Healey, Denis (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee’s home, Alfriston, East Sussex
Healey, Denis, 1917-2015 (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Denis Healey, Lord Healey (DH). Explains was born in Kent but moved to Yorkshire with family aged 5. Father was Head of Keighley Technical College and was absent most evenings. Mother was well informed about Literature and the Arts. Father not political, mother was Liberal then Labour. [00.01.55] Grew up in years after WW1. Remembers General Strike of 1926, coalition government. Only took an interest in politics on going to Oxford 1936. [00.02.45] Became Chairman of Labour Club, joined Communist Party, which was not very left wing then. Greatly influenced by Sandy Lindsay, Master of Balliol College, a socialist, who introduced him to Russian religious philosophers, Berdayev, Shestov. Mother had some religion. [00.04.05] His 11 years at Bradford Grammar School were very important and influential; taught history by Mr Benn. Contemporaries included Alan Bullock (historian), and Lesley Shepherd, a master who introduced him to Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury Group. [00.05.45]. Not so interested in Latin and Greek, though it got him scholarship at Oxford. Met Gilbert Murray, who took an interest in him for life. Talks more about the importance of Literature and Art. [00.06.40] Could have taken a fellowship at Merton College but went into Politics with the motivation of stopping a Third World War. [00.07.04]. Fought through WW2 in N Africa and Italy as an expert in Combined Operations, planning Anzio landings [00.07.41]. Influence of experience of War teaching interdependence and planning. Volunteered for army, missed whole of his last term but still gained a Double First at Oxford. [00.09.25] Many friends in politics, like Willie Whitelaw, had same experience of War. Describes life in Oxford and contemporaries. [00.10.00] Ted Heath a close colleague, friends at Oxford, influence of Lindsay and the Christian philosophers he introduced DH to. Liked Plato and Kant. Awareness of imminent war. Had been in OTC at school but resigned when he became a pacifist. However, volunteered for army on the day the war broke out [00.11.19] to prevent Hitler running Europe and Britain. Never joined the Oxford Union: more active in the Labour club. Founded Oxford Art Society, helped by Roland Penrose, who later lived quite close. [00.12.23] Talks about importance of Spain, and says that he was slightly ashamed he didn’t join International Brigade. Some of his friends did: John Cornford (poet) and Tom Wintringham. [00.13.40] Describes military career. [00.14.20] Joined as Gunner, but became interested in assault landings in North Africa and Anzio. Joined Engineers, working in an organisation called Movement Control; got bored so joined Combined Ops and trained in Scotland, where saw a British destroyer sunk by a bomb. Describes Anzio landing, under command of Roy Urquhart. [00.17.59] Describes motivation for going into politics, to prevent a Third World War. [00.18.30] Had originally planned to take a Fellowship at Merton College but chose politics instead. Abandoned Communist Party at end of last term at Oxford. [00.19.15] Had visited Russia and turned against Communism, but admired Tito and liked Gromyko. [00.19.59] Very friendly with Billy Maclean and Fitzroy Maclean. Talks about beginning of career in Labour Party, while still in army. [00.20.45] Describes approach by agent for Pudsey and Otley (Yorks.), a safe Conservative seat: he had been helping with elections in West Yorkshire and had been noticed. Talks about 1945 election. Later on was asked to run for East Leeds, won the seat and held it for 40 years. [00.23.12] Describes experience of campaigning for Pudsey & Otley at age of 27, and reaction to not winning. Talks about personal life: had had a girlfriend before the war in Keighley; met Edna [EH] in Oxford: later she came for a job interview at Keighley Grammar and stayed with the marriage. Six months later they were married, before he entered Parliament. [00.25.50] Spent six years as International Secretary of Labour party, the most valuable period of his life. [00.26.26] Went to Socialist Party conferences all over Europe, met lots of people all over the world. Many contacts became leaders in their countries. [00.28.00] Explains how he got the job, and what he did in it, trying to advocate democratic socialism, and oppose influence of the Soviet Union. [00.30.30] Impact of the role on subsequent career. [00.31.20] Talks about personal life: married shortly before Christmas in 1945. EH had life of her own, public speaking and teaching, and earned twice as much as he did. [00.32.18] Had to find another way of making money, so he started writing articles, initially for a Norwegian Labour party newspaper, but were republished all over Europe. Was living then in Leeds and had a place outside Leeds in the countryside. Weekends in the Dales. [00.34.14] Discusses atmosphere of the period: great relief that the war was over and world was at peace. Talks about his passion for photography. [00.35.00] Says that he fought to try to keep democratic socialism alive in Europe, helped political refugees. It was hard to keep local links going when often abroad, but people still keen to have him as candidate. Describes his reentry into local party politics [00.36.35]. Talks about his political opinions and those of his friends, Tory and Labour, who had served in the war: Ted Heath, Willie Whitelaw [00.38.05] Describes constituency for which he was elected in 1952. Talks about the importance of working with local councillors, and the selection process. [00.39.30] Made close friends, other Leeds MPs Hugh Gaitskell.and Alice Bacon (who was “besotted with Gaitskell”). Talks about the difficulties with local Trotsykites who split the party [00.40.08]. Talks further about East Leeds in 1952, a typical N England Labour seat, albeit mixed between slums and housing estates outside Leeds. Issues of campaign were overwhelmingly the welfare state. (But also refers to local issues.) Talks about relationship with local party: had weekly meetings with local officials at the weekends. [00.43.15] In Leeds stayed with Bernard and Rose Gillinson, a couple from Latvia who had met Prokofiev and were patrons of David Hockney (who had had same art master at Bradford school, Mr Maddox). [00.44.47] Tells Hockney story about Auden. [00.45.38] Relates impressions of Westminster on taking seat. He didn’t like the Commons because it was too dominated by Party politics. House of Lords is different, where he made friends with all sorts of people, such as Lord Carver. Disliked cliques in Commons: people who supported Wilson and no-one else. Debates in Lords are better-informed. Discusses his attitude to the party, and his self-description as a “Lone Wolf”. [00.47.19] Describes working life of MP in 1950s: hard work, low pay, though people came to Parliament with an understanding of the real world. He enjoyed constituency work. Was at Westminster Monday-Thursday, at the weekend worked in the constituency. [00.49.20] Talks about work with Irish in constituency (very influenced by Sinn Fein) and pro-Israeli Jewish community. Discusses importance of his own Irish background. These minorities interested in international issues; domestic issues particularly housing, and the welfare state. [00.51.15] Refers to role of MP as “Miss Lonely Hearts”, taking care of the lonely and unsupported. Discusses competing demands of his local and global interests [00.53.50] Working with local councillors and fighting the Trotskyites – the great problem in his time. Didn’t have the SDP problem then, though that became a similar problem. Didn’t live in the constituency but stayed with the Gillinsons; had good relations with Agent, Dougie Gubb. [00.54.00] Edna was good in the constituency. [00.54.45] Describes working and living in Westminster, and the need to find other work, which he did through journalism, because the salary for MP was so low, not enough to live on. Tories had jobs in business and finance. [00.55.49] Had a secretary, Harriet Chapman, who was a friend for life, and assistants (refers to MPs and Richard Heller, perhaps referring referring to his later career as a Minister). Shared office with 6 other people. Talks about social life in the House. [00.56.50] Unofficial business done in the Bar or the Tearoom or Terrace. Mentions cliques. Talks about the look of the Chamber in those days: working class, middle class and upper class still evident in what people wore. Some Labour people would overdo being working class, such as Dennis Skinner [00.58.40] Says his maiden speech was “bloody awful”) but was complimented by Tory. Used to write speeches for other people e.g. Ernie Bevin. [00.59.47] Discusses frequency of speaking in the chamber, and attitudes towards the chamber. The important thing was to influence your own party, more through the National Executive Committee. It was no good trying to influence the other party. Attended Chamber every day usually, but not always to speak, the debates in the Lords are better. Talks about contemporary key figures [01.02.34] and mentions some of his supporters: Bob Sheldon, Joel Barnett. Explains that being a backbencher is very boring job compared with the Lords [01.03.08] Talks about ambition to have influence. Talks about how to make influence felt through journalism. National Executive Committee had last word on policy and was very cliquey: Wilson, Gaitskell supporters. But it was useful to be a member. [01.04.58] Talks about his relationship with whips: he had never had a problem with them. Talks about the internal division within the Labour party, the cliques behind Wilson and Callaghan and so on. Described state of the Labour party when he arrived in the Commons: split between Bevanites and whoever happened to be the leader of the time [01.06.50] Describes relationship with Nye Bevan, initially hostile, friendly later after a visit to Russia, when Bevan was friendly even to Gaitskell. Quotes Eric Heffer (“What fools we were for not choosing Denis”–as leader). [01.07.40] Discusses ministerial career, relations with other MPs –you have to keep in touch, and the impact on the local party. [1.09.30] Talks about the need to have a reliable group of supporters. Talks about ministerial roles, enjoyed Defence role most because of the chance to travel. [01.10.20] Asserts that the great achievement of his life was fighting Indonesian guerrillas with SAS only (1962-66), which he compares the unsuccessful approach of America with wholesale bombing in Vietnam. Claims that UK won the war with fewer casualties than a Bank holiday‘s road deaths [01.11.10]. Mentions as a problem with the Chancellor of Exchequer role the impact of difficult policy decisions on constituency, and meetings with local union leaders. [01.12.00] Discusses Militant Tendency [01.12.20] Says that a problem in British politics is the influence of a tiny minority who bother to attend meetings, which gave rise to the influence of Militant Tendency. He won by spending time talking to people in constituency. Reflects on differences between his career and politics today. [01.13.40] Politics was dominated by class division in his active time in Commons. Now there are no such divisions. The unions were dominant, run by barons who took no notice of members: one man / one vote changed that. MPs then had maybe 20 years of experience of the real world. [01.16.00] Discusses SDP: says that he warned Shirley Williams they’d put Tories into power. Still maintains his friendships with people in his former constituency, such as Dougie Gubb. [01.17.09] Personal ambition was to do something rather than be something. It’s what you achieve that matters. [01.17.55] Says what stands out for him about his career in the Commons was supporting Gaitskell against Bevan. No disappointments or mistakes stand out, though mentions South Africa. Says winning on political issues was what gave him most satisfaction, in particular defeating Nye Bevan. In politics your opponents are in the other party, your enemies are in your own. [01.19.33] Explains that he had good relationships with Tory opponents (such as Ted Heath and Reggie Maudling) but enemies in own party – Eric Heffer, Dennis Skinner, and Benn above all. Talks about the pressures of the job on private life, particularly being away from home 5 days a week. EH had her own career. Describes leaving the Commons. [01.21.30] Was asked to be a Peer, and found the House of Lords more agreeable than Commons because there is no party nonsense, and formed close friendships with non-politicians, such as Mike Carver, Dame Daphne Park. Refers to school friend, Arthur Spencer. [01.22.30] Is asked what advice he would give to a prospective MP.
Life story interview with Lord Denis Healey (1917-2015), former Labour Member of Parliament.
User notes for this item
Talk about “cometh the time, cometh the man“. If Denis Healey had been around today, we could have had a Prime Minister who was fit for purpose, and could have led us all out of this mess! What a fine man he was.
Posted by Dr Stephen John Black, Doctor , Medicine on 21/04/2018 17:21:00