in pictures

Intellectual heavyweight

It was seen by Labour's opponents as a moment of national shame that shaped the Thatcherite decades to come - but there was far more to Denis Healey, later Lord Healey of Riddlesden, than the anguished, but defiant, figure that piloted Britain through one of its worst financial crises.

An intellectual heavyweight, who had a range of interests that stretched far beyond the narrow world of Westminster politics, he was known for his tough, no-holds-barred style of debate.

His relish for the cut-and-thrust of politics served him well during long periods in government in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the internal struggles that re-shaped Labour during its years in opposition in the 1980s.

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption Denis Healey, in army uniform, speaks at the Labour Party conference in 1945

His trademark bushy eyebrows, colourful turn of phrase and expertise on a range of musical instruments, including the piano and double bass, made him a regular fixture on television and a favourite target of impressionists.

But he had a sharp mind and could fell opponents with a devastating one-liner, once likening debating with Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to being "savaged by a dead sheep" and accusing Margaret Thatcher of "glorying in slaughter" during the Falklands conflict.

'Howls of anguish'

He was equally adept at rallying the Labour troops with a well-turned phrase, telling a party conference in 1973 there would be "howls of anguish" from people who were rich enough to pay more than 75% tax on their last slice of earnings. He topped this the following year by threatening to "squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak".

But like many politicians of his era, his ambitions and ideals were often frustrated by the daily grind of crisis management as the economy lurched from one disaster to the next.

Denis Winston Healey was born on 30 August 1917 in south London. His father became head of Keighley Technical College when Denis was a child and the family moved to Yorkshire.

From Bradford Grammar School, he won a scholarship to Oxford, taking a first in classics at Balliol.

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption Healey served as defence secretary under Harold Wilson

At Oxford he developed an enthusiasm for Marxism, but in 1940 he joined the Army, and served in combined operations in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, ending the war as a major and with a Mention in Despatches.

After the war Healey joined the Labour Party's international secretariat, where, under the influence of Ernest Bevin, he lost his Communist sympathies.

He had tried for Parliament in 1945, and in 1952 was elected as one of the MPs for Leeds.

When Labour gained power in 1964, he became defence secretary, reforming and reorganising the services and the Territorial Army. He met resistance, but was very much in charge.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Healey seemed to share the nation's anguish as he announced his 1976 emergency budget

Healey presided over Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez, forced upon the government for economic reasons. In opposition as shadow chancellor, he told the 1973 party conference that Labour would help the poor and tax the rich - until it hurt.

But when Healey became chancellor in 1974, he did not bring in a promised "wealth tax".

He had to struggle with the rise in oil prices and a balance of payments crisis, and for five years waged a battle, in budget after budget, on inflation, unemployment, and public spending.

After three years he managed to get inflation on a downward path - but at the cost of much unpopularity.

Courageous but heckled

Wage controls and expenditure cuts were not acceptable to the Left; and when in 1976 the pound dropped, and he had to seek a loan from the IMF, he turned back from Heathrow and rushed to the party conference.

He justified his strategy in a courageous but much-heckled speech.

"It means sticking to the very painful cuts in public expenditure on which the government's already decided," he told conference.

"It means seeing that increase in our output which has now begun goes not into public or private spending, but into exports or investment."

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption He faced tough Budget decisions during the balance of payments crisis

Healey later called that the most harrowing day of his life. But he thrived on crisis, and took pride in what he called "doing the dirty work for socialism".

In the leadership contest of 1976, held after Harold Wilson's resignation, he was way behind James Callaghan, but in 1980 when Callaghan stood down, Healey led on the first ballot, and finally lost to Michael Foot by a mere 10 votes.

'I say what I think'

Had he won, the defections to the SDP might never have happened. The following year the party was split again when Tony Benn challenged him for the deputy leadership; Healey just won, by under 1%.

He continued as shadow foreign secretary, but some of his statements, such as the "glorying in slaughter" comment, brought embarrassment and apology.

Healey once admitted that being an intellectual in politics had its drawbacks.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Denis Healey was still involved in public speaking aged 90

"I don't think it's so much that I'm too-clever-by-half, as has been said about some politicians," he once said, "I think that's it sometimes that I do say what I think without calculating the consequences and this is very damaging for a politician."

Denis Healey stood down at the 1992 election after nearly 40 years as a Leeds MP, and went to the Lords.

He was a big personality, with wide interests: a musician, a gardener, and a keen photographer; he read widely, he wrote books, including a much-admired autobiography, and he continued to write and lecture on strategic aspects of a fast-changing Europe.

Lord Healey was respected, rather than loved, by fellow politicians, and was always something of a loner. He never bothered to court the Left, and they in turn never backed him.

But few could rival him in stature, in breadth of knowledge, and in cheerfully taking the knocks of political life.

More on this story