Tribune, 26 October 1990

Denis Healey, once one of Labour’s least popular Chancellors, is now the darling of the party. He talks to Paul Anderson and Phil Kelly

When Denis Healey took the rostrum during the Gulf debate at Labour Party conference in Blackpool earlier this month, blowing kisses to the television cameras, he was given a hero’s welcome – and at the end there was a standing ovation. It is difficult to think of anyone else in the party (except, perhaps, for Barbara Castle) so universally liked.

It was not always so. Indeed, from the late forties to the mid-eighties, Healey was disliked, even hated, by large sections of the party, particularly the left.

As Labour’s international secretary from 1946 to 1951, he played a major backroom role in formulating a pro-American cold-war foreign policy for the Attlee government. In the late fifties and early sixties, he was stalwart of the Gaitskellite right in its fight against unilateralism, and as Defence Secretary in the 1966-70 Wilson government he failed to cancel Polaris or to distance Britain from the American intervention in Vietnam.

Between 1974 and 1979 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, earning further opprobrium, particularly from the trade unions, for his strict austerity policies. To cap it all, it was Healey who turned back the left tide which swept the party after 1979 by beating Tony Benn for the deputy leadership of the party in 1981.

So what lies behind his rehabilitation? It is certainly not that he has disowned the past. Healey has just published two books (a paperback edition of his autobiography, The Time of My Life and a collection of essays on foreign affairs, When Shrimps Learn to Whistle) and in conversation he is keen to demonstrate how little he has to regret.

He even defends the earliest piece in the book of essays, “The Cards on the Table”, written as a pamphlet in 1947 and now widely considered the key intellectual text justifying Labour’s switch to a cold-war foreign policy.

It is a withering attack on proposals put forward by the Keep Left group (Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Richard Crossman, Woodrow Wyatt and others) for a “third way” foreign policy with Britain at the head of a European alliance that could mediate between Washington and Moscow.

“I made my first speech at conference in 1945 as a soldier in uniform,” says Healey. “I thought we’d get a socialist revolution in Europe and that the alliance that we’d built in the war would be the basis for enduring peace. But I soon discovered as international secretary, which was the job I got when I left the army, that the communists treated the social democrats as their most dangerous enemies – and, incidentally, no newspaper made this point more strongly at the time than Tribune when Evelyn Anderson was the editor.

“It was rammed home to me when I tried to help the East European socialists, who were all destroyed by the Russians through the local communist parties they installed. So I became very anti-communist.

“The Cards on the Table” did not give full support for the Americans by any means. It was an attempt to hold out the possibility of a third way. But the bitter experience of trying to work with the Russians made it impossible.” The idea of a “third way” collapsed after the Soviet Union rejected Marshall Aid and forced its satellites to do likewise.

“From that time on,” he says, “the idea of a third way died away and was replaced on the left by the philosophy of neutralism, which was really that you can’t afford to take sides in the struggle (which was then of course being led by America rather than Britain), against the Soviet Union, and therefore you should opt out.

“I always thought that was a mistake, and with the invention and spread of nuclear weapons, the idea that you can escape from the nuclear holocaust by being neutral is nonsense.”

Healey laid out his case against neutralism in a series of articles in the fifties, arguing that it made war more likely, by threatening the balance of power, and was based upon the unsustainable claim that there was nothing morally or politically to choose between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Nevertheless, he became an enthusiast for plans for disengagement in Europe from which Soviet and Western troops would be withdrawn.

At the same time, he also got interested in the moral and political problems posed by nuclear weapons. In 1956, he was one of the co-authors of On Limiting Atomic War, one of the first attempts to put forward a theory of “graduated deterrence” – later adopted by NATO as “flexible response”.

“We came to the conclusion that you could have a limited nuclear war. Henry Kissinger wrote a long book called Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy which was published at almost exactly the same time and came to the same conclusion. But within two years we’d both decided we were wrong.

“When we saw the result of exercises carried out in Germany, it was quite obvious you couldn’t fight a tactical nuclear war like a naval battle which was the mistaken theory we had. I didn’t really think nuclear weapons were usable after that.”

So why had he been a supporter of flexible response as Defence Secretary in the sixties? “It was to try to bridge the gap between the Americans and the Germans. The Germans wanted massive retaliation and nothing else, the Americans wanted to get rid of their nuclear liability. But I never believed it would work, and now we know it can’t work because the first nuclear explosions would produce electromagnetic pulses which would make the command and control of operations impossible.

“Even when I was Defence Secretary, when we started to discuss in the NATO Nuclear planning Group how we might actually use nuclear weapons, we could never reach agreement.”

All the same, Healey still thinks that nuclear weapons have had some uses. “Nuclear weapons are a very powerful deterrent. There is no doubt that the end of the cold war owes something to the fact that nuclear weapons exist.”

Healey’s time as Defence Secretary is best remembered for his decision to go ahead with the Polaris nuclear missile submarine (which Labour had promised to cancel in its 1964 election manifesto) and for his silence over American involvement in Vietnam.

The decision on Polaris, he now believes, was a mistake. “The problem with Polaris was that the first boat had been laid down. And the very day of the 1964 election two things happened: Khrushchev was deposed and the Chinese exploded their first nuclear bomb. None of us knew what would happen, and I thought on the whole that it was sensible to go ahead with the programme. It was pretty cheap.

“With hindsight it was the wrong decision. On the other hand, if I was again in the situation I was in then, knowing only what I knew then, I think I would have taken the same decision again. The definition of a minister is a chap who takes very important decisions without full knowledge of the facts.”

On Vietnam, Healey is unrepentent. “We did stand up to the Americans. When I was Defence Secretary I was badgered again and again by Robert McNamara, and Harold Wilson was badgered even more by President Lyndon Johnson, to send troops to Vietnam as the Australians had. I said: ‘Not on your nelly. We’re sorry you got into this mess but it can only end in tears.’

“I’ve tried to describe in my books the tragic inevitability with which the Americans got sucked deeper into Vietnam, basically for what seemed to them to be good reasons. They thought peace was indivisible, that aggression was indivisible, that if you allowed communism, which they saw as absolutely evil, to triumph in one part of the world, dominoes would fall.

“I argued strongly against this with them at the time – of course in private, I couldn’t do it in public.”

From 1974 to 1979, Healey was Chancellor and unable, he says, to take such a close interest in defence and foreign policy. Nevertheless, he considers it to have been a mistake not to have cancelled at an early stage the immensely costly Chevaline programme for a new Polaris warhead capable of penetrating Soviet anti-ballistic missile defences.

“When I became Chancellor in 1974 it was the last thing I was thinking about and I never got the issue put to me. The first time I came across it was when it came up in this little special group set up by Jim Callaghan to discuss nuclear questions, particularly in relation to the grey areas, and then I discovered that the programme was running miles behind time and that the Russians were not developing general ABM systems.

“David Owen was very good on this. We said that we didn’t believe it was necessary to be able to hit Moscow – for Christ’s sake, the weapons we had were capable of destroying about 25 per cent of Soviet industry – and that we shouldn’t go ahead with Chevaline without getting a paper on what we called the Moscow criterion. But by the time we got the paper, we were overloaded with a million other things.

“I blame myself because I should have put my foot down from my own knowledge, and once it was clear that the Russians weren’t having a general ABM system, Chevaline was really a waste of money. I should have stopped it there and then.”

Healey does not, however, own up to the Callaghan government having made a mistaken on the stationing of crusie and Pershing II missiles in Europe.

“This all arose out of Helmut Schmidt thinking aloud without thinking it through. He deeply distrusted President Jimmy Carter, and he thought that Carter would make a deal with Moscow which would rob Europe of protection.

“He raised the issue of Euromissiles in a speech in London in very general terms, and it was fed into the official defence mafia machine. I thought the whole thing was crap. I didn’t think that it made sense to think of deterrence except for NATO as a whole. I argued very strongly – so did Owen actually -that a purely European deterrence would decouple the American deterrent.

“The last meeting we had on this that I was involved in was right in the middle of the winter of discontent when Dave Aron, who was Carter’s expert on this, came back and told us that he’s had a meeting and the Germans still didn’t have a clue what they wanted.

“I heard later that, at the NATO High Level Group, Britain, presumably with Fred Mulley’s endorsement because he was the Defence Minister, had agreed to proceed, but the decision as to what to do was not taken until six months after the election. I thought it was the wrong decision.”

But couldn’t it be argued that the deployment of cruise and Pershing led the Soviet Union to the negotiating table and ultimately to the end of the cold war?

“Just as the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba led to the Americans withdrawing their missiles from Britain and Turkey, there’s no question that the Russians would have gone on with their deployments of SS-20 if they hadn’t know we were planning to deploy cruise and Pershing. But I don’t think it influenced Gorbachev’s general view.

“He’d come to the conclusion that a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought, and that there was a superfluity of Soviet weapons. So he made a deal which involved the Russians getting rid of far more weapons than we did. Incidentally, Thatcher and Kohl were strongly opposed to the agreement, but the Americans forced them to agree.”

From 1980 to 1987, Healey was Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, a difficult role given his disagreement with the policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament adopted by the party in 1980: he still has nothing but contempt for the “Punch and Judy show” between unilateralism and multilateralism. But with the exception of a public tiff with Neil Kinnock in 1986 (when Healey said that Polaris would be negotiated away by a Labour government and Kinnock insisted that it would be withdrawn come what may) he kept his differences with party policy largely private.

He even managed to make friends with many of his erstwhile political opponents, particularly after he came out strongly against President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme and argued in his 1985 pamphlet, Labour and a World Society, that NATO should adopt a non-nuclear :.-fence strategy.

He is often described as “the best Foreign Secretary Labour never had”.

“I would have liked the job very much but 1 was never offered it when I was Defence Secretary and I refused all other jobs, including Barbara Castle’s job. I was offered the Department of Economic Affairs before Harold Wilson offered it to Barbara, but I liked defence – though I now feel I stayed there a few years too long.

“When I was Chancellor, Jim thought I was indispensable, but he thought the time might come when he could put me at the Foreign Office, and he appointed Owen, warning Owen and the Lobby that it might not be a very long-standing thing. By that time I had sweated my guts out to bring the economy round and I wanted to be there when we were gathering fruit, but unfortunately it was very bitter fruit in the end, the winter of discontent.

After his opposition to Star Wars, “I became a hero of the left,” he says. “If I’d done that ten years earlier I could have defeated Michael Foot for the leadership.

“A lot of the left came to me and said: ‘My God, if we’d known you were anything like this, we’d have supported you.’ They all felt it was a mistake to have voted Michael in.

“People have never believed me when I’ve said that I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, but I like a departmental job. On the other hand, I didn’t want a shit to get the job, or somebody who was not capable.

“So I fought Michael but I didn’t fight very hard and was criticised by a lot of my friends for that. But when I lost I said I’d be glad to serve Michael as his deputy and I was cheered to the echo – except by Tony Benn who sat there ashen-faced because he felt that he could be deputy and then replace Michael.

Tony called the deputy leadership election a healing process. By Christ, it gave us a reputation for extremism which is still in people’s minds, you know, the Trots and anarchists and the Posadists howling me down in Birmingham and Cardiff.”

It showed that the electoral college system was nonsense, he says, The Transport and General took their decision, and we still don’t know quite how, on the floor of conference. John Silkin had been knocked out, and Alex Kitson thought the Transport and General Workers’ Union was going to abstain – he told the Lobby that. Although on their consultation I came top, they put Silkin in to block me. If they’d voted as their members wanted I would have had a majority of about 2,500,000 instead of about one.

“But Neil has shown the courage to tackle the problem of the block vote and union power. Gaitskell never got to grips with the constitution.”

Whether he could have won the leadership in 1980 remains debatable. He was identified with massive public spending cuts and draconian wage controls aimed at reducing inflation.

Today he defends most of his actions, arguing that, by 1978, the economy had begun to turn round. The one big mistake, which led to the explosion of public sector strikes in the winter of discontent of 1978-79, was his endorsement of wage controls too harsh to sustain.

The “5 per cent norm” agreed by the Cabinet in summer 1978 “was overloading the circuit”, he says. “But Jim was absolutely obsessed then with the idea of getting to zero inflation – probably influenced I think by that stupid bugger, Peter Jay, his son-in-law at that time.

“He wanted a 3 per cent norm. We agreed on 5 per cent but I now think that if we’d said ‘we want settlements in single figures’, we would have come out with an average increase of about 12 per cent and we wouldn’t have had the winter of discontent. It was a very bad mistake, in which the whole Cabinet shared.

“Mind you, the unions were so irresponsible. After it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. I had a series of meetings with the Neddy six and we reached agreement on a revision of the policy.”

The “Neddy six” were the six trade union leaders on the National Economic Development Council, the tripartite body at the core of Labour’s seventies corporatism.

“But when it went to the General Council, Moss Evans of the TGWU had gone off on holiday to Malta. He hadn’t instructed Marie Paterson and Harry Irwin [the other TGWU representatives] how to vote and they voted on opposite sides. The TUC split equally, and Tom Jackson, who was chairman, thought because it was a change in policy that he had to use his casting vote in favour of the status quo. It was like a Greek tragedy.

“I hope people have learnt from all that. We ought to get a system rather like the German one or the Swedish one, where the government sets the economic framework and the employers and the unions work out what’s compatible with that in terms of pay increases.

“We have a confrontational relationship between unions and employers here which is almost unique in Europe. But the unions have changed for the better- It’s very unlikely that we’ll go back to the situation in the seventies, except in the public services. The public service unions, especially the National and Local Government Officers’ Association – not even in the bloody party and run by the Socialist Workers – could cause terrible damage.”

What advice does the man who was Labour’s most successful Defence Secretary have for Martin O’Neill, who seems likely within the next year or so to be Labour’s next holder of the post?

“He’s got to mug it up, and I think he’s doing pretty well. I was lucky, I’d been in the army for six years and I spent ten years studying strategy’, which was very unusual -I don’t think any Tory Minister has ever done anything like that. I could argue with the Chiefs of Staff on their own terms.

“If you can’t do that, you’ve got to pick yourself a group of people who will support your objectives and know the scene. I did that when I set up the programme evaluating group. You need some sort of ‘cabinet’, people who report direct to you.”

In foreign and defence policy, the challenges for Labour in government will be even greater, Healey believes. With the end of the cold war, a new security structure is an urgent necessity.

The Americans, he says, are beginning to consider at least partial military withdrawal from Europe. “The Germans will want all foreign forces, not just nuclear weapons, to leave their territory when the Russians have gone, which is two years off. The Americans will probably want air bases here, so then there’s the question of whether we think they’re necessary and whether the uncertainty about control should be allowed to remain.

“I think NATO will be subsumed. It has a political role in attempting to co-ordinate the views of its members, but militarily it’s an organ without a function. We should build up the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe as an institution. I’d like to see a European Community stretching from Brest to Brest inside a security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

“To give the UN the whole responsibility for world peace now is impossible. It doesn’t have the structures. But we should try to build them up. We might be able to give it a responsibility in the Gulf if we can get through it without a war, but there’s a strong case for regional organisations for peace keeping.

The old warrior cannot resist a final dig in both directions: “Even dafter than Tony Benn and the Militant Tendency is a man called Francis Fukuyama who thinks that the end of the cold war is the end of history, when it’s history starting again.

“All the problems that have been dormant for 40 years are rearing their ugly heads.”

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