Denis Healey

Denis Healey
The Right Honourable
The Lord Healey
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
In office
4 November 1980 – 2 October 1983
Leader Michael Foot
Preceded by Michael Foot
Succeeded by Roy Hattersley
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
8 December 1980 – 13 July 1987
Leader Michael Foot
Neil Kinnock
Preceded by Peter Shore
Succeeded by Gerald Kaufman
In office
20 June 1970 – 19 April 1972
Leader Harold Wilson
Preceded by Alec Douglas-Home
Succeeded by James Callaghan
In office
11 October 1959 – 2 November 1961
Leader Hugh Gaitskell
Preceded by Aneurin Bevan
Succeeded by Harold Wilson
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
5 March 1974 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
James Callaghan
Preceded by Anthony Barber
Succeeded by Geoffrey Howe
Secretary of State for Defence
In office
16 October 1964 – 19 June 1970
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Preceded by Peter Thorneycroft
Succeeded by Peter Carington
Member of Parliament
for Leeds East
In office
26 May 1955 – 9 April 1992
Preceded by Constituency Created
Succeeded by George Mudie
Member of Parliament
for Leeds South East
In office
14 February 1952 – 26 May 1955
Preceded by James Milner
Succeeded by Alice Bacon
Personal details
Born 30 August 1917 (1917-08-30) (age 94)
Mottingham, London, England
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Edna Edmunds (1945 - 2010; her death)
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Military service
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Royal Engineers
Years of service 1940–1945
Rank Major
Battles/wars World War II
North African Campaign
Italian Campaign
• Battle of Anzio

Denis Winston Healey, Baron Healey CH, MBE, PC (born 30 August 1917) is a British Labour politician, who served as Secretary of State for Defence from 1964 to 1970 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979.


Early life

Healey was born in Mottingham, London, but moved with his family to Keighley in the West Riding of Yorkshire when he was five.[1] His middle name is in honour of Winston Churchill.[2]

Healey was one of three siblings. His father was an engineer who worked his way up from humble origins studying at night school. His paternal grandfather was a tailor from Enniskillen in Ireland. Healey was educated at Bradford Grammar School. In 1936 he won an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, to read Greats where he was involved in Labour politics, although he was not active in the Oxford Union Society. At Oxford Healey joined the Communist Party in 1937 during the Great Terror but left in 1939 in protest over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Also at Oxford, Healey met future Conservative Prime Minister Teddy Heath (as he was then known), whom he succeeded as president of Balliol College Junior Common Room and who was to be a life-long friend and political rival. Healey achieved a double first for his degree, awarded in 1940.

The Second World War

After his degree, he served in the Second World War with the Royal Engineers, in the North African Campaign, the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Italian Campaign, and was the military landing officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio. Leaving the service with the rank of Major after the war – he declined an offer to remain as a Lieutenant-Colonel – Healey joined the Labour Party. Still in uniform, Major Healey gave a strongly left-wing speech to the Labour Party conference in 1945, shortly before the General Election in which he narrowly failed to win the Conservative-held seat of Pudsey and Otley, doubling the Labour vote but losing by 1,651 votes.[3] Following this, he was made secretary of the international department of the Labour Party, becoming a foreign policy adviser to Labour leaders and establishing contacts with socialists across Europe. From 1948 to 1960 he was a councillor of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and of the International Institute for Strategic Studies from 1958 until 1961. He was a member of the Fabian Society executive from 1954 till 1961.

Member of Parliament and in government

Healey was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Leeds East at a by-election in February 1952 with a majority of 7,000 votes, after the incumbent MP Major James Milner left the Commons to accept a peerage.

He supported the moderate side in the Labour Party during the series of 1950s splits. He was a supporter and friend of Hugh Gaitskell and, when Gaitskell died in 1963, he was horrified at the idea of Gaitskell's volatile deputy, George Brown, leading Labour, saying "He was like immortal Jemima; when he was good he was very good but when he was bad he was horrid". He voted for James Callaghan in the first ballot and Harold Wilson in the second. Healey thought Wilson would unite the Labour Party and lead it to victory in the next general election. He didn't think Brown was capable of doing either. He was appointed Shadow Defence Secretary after the creation of the position in 1964. When Labour won the 1964 election Healey served throughout the government as Secretary of State for Defence. He cut defence expenditure, cancelling the TSR-2 aircraft and withdrawing from East of Suez commitments. He authorised expulsion of Chagossians from the Chagos Archipelago and allowed building of the United States military base at Diego Garcia. He remained defence secretary for the party's near six years of Government and was Shadow Defence Secretary after Labour's defeat in June 1970.

Healey was appointed Shadow Chancellor in April 1972 after Roy Jenkins resigned in a row over the European Economic Community (Common Market). At the Labour conference on 1 October 1973, he said, "I warn you that there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75% on their last slice of earnings".[4] In a speech in Lincoln on 18 February 1974, reported in The Times the following day, Healey went further, promising he would "squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak" and said Lord Carrington, the Conservative Secretary of State for Energy, had made £10m profit from selling agricultural land at prices 30 to 60 times as high as it would command as farming land.[5] He was later widely reported as saying that Labour would "tax the rich until the pips squeak", which Healey accurately but disingenuously denied. When accused by colleagues including Eric Heffer, left-wing MP for Liverpool Walton, of putting Labour's chances of winning the next election in jeopardy with his tax proposals, Healey said the party and the country must face the consequences of Labour's policy of the redistribution of income and wealth; "That is what our policy is, the party must face the realities of it".[6]

Healey became Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1974 after Labour's narrow election victory. His tenure is divided into Healey Mark I and Healey Mark II.[7] The divide is marked by his decision, taken with Prime Minister James Callaghan, to seek an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and submit the British economy to the IMF supervision. The loan was negotiated and agreed in November and December 1976 and announced in Parliament on 15 December 1976.[8][9] Within some parts of the Labour Party the transition from Healey Mark I (which had seen a proposal for a wealth tax) to Healey Mark II (associated with a government specified wage control) was regarded as betrayal. Healey's policy of increasing benefits for the poor meant those earning over £4,000 per year would be taxed more heavily. Healey’s first budget was strongly progressive, with increases in food subsidies, pensions, and other benefits.[10]

Shadow Cabinet and retirement

Healey's bushy eyebrows and soft-spoken wit earned him a favourable reputation with the public. When the media were not present, his humour was equally caustic but more risqué: "These fallacies [pronounced 'phalluses'] are rising up everywhere", he retorted at a meeting of Leeds University Labour Society. The impressionist Mike Yarwood coined the catchphrase "Silly Billy", which Healey had never said until that point, but he adopted it and used it frequently. Healey's direct speech made enemies. He attacked left-wing opponents as "out of their tiny Chinese minds" early in 1976,[11] meaning to imply that they were Maoist, but offending the Chinese community[citation needed]. The controversy led[citation needed] to a poor performance when he fought for the Labour leadership on Harold Wilson's resignation. He obtained 30 votes in the first ballot on 25 March, and 38 in the second on 30 March. He was eliminated from the election and supported James Callaghan in the final ballot on 5 April. Callaghan was elected as the new prime minister and leader of the Labour Party, and retained Healey as chancellor.

His long-serving deputy at the Treasury, Joel Barnett, in response to a remark by a third party that "Denis Healey would sell his own grandmother", quipped, "No, he would get me to do it for him". On 14 June 1978, Healey likened being attacked by the mild-mannered Sir Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons to being "savaged by a dead sheep".[12] Nevertheless, Howe appeared and paid warm tribute when Healey was featured on This Is Your Life in 1989. The two have been friends for many years.

Labour lost the general election to the Conservatives (led by Margaret Thatcher) in May 1979, following the Winter of Discontent in which Britain had been brought to a virtual standstill by endless public sector strikes. Unemployment had now risen to 1,500,000 compared to less than 1,000,000 in 1974, prompting a Conservative election campaign centred on the theme "Labour Isn't Working". Despite Labour's dismal record on the economy and unemployment, Healey blasted the Conservative campaign as "selling politics like soap powder".[13]

When Callaghan stepped down as Labour leader in November 1980, Healey was favourite to win the Labour Party leadership election, decided by Labour MPs. He took support from the right of the party for granted. In one notable incident, Healey was reputed to have told the right-wing Manifesto Group they must vote for him as they had "nowhere else to go." When Mike Thomas, the MP for Newcastle East defected to the Social Democratic Party (SDP), he said he had been tempted to send Healey a telegram saying he had found "somewhere else to go". Four Labour MPs who defected to the SDP in early 1981 said they voted against Healey to land the Labour Party with an unelectable left-wing leader and so help their new party.[14]

Healey was elected deputy leader to the newly-elected Labour leader Michael Foot, but the next year was challenged by Tony Benn under the new election system, which included individual members and trade unions. The contest was a battle for the soul of the Labour Party and debated over the summer of 1981 ending with Healey winning by 50.4% to Benn's 49.6% on 27 September 1981. Healey's narrow majority can be attributed to the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) delegation to the Labour Party conference. Ignoring consultation with members, which had shown two to one majority support for Healey, it cast the union's block vote (the largest in the union section) for Benn. A significant factor in Benn's loss, however, was the abstention of 20 MPs from the left-wing Tribune Group,[15] which split as a result. Healey attracted enough support from other unions, constituency parties and Labour MPs to win. Healey was Shadow Foreign Secretary during most of the 1980s, a job he coveted. He was retained in the shadow cabinet by Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot after the disastrous 1983 general election, when the Tories bolstered their majority and Labour suffered their worst general election result in decades.

His views on nuclear weapons were at variance with the unilateral nuclear disarmament policy of the party. After the 1987 general election, he retired from the Shadow Cabinet, and in 1992 stood down after 40 years as a Leeds MP. In that year he received a life peerage as Baron Healey of Riddlesden in the County of West Yorkshire. Healey is regarded by some – especially in the Labour Party – as "the best Prime Minister we never had".[16] Denis Healey is a founder member of the Bilderberg Group.[17]

Although he supported Tony Blair to lead the Labour Party within hours of John Smith's death in May 1994, he later became critical. During 2004 and 2005, he called on Blair (by then prime minister) to stand down in favour of Gordon Brown. In July 2006 he argued that "Nuclear weapons are infinitely less important in our foreign policy than they were in the days of the Cold War" and "I don't think we need nuclear weapons any longer".[18]

Personal life

Healey married Edna May Edmunds on 21 December 1945; she died on 21 July 2010, aged 92.[19] They were married for over 60 years, and lived in Alfriston, East Sussex.[20]

In 1987 Edna underwent an operation at a private hospital - at odds with Healey's pro-NHS beliefs. Challenged by Anne Diamond on TV-am, Healey became upset and ended the interview.[21] He then jabbed journalist Adam Boulton.[22][23]

The couple had three children, one of whom is the broadcaster, writer and record producer Tim Healey.[24][25]

Healey was a photographer for many years[26] and enjoyed music and painting. He sometimes played popular piano tunes at public events.[27]

In popular culture

Film, television and theatre

Healey is the only Chancellor to have appeared on BBC One's Morecambe and Wise Show.[28] In 1986 he appeared in series one of Saturday Live. He was portrayed by David Fleeshman in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's The Falklands Play


During Led Zeppelin's 1975 and 1977 concert tours, Robert Plant facetiously dedicated the song "In My Time of Dying" to Denis Healey for the tax exile issues the band was facing. During Yes' recording of what was to become the album Tormato (1978), there was an outtake called "Money". On the track, the Yes keyboardist at the time, Rick Wakeman, provides a satirical voice-over parodying Healey.[29]

Graphic novels

The 1986 comic Watchmen, set in an alternative present, mentioned a "British Prime Minister Healey".


His publications include; Healey's Eye (photography) (1980), The Time of My Life (his autobiography) (1989), When Shrimps Learn to Whistle (1990), My Secret Planet (an anthology) (1992), Denis Healey's Yorkshire Dales (1995) and Healey's World (2002).


  1. ^ Mark Hookham (03-12-2008). "Denis Healey: 'The best Prime Minister we never had'". Yorkshire Evening Post. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  2. ^ Kaufman, Gerald (13 March 2000). "Debates for 13 Mar 2000 (pt 20)". Hansard (London: House of Commons). Retrieved 31 January 2009. 
  3. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1983) [1969]. British parliamentary election results 1918-1949 (3rd ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-06-X. 
  4. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 2 October 1973; p. 1; Issue 58902; col A
  5. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 19 February 1974; p. 4; Issue 59018; col D
  6. ^ The Times, Thursday, 18 October 1973; p. 2; Issue 58916; col C
  7. ^ The Jekyll and Hyde Years: Politics and Economic Policy since 1964 by Michael Stewart.
  8. ^ [1][dead link]
  9. ^ [2][dead link]
  10. ^ The Labour Party since 1945 by Eric Shaw
  11. ^ The Daily Telegraph, 24 February 1976
  12. ^ Hansard, 14 June 1978, Col. 1027
  13. ^ [3]
  14. ^ Crewe, Ivor and King, Anthony, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.74-75.
  15. ^ Eric Heffer (1986). Labour's Future: Socialist or SDP Mark 2?. Verso. pp. 28–29. 
  16. ^ Sale, Jonathan (4 May 2006), "Passed/failed: An education in the life of Denis Healey, Labour peer"], The Independent,, retrieved 28 April 2009 
  17. ^ Ronson, Jon (10 March 2001). "Who pulls the strings? (part 3)". The Guardian (London).,4273,4149485,00.html. Retrieved 4 July 2009. 
  18. ^ "UK needs no nuclear arms - Healey". BBC News. 7 July 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2007. 
  19. ^ "Denis Healey's wife, Edna, dies aged 92". BBC News Online (BBC). 23 July 2010. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  20. ^ Denis Healey at 90
  21. ^ BBC Politics 97
  22. ^ "Adam Boulton: Sky's political editor on the channel's relaunch". The Independent (London). 24 April 2006. 
  23. ^ Burrell, Ian (15 May 2010). "Adam Boulton: Just don't tell him what he thinks". The Independent (London). 
  24. ^ Water way to splash out for charity, Oxford Mail, 17 May 1999.
  25. ^ Come on Lads: Canteen songs of World War Two, Beautiful Jo Records website . Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  26. ^ - Denis Healey & Photography
  27. ^ "Denis Healey playing the piano at Huddersfield Town Hall", Science and Society (National Museum of Science and Industry), May 1987,, retrieved 28 April 2009 
  28. ^ Denis Healey: The big man behind the big eyebrows, by Richard Heller, at
  29. ^ Dave Lewis (2004), Led Zeppelin: The 'Tight But Loose' Files; Celebration 2, Omnibus Press, ISBN 1-8444-9056-4, p.24-5.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Milner
Member of Parliament for Leeds South East
Succeeded by
Alice Bacon
New constituency Member of Parliament for Leeds East
Succeeded by
George Mudie
Political offices
Preceded by
Aneurin Bevan
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Harold Wilson
Preceded by
Peter Thorneycroft
Secretary of State for Defence
Succeeded by
Peter Carington
Preceded by
Alec Douglas-Home
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
James Callaghan
Preceded by
Anthony Barber
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Geoffrey Howe
Preceded by
Peter Shore
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Gerald Kaufman
Party political offices
Preceded by
Michael Foot
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Roy Hattersley

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