Denis Healey

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For the Irish politician, see Denis Healy (Irish politician).
The Right Honourable
The Lord Healey
Denis Healey.jpg
Healey in 1974
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
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
5 March 1974 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
James Callaghan
Preceded by Anthony Barber
Succeeded by Sir 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 The Lord Carrington
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 – 6 May 1955[1]
Preceded by James Milner
Succeeded by Alice Bacon
Personal details
Born Denis Winston Healey
(1917-08-30) 30 August 1917 (age 98)
Mottingham, Kent, 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,[2] CH, MBE, PC (born 30 August 1917) is a retired British Labour politician who served as Secretary of State for Defence from 1964 to 1970 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979. He was a Member of Parliament for 40 years (from 1952 until his retirement in 1992) and is the last surviving member of the cabinet formed by Harold Wilson after the Labour Party's victory in the 1964 general election. A major figure in the party, he was twice defeated in bids for the party leadership. Healey became well known for his trademark bushy eyebrows and his creative turns of phrase. During an interview with Nick Clarke on BBC Radio 4, Denis Healey was the first Labour politician to publicly declare his wish for the Labour leadership to pass to Tony Blair in 1994 (following the death of Labour leader John Smith).

Early life[edit]

Healey was born in Mottingham, south east London (then in Kent), but moved with his family to Keighley in the West Riding of Yorkshire when he was five.[3] His middle name is in honour of Winston Churchill.[4]

Healey was one of two 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 Northern 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 1940 after the fall of France. 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 lifelong friend and political rival. Healey achieved a double first degree, awarded in 1940.

Second World War[edit]

After graduation, 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. He was made an MBE in 1945.[5] 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, 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.[6] 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 until 1961.

Member of Parliament and in government[edit]

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, scrapping most surviving light fleet aircraft-carriers, and the reconstructed HMS Victorious—effectively a new ship in 1958—and cancelled the proposed CVA01 fleet carrier replacements. He also controversially cancelled the world beating TSR-2 aircraft, the Hawker-Siddeley P.1154 supersonic V/STOL, STOL transports, and later even the F-111 the government were going to buy as replacements to the cancelled TSR2. Of the scrapped Royal Navy carriers, Healey commented that to most ordinary seamen they were just floating slums[7] and too vulnerable.[8] Denis Healey continued postwar Conservative Governments' reliance on strategic and tactical nuclear deterrence for the Navy, RAF and West Germany.

Only limited efforts were made during the Wilson/Callaghan governments to develop conventional anti-submarine weapons. The Navy relied on nuclear depth charges until Margaret Thatcher accelerated the development of the Tigerfish and Stingray torpedoes.[9] Until 1979 the only conventional anti-submarine armament on RN SSNs were Mk 20 torpedoes with a published speed of 20 knots, easily outrun by Victor (33 Knots) or Alfa (45 knots) class Soviet submarines.

He authorised expulsion of Chagossians from the Chagos Archipelago, and authorised building of the United States military base at Diego Garcia. He remained Defence Secretary for the party's near six years of Government, and became 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 Party 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".[10] 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.[11] He was later widely reported as saying that Labour would "tax the rich until the pips squeak", which Healey 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 through 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".[12]

Healey became Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1974 after Labour returned to power as a minority government. His tenure is divided into Healey Mark I and Healey Mark II.[13] 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 IMF supervision. The loan was negotiated and agreed in November and December 1976, and announced in Parliament on 15 December 1976.[14][15] 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 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. His first budget was strongly progressive, with increases in food subsidies, pensions and other benefits.[16]

Shadow Cabinet and retirement[edit]

Healey's notably bushy eyebrows and piercing 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",[citation needed] he retorted at a meeting of Leeds University Labour Society. The popular impressionist Mike Yarwood coined the catchphrase "Silly Billy", and incorporated it into his shows as a supposed 'Healey-ism'. Healey had never said it until that point, but he adopted it and used it frequently. Healey's direct speech made enemies. "At a meeting of the PLP I accused Ian Mikardo of being "out of his tiny Chinese mind" – a phrase of the comedienne Hermione Gingold, with which I thought everyone was familiar". On the contrary, when it leaked to the press, the Chinese Embassy took it as an insult to the People's Republic".[17] The controversy led[citation needed] to a poor performance when he fought for the Labour leadership following 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".[18] 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 during which Britain had faced a large number of strikes. On 12 June 1979 he was appointed a Companion of Honour.[19] In 2007, when Healey had reached the age of 90, the Yorkshire Post said:

"As Chancellor, in 1974 he inherited an even worse picture. Oil prices had quintupled overnight (before Britain had any of her own). The world economy was in turmoil, Britain was on a three-day week and on the edge of hyper-inflation. All of these problems had to be faced by a minority Labour Government, in the face of a Labour Party haunted by memories of past "betrayal" and congenitally opposed to spending cuts imposed by foreign bankers. (Denis Healey envies Gordon Brown for his inheritance of a benign economy and a docile party). As Chancellor, he faced down five years of uninterrupted economic and political crisis. For good or ill, he made more policy decisions and introduced more economic measures and packages than any previous Chancellor. At the end of his term, the British economy was intact and out of debt, inflation contained, unemployment falling each month (without the aid of statistical manipulations) and living standards improving, especially for poor and disabled people".

When Jim Callaghan stepped down as Labour leader in November 1980, Healey was the 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 newly established party.[20]

Healey was elected deputy leader to the newly elected Labour leader Michael Foot, but the next year was challenged by Tony Benn under a new election system, which included individual members and trade unions. The contest was a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, and long debate over the summer of 1981 ended on 27 September with Healey winning by 50.4% to Benn's 49.6%. 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 narrow loss, however, was the abstention of 20 MPs from the left-wing Tribune Group,[21] 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.[22] Healey is regarded by some – especially in the Labour Party – as "the best Prime Minister we never had".[23] Denis Healey is a founding member of the Bilderberg Group.[24]

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".[25]

In March 2013 during an interview with the New Statesman, Healey said that if there was a referendum on British membership of the EU, he would vote to leave.[26] In May, he further said: "I wouldn't object strongly to leaving the EU. The advantages of being members of the union are not obvious. The disadvantages are very obvious. I can see the case for leaving – the case for leaving is stronger than for staying in".[27]

Following the death of Alan Campbell, Baron Campbell of Alloway in June 2013, Healey became the oldest sitting member of the House of Lords.[28] Following the death of John Freeman on 20 December 2014, Healey became the surviving former MP with the earliest date of first election, and the second-oldest surviving former MP, after Ronald Atkins.

Personal life[edit]

Healey married Edna May Edmunds, the daughter of a crane-driver, on 21 December 1945, the two having met at Oxford University before the war. Edna Healey died on 21 July 2010, aged 92.[29] They were married for over 60 years and lived in Alfriston, East Sussex.[30] In 1987, Edna underwent an operation at a private hospital – this event drawing media attention as being seemingly at odds with Healey's pro-NHS beliefs. Challenged on the apparent inconsistency by the presenter Anne Diamond on TV-am, Healey became critical and ended the interview.[31] He then jabbed journalist Adam Boulton.[32][33] The couple had three children, one of whom is the broadcaster, writer and record producer Tim Healey.[34][35]

Healey was an amateur photographer for many years,[36] enjoying music and painting and reading crime fiction. He has sometimes played popular piano pieces at public events.[37] In a 2012 interview for The Daily Telegraph, Healey reported that he was swimming twenty lengths a day in his outdoor pool, despite being in his 95th year, and that he was missing his wife "very much indeed". The interviewer found him a charming and entertaining host.[38]

Titles and styles[edit]

  • Denis Healey (1917–1945)
  • Denis Healey MBE (1945–1952)
  • Denis Healey MBE MP (1952–1964)
  • The Rt. Hon. Denis Healey MBE MP (1964–1979)
  • The Rt. Hon. Denis Healey CH MBE MP (1979–1992)
  • The Rt. Hon. Denis Healey CH MBE (1992)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Healey CH MBE PC (1992–)


Healey is credited with creating a proverb, known as Healey's First law of holes.[39][40] This is a minor adaptation of a saying apparently originated by Will Rogers.

In popular culture[edit]

Film, television and theatre[edit]

Healey is the only Chancellor to have appeared on BBC One's Morecambe and Wise Show.[41] 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. He appeared on The Dame Edna show in the song and dance number "Ÿou either have or you haven't got style" alongside Roger Moore.

Healey was satirised in the ITV series Spitting Image, his caricature mainly focused on his famous eyebrows. These iconic eyebrows were similarly parodied in the 1977 serial The Sun Makers from the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, in which the antagonist known as the Collector is distinguished by having similarly bushy eyebrows to Healey.

The British nickname "Silly Billy" was also popularised in the 1970s by impressionist Mike Yarwood, putting it in the mouth of the Chancellor, Denis Healey, who took the catchphrase up and used it as his own.[42]


During Led Zeppelin's 1975 and 1977 concert tours, Robert Plant facetiously dedicated the song "In My Time of Dying" to 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.[43]

Graphic novels[edit]

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. ^ "Prorogation: Her Majesty's Speech". 
  2. ^ "House of Lords, Official Website – Lord Healey". Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  3. ^ Mark Hookham (3 December 2008). "Denis Healey: 'The best Prime Minister we never had'". Yorkshire Evening Post. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  4. ^ Kaufman, Gerald (13 March 2000). "Debates for 13 Mar 2000 (pt 20)". Hansard (London: House of Commons). Retrieved 31 January 2009. 
  5. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37386. p. 6064. 13 December 1945.
  6. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1983) [1969]. British parliamentary election results 1918–1949 (3rd ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-06-X. 
  7. ^ D. Healey. Time of My Life. Penquin (1990)
  8. ^ 1966 Defense Review
  9. ^ K.Speed. Navy minister. Defense Estimates Debate 1980. Hansard
  10. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 2 October 1973; p. 1; Issue 58902; col A
  11. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 19 February 1974; p. 4; Issue 59018; col D
  12. ^ The Times, Thursday, 18 October 1973; p. 2; Issue 58916; col C
  13. ^ The Jekyll and Hyde Years: Politics and Economic Policy since 1964 by Michael Stewart.
  14. ^ [1] Archived 20 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ [2] Archived 20 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ The Labour Party since 1945 by Eric Shaw
  17. ^ Denis Healey The Time of My Life Penguin 1990 p.444
  18. ^ Hansard, ECONOMIC SITUATION, HC Deb 14 June 1978 vol 951 cc1013-142
  19. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 47868. p. 7600. 15 June 1979.
  20. ^ Crewe, Ivor and King, Anthony, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 74–75.
  21. ^ Eric Heffer (1986). Labour's Future: Socialist or SDP Mark 2?. Verso. pp. 28–29. 
  22. ^ The London Gazette: no. 52979. p. 11141. 2 July 1992.
  23. ^ Sale, Jonathan (4 May 2006), "Passed/failed: An education in the life of Denis Healey, Labour peer", The Independent, retrieved 28 April 2009 
  24. ^ Ronson, Jon (10 March 2001). "Who pulls the strings? (part 3)". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 4 July 2009. 
  25. ^ "UK needs no nuclear arms – Healey". BBC News. 7 July 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2007. 
  26. ^ Rafael Behr, ‘Denis Healey: “Thatcher was good-looking and brilliant”’, New Statesman (26 March 2013).
  27. ^ Michael Crick, ‘Healey: case for leaving Europe stronger than staying’, Channel 4 (9 May 2013).
  28. ^ "House of Lords, Official Website – Who is the oldest sitting Member of the House of Lords?". Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  29. ^ "Denis Healey's wife, Edna, dies aged 92". BBC News Online (BBC). 23 July 2010. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  30. ^ "Denis Healey at 90", BBC News.
  31. ^ BBC Politics 97
  32. ^ "Adam Boulton: Sky's political editor on the channel's relaunch". The Independent (London). 24 April 2006. 
  33. ^ Burrell, Ian (15 May 2010). "Adam Boulton: Just don't tell him what he thinks". The Independent (London). 
  34. ^ "Water way to splash out for charity", Oxford Mail, 17 May 1999.
  35. ^ "Come on Lads: Canteen songs of World War Two", Beautiful Jo Records website . Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  36. ^ – Denis Healey & Photography
  37. ^ "Denis Healey playing the piano at Huddersfield Town Hall", Science and Society (National Museum of Science and Industry), May 1987, retrieved 28 April 2009 
  38. ^ Interview, Bryony Gordon, The Daily Telegraph, 8 May 2012, Accessed same day.
  39. ^ Apperson, George Latimer (2006) [1993]. The Wordsworth dictionary of proverbs. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. p. 283. ISBN 978-1-84022-311-8. 
  40. ^ "Interview: Denis Healey; Healey's First law of holes is to stop digging". New Statesman 9. 8 November 1986. 
  41. ^ Denis Healey: The big man behind the big eyebrows, by Richard Heller, at
  42. ^ Andrew Marr (2009), A History of Modern Britain, p. 346 
  43. ^ Dave Lewis (2004), Led Zeppelin: The 'Tight But Loose' Files; Celebration 2, Omnibus Press, ISBN 1-84449-056-4, pp. 24–5.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Milner
Member of Parliament for Leeds South East
Succeeded by
Alice Bacon
Preceded by
Constituency Created
Member of Parliament for Leeds East
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George Mudie
Political offices
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Aneurin Bevan
Shadow Foreign Secretary
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Harold Wilson
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Peter Thorneycroft
Secretary of State for Defence
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The Lord Carrington
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Shadow Foreign Secretary
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James Callaghan
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Chancellor of the Exchequer
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Sir Geoffrey Howe
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Shadow Foreign Secretary
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Party political offices
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