Great leader, or nearly man?

by Rob Marchant

He has always been seen as a heavyweight and a bruiser. He has experience of the treasury at the highest level and was well-respected there. He is ferociously intelligent, one of the brightest of all his Oxford contemporaries, who, famously, does not suffer fools gladly. And, despite failing in his bid to be elected leader, there is no doubting his importance as Labour’s de facto number two, at a time of great turmoil for both the party and the economy; a politician seen as a ballast of rigour against the madder and less thought-out ideas of some of his colleagues on the left.

Raise your glasses to 93 year-old Denis Healey, the most celebrated Labour-leader-who-never-was of my lifetime. John Rentoul’s coverage of Healey’s recent Mile End group speech added a couple of insights, but the essentials of the story are well established.

Of course, there are as many differences as similarities between Healey and Ed Balls. Unlike Balls, he was not an academic economist, but a double-first classicist who, despite his on-the-job training, learned his brief well and actually made it to be chancellor.

In other ways, he is more like the man who did Balls’ job until last week, Alan Johnson: less driven than his colleagues; indeed, a somewhat reluctant leader (he in fact rejected the job of shadow chancellor initially, preferring to stay at defence).  Both men ran for deputy leader, although Johnson, by a whisker, didn’t get it. Both men, famously, have had a significant life both before and outside politics.

Of course, we cannot fairly contrast Healey’s career with Balls’, because Balls is still in the middle of his. We genuinely don’t know yet whether he will go on to become a towering figure like Healey, a run-of-the-mill politician or even a political failure. He certainly seems to have the base material for greatness; but unkind politics is always full of that sort of uncertainty. The political graveyard is littered with “nearly” men and women.

And there is one more thing which stands out about Healey. Despite his brilliance, he is not always remembered as a great chancellor. To be fair, it didn’t help that he had to deal with the fallout from two oil crises and a party which was slowly killing itself. But he is closely associated, along with Callaghan, with the disastrous “winter of discontent”, which immediately preceded Labour’s 18 unhappy years of wilderness-wandering. (Although, to be fair again, he also largely redeemed himself by wading in to help save the party from the Bennite left in the early 80s).

2011 is not 1978. There are innumerable ways in which these cases are not comparable. But it is useful to remember a few ways in which they are: first, in economics as in Aeschylus, there is no universal truth. There are points of view, and there is endless debate. You may be brilliantly-versed in it, but that does not mean you are right. You must still be challenged. You must still be open to debate. You must still adapt to circumstances. And there is the politics to get right as well as the economics.

The second is this: we do not choose our moment in history to come to the fore.  Both men probably would have preferred other moments than their own for national prominence. In both cases, the happenstance of electoral defeat and economic crisis has surely made their lives very different than they might otherwise have been.  Timing, luck and the state of your opponents also play their part.

And there is a simple third. We seem to be at a moment of inflection, where Labour could either gravitate back towards the discipline we had in government, or descend into the traditional internecine fighting which will keep us out of it. The only way to avoid this is to steer clear of the Blairite/Brownite wars and set an example at the top. Healey understood this: after all, he helped hold it together through the worst part of the previous generation’s conflict.

The question for the future: will Balls suffer the same fate as his predecessor and find himself the brilliant mind peaking at the wrong end of history, at the start of a wilderness period? It is too early to tell. I truly hope not. He is talented, has proved himself a doughty fighter and largely believes in the right things.

But if Denis, with all the years and the greatness, had something to pass on to Ed, perhaps he might pass on some advice:

One, clever people do not always get things right, so listen.  Two, remember not to bite your colleagues, as that will always come back to bite you.

And three: timing is everything, so you may or may not be screwed anyway, old son.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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5 Responses to “Great leader, or nearly man?”

  1. @Rob

    Who could forget those bushy-eyebrows!

    Secretary of defence (1964-1970) who order the expulsion of the chagos islanders
    so America could have their asaian base.

    Chancellor 1974-1979, Dennis wanted to take the rich by means of taxation, quoting a 75% take on land sales however this would lead to Dennis’s down fall and challenge as party deputy leader. As chancellor Dennis would seek an IMF loan 1976 and his position on tax and wage control would lead to the remarks that Dennis had two identities, Mark1 or Mark2 the taxman or the wage controller and of course Tony Benn would later challenge Dennis’s position as deputy leader.

    It was a time similiar to todays events Rob, Jenkins resigned and then the famous four would go on to set up the SDP, Britain was in a serious financial mess but with low wages and high inflation the winter of discontent would set in.

    Dennis the moderate and the clear choice of the party’s right was caught by events that pushed him to far to the right, i hope we learn some lessons from this Rob.

  2. william says:

    A towering figure like Healey? Dragged off the plane at Heathrow,in 1976, as the UK descended into financial chaos, and the IMF arrived.And 98 percent marginal tax, or a mere 83 percent if you excluded earnings from savings.The man that helped ensure 18 years of Tory rule because of his tax till the pips squeak.The ‘former ‘member of the communist party?Please give me a break.Nice place at Alfriston,Brezhnev laughed out loud.

  3. Will says:

    If only he had tried harder to beat Michael Foot in 1980! We’d never have had the “longest suicide note in history”, or the SDP split, and the Tories might have had just 8, instead of 18, years in power.
    Too many people are labelled as “best prime minister we never had”, but he really was.

  4. @Derek, yes there are certainly parallels with today. My point really is that you don’t get to choose the times you live in. As for being caught by events or not, that is the test of every politician, is it not, to see them as opportunity not threat?

    @william I don’t expect everyone to agree with my analysis, but neither do I believe it fair (or historically correct) to blame the actions of the entire Wilson government on Healey. Healey tended to be the one constantly arguing for common sense against many who were not, and the records bear this out. I would thoroughly recommend you read the biographies of both him and Wilson. Btw lots of people were members of the Communist Party in their youth, I’m afraid I fail to see the relevance. Not sure what your point about Brezhnev is.

    @Will he missed it by a whisker, but I doubt it was for the want of trying. And I agree, many are described like that but he really is (not was, he’s still alive!)

  5. @Rob
    That’s very ture, many say’ that it’s the hard times that define personnel greatness.

    Rob, i can see where your coming from, in terms of a common sense approach.
    I do envisage problems ahead, times have changed from the 1980’s and many families are tied to the economic position, receiving a wage will be their biggest priority however i don’t think that alone justifies the moderate view.

    Winners and losers! it’s more than that and no one person is above the position.

    Had there been jobs created in the other sector, then the mood swing would probably be different.

    There’s no doubt Healey had a great mind but he was also vulnerable and prone to a one sided argument.

    The biggest mistake made by Thatcher’s government was to think that unemployment was a price worth paying and the second was to starve the common man/women of decent wages.

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