By Lucette Davies
I felt very much in awe as I approached the door of Denis Healey’s home in Alfriston. was I really going to be spending the next hour with the best Prime Minister that Britain never had? I knocked on the door and smiled as I heard him singing loudly: “I am on my way, I am coming”
Denis Healey was born on 30 August 1917 in Mottingham, Kent but moved to Yorkshire when he was five. He went to Bradford Grammer School and by 1936 had started at Balliol College, Oxford. At this time Denis Healey did not have any ambition to move into politics for a career although joined the Communist Party and the Labour Party; at this time it was possible to do both.
After leaving Oxford, Denis Healey fought in the Second World War with the Royal Engineers, reaching the rank of Major before he left and decided to rejoin the Labour Party.
When asked about what it was that drove this man in his political career he said: “I was born during the First World War ad fought in the Second World War. Wars happen because of governments and I did not want there to be a third world war.”
Initially working as the International Secretary for the Labour Party, travelling was a huge part of Denis Healey’s life. As a lover of photography, his travel brought the opportunity to take over 5000 photographs. The walls in the room where we sat had both photographs and paintings, all by this great politician. He pointed to one painting that certainly did not look like an amateur’s painting and said: “I painted that when I was 16 years old.” We talked for a while about his love of art and his admiration for Picasso.
Clearly Denis Healey has many skills but I was interested to know what he felt was his greatest achievement. Without hesitating to think, he told me: “In the Vietnam War America bombed large areas of land resulting in millions of civilian deaths. I would not allow the British Air Force to drop a single bomb in Indonesia. The whole battle was fought and won with fewer deaths than there would be on British roads on a bank holiday.” There were in fact just 123 deaths during that battle.
Originally a supporter of CND and very opposed to nuclear weapons; Denis Healey now is someone who feels that: “Nuclear weapons are preventing wars.” Although believing that nuclear weapons are a deterrent he does feel concern over the current threat from North Korea.
Elected to the House of Commons in 1952 as MP for Leeds East; Denis Healey began the forty years that he would eventually serve as an MP. Over his years in the Commons he held the positions of Shadow Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Defence and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.
Denis Healey said that he feels: “David Cameron is a good leader of the Conservatives, better than William Hague and is quite charismatic but I feel they are getting the economics completely wrong.” When asked about the Labour leaders he said he felt: “The first three years of Tony Blair were good but then he started to make some disastrous mistakes. The Iraq War was the worst mistake but the ‘cash for peerages’ was also a mistake. I like Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah very much indeed.”
Now at 95 years old Denis Healey told me he spends a lot of his time now with his books and his art. He is a Member of the House of Lords which he attends about 12 times a year. His wife Edna died three years ago and he has three children. With such a sharp mind Denis Healey is a fascinating man to talk to. He has a gentle humour and his reply when I asked about his feelings relative to the death of Margaret Thatcher did not surprise me at all. He told me: “When she was in office I did not agree with anything she did but five years ago, I was walking around Wakehurst Place with my daughter when we saw Margaret Thatcher. She was very frail in both body and mind so I just gave her a big hug.”
I felt a little sad as I said goodbye to this amazing man. As well as being enormously interesting his gentlemanly charm left me feeling very privileged to have had this interview. I quietly hoped we would meet again one day as he kissed my hand goodbye.