I interviewed Lord Healey about eighteen years ago when I went to meet him at the House of Lords.
He was very perky, over confident to the extent that when I fielded a question to him, which he thought was designed to trick him into giving the wrong answer, he would thumb his nose triumphantly – as if to tell me, ‘There you are, young upstart. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!’
I liked him. He was extremely well informed, intellectually alert, and lived up to his reputation as a bruiser.
At the age of ninety-five, it seems he hasn’t lost any of his punching power, and remains a formidable figure to reckon with, as his interview in the New Statesman bears witness to.
For the benefit of those who would like to know more about this remarkable man, I reproduce the full interview as it was published in 1994 in one of my books, Speaking for the Oldie. I hope you will enjoy it.
In your autobiography, The Time of My Life, you are wary of over-romanticizing your childhood or -like Thomas Traherne casting too rosy a glow over it. But if we accept your own definition of childhood, ‘the capacity for wonder and joy’, yours seems to have been wondrous and joyful . . .
Yes, it was a very happy time. There is of course a tendency to look through rose tinted spectacles, and not just at your own childhood: I see the children playing in the gardens outside our flat as moving jewels, but I know they’re little bastards as well. But mine really was a very happy time, although I had a black dog at that period in adolescence when I was trying to come to terms with a total change in physical and psychological make-up, but that only lasted about a year.
You were closer to your mother than to your father. Did this largely have to do with the fact that your mother was much more of a physical presence than your father, or did the affinity amount to much more than that?
It was largely determined by the fact that she was always there and he was rarely there . The other thing was that mother had interests in literature and the arts and music which I shared and which she communicated to me. In later life I think I have a great deal in common with my father, particularly a sort of sentimental romanticism which mother didn’t have at all. She was extremely pragmatic.
Did your parents get on well?
My father and mother’s relationship was not a perfect one, partly because she never responded to his romantic side. She wasn’t capable of it. They had a satisfactory sex life but she wasn’t an emotional person, and in a way he was too emotional, with the result that he found it very difficult to have a friendly human relationship with his own children, though very easy to have it with his students. The first time he ever talked to me about himself was the day I got married in London, and he told me he had been terrified on his wedding day. He masked this excessive feeling with a sort of rueful facetiousness, which I now have too.
You say that it is impossible for a child to see his parents as they really are, or even as they appear to his contemporaries, but whatever takes the place of ‘reality’ surely makes an indelible impression on us, perhaps in a way that even ‘reality’ could not, and this has a lasting effect on us. Would you not agree?
I do agree. The trouble is when you use a word like reality you beg every conceivable question. The American cartoonist Steig has a wonderful cartoon of a child’s view of his father, in which there is a naked man with a very large sexual organ and an enormous amount of hair on his face.
As a child you found your father ‘curiously sentimental’, as you put it – that criticism comes over as a rather adult construction of something which you presumably perceived rather differently at the time. Was it embarrassment you felt, or what?
No, I wasn’t embarrassed really, and I did feel it at the time. One of his great ejaculations was, ‘Ah, the wistful years. . .’, and there was indeed a wistfulness about him which he always put on for a photograph. I have pictures of him when he was a boy, and when he was a young man, and I was very conscious of that, even at the time.
You say that your father’s literary romanticism made it difficult for him to communicate directly with you . . .
It was basically that he was frightened of too direct an emotional relationship with his children, so he tended to avoid conversations of that nature, to a degree that mother didn’t, but then she didn’t risk anything in having these conversations. My father remained difficult in his relationship with my mother right to the very end, and he was appallingly rude to her when he was in hospital, just before he died at the age of 92…and what wholly lay behind that it’s very difficult to say. An interesting thing is that when he was cremated, and we had ‘Pie Jesu’ from Fauré’s Requiem played, she burst into tears afterwards. It was the first time we’d ever seen her weep.
Your parents in some ways were very much ahead of their time. To have a trial marriage in those days, unless you were part of the Bloomsbury set which flouted convention, must have been very unusual . . . where do you think this independence of mind came from?
It wasn’t Bloomsbury – their trials were usually homosexual. Mother always reminded me of one of the heroines of H G Wells, and the idea of a trial marriage was very much in keeping with the feminist movement and suffragette struggle in the early pre-war years.
You say your mother was filled with enthusiasm for the Bloomsbury group. I would have thought that she might have found their elitism rather off-putting … was it chiefly their intellectual rigour which appealed?
Oh no, not intellectual rigour; she herself wasn’t in that sense intellectually rigorous. She didn’t go to university, she went to a teachers’ training college, and nobody would have regarded her as a great brain, but she had a very enquiring mind, and she was led to the Bloomsburys by the talks given by Harold Nicolson on the wireless in the early 30s. Nigel Nicolson was my friend at Balliol and he was also with me in the House until he was sacked by the Tory Party for opposing the Suez campaign, and deselected by his constituency. I once took mother to Nigel’s house in Sissinghurst, and for her to meet the son of Harold Nicolson was one of the things she most enjoyed in her old age.
It seemed astonishing that what you describe as your first real contact with your father came on the morning of your wedding. Did you regard that as a breakthrough, or were you saddened that it had taken so long?
I was surprised and pleased, not saddened. I did a radio interview with Anthony Clare recently and he kept trying to get me to admit that I was unhappy or sad or something. I never was very much; I tended always to look forward rather than backwards, and of course at that time my interest was in my new life with Edna.
In many ways your childhood seems to have been a perfectly ordinary one, except for the way the arts – music, painting, literature – dominated your early life. That must surely have singled you out as being rather unusual among your peers at Bradford Grammar School?
It was actually a very good school, and Bradford was buzzing with intellectual energy. We had the Hallé orchestra playing every month there, and we got cheap seats as schoolboys. We had a very good civic theatre in which Fyodor Komisarevsky from the Moscow Arts Theatre used to produce Chekhov. And of course boys who were at school with me had the same pleasure as I had. It’s true that people didn’t go for the visual arts much at Bradford, nor indeed at Oxford when I first went there. Nobody was interested in painting, until with a couple of friends with whom I’d nothing else in common we formed the New Oxford Arts Society. We got some Picasso etchings over and held one of his early Surrealist exhibitions. But Britain is a country even less interested in the visual arts than in music.
Your scholarship to Balliol form Bradford Grammar School was an enormous achievement at that time. How far were you yourself aware of that?
Balliol was regarded as the best Oxford college, as indeed it was, and I don’t think we’d had anybody at Balliol in my period. Alan Bullock whom I greatly admired would like to have gone to Balliol but went to Wadham, and so I was conscious of achievement. Mind you, I only got an exhibition; I didn’t get a full scholarship.
Your political awareness developed in 1935 during a cycling trip to Germany and Austria…were you immediately opposed to Hitler, did you sense the dangers, or did you have some appreciation of his charisma and the spell which he cast?
Both. But I was mainly conscious of the dangers. Germany was a war society when I cycled through, and there were air raid adverts in every village green. Der Stürmer, that filthy anti-semitic paper of Streicher’s, was posted up on every town hall and of course a lot of the youngsters I met in the youth hostels were Hitler Jugend; so I was conscious both of the danger and of the charismatic appeal Hitler had for Germans. But at the same time quite a lot of the youngsters I met were anti-Hitler, and they told me that most working people in Germany were what they called beefsteaks – outside brown and inside red. So the interesting thing is I left Germany after this wonderful holiday deeply conscious of the threat to our peace and to our values, but not disliking the Germans. Even those who were Nazi weren’t of the aggressively jackboot stamping style and I’ve always been able to draw a distinction between the opinions people hold politically and their personality. It was a good background for evaluating some of the things that are happening now. Weimar Germany was an appalling mess, morally as well as economically and politically, and you could see why many Germans saw Hitler as a chap who was taking Germany, if I can use a phrase, ‘back to basics’, restoring core values – Kraft durch Freude, Kraft durch Arbeit, and so on. There’s no doubt this gave a lot of Germans renewed confidence in themselves and in their country. I could see that, but I didn’t admire it.
With the unification of Germany today, could it ever happen again?
Oh yes, of course it could, but the particular experience of Nazism in Germany in the 30s won’t happen in quite the same way. The big characteristic of the post cold war world is the revival of nationalism, and not only in the ex-communist countries. The constant theme in my political activity has been the need to find some way of preventing war and of controlling the enormous unique power of nationalism and directing it into constructive areas. When nationalism is allied with religion, it is an even greater danger, as in Yugoslavia and in India today. Every country is vulnerable to this, and when the political situation is bad, we hear slogans like ‘back to basics’ and ‘core values’ and the cry: ‘what does a nation really stand for?’ Yet the people who destroy all the nation’s institutions are the loudest in praising them; like Mr Portillo today, the great Spanish prophet of the British institutions.
It must have been a considerable culture shock for someone from the respectable working class in the North to enter the Oxford cloisters. You say that Balliol was above all meritocracy – the snobbery was intellectual rather than social –but there must surely have been class snobbery in some measure?
The first term I was there I would cringe internally when I heard the easy conversation of Etonians in the quad below my rooms. Britain in the 30s was very class-conscious, and for that reason a lot of my friends tended to be Americans, Canadians or Indians, but that only lasted a term or two, because after that people judged one another not according to class standards at all. The class thing was strongest among the Etonians, who tended to stick very closely together. Julian Amery, Maurice Macmillan, Harold Macmillan’s son, and Stephen Tennant, son of the then Postmaster General, tended to see more of one another than of anybody else. The Wykehamists were very different; they were meritocrats and they mixed very easily into this new society.
You were persuaded to join the communists in 1937 because, as you said, the communists were the only people unambiguously opposed to Hitler. Was there also a degree of idealism involved the brotherhood of man?
Oh yes, there was a lot of that. Post-war communism, even pre-war communism, shouldn’t obscure the genuine idealism which took a lot of people into the communist party, not just to fight Hitler but to fight for a better world. It was anti-Hitler but it was also belief in the brotherhood of man. We totally refused to accept that there were concentration camps in the Soviet Union, or that a lot of these trials which were taking place in the 30s were totally phoney; and the analogy I make with that is the enormous power of Mrs Thatcher in the ex-communist world. Nobody has a good word to say for her in Britain, except in obscure recesses of her old parry, but she is still by far the most popular politician in what used to be the Soviet Union, and in Japan, and that’s because people tend to react to the other extreme from the thing they see. The young with whom I find I have more and more in common, was swept away by the French Revolution-‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…’, and then he had the shock of seeing Napoleon crowned emperor by the Pope, and seeing all the things he most disliked in politics arising out of the French Revolution.
Was your moue away from communism painless or was there an element of disillusionment?
I never went for the ideological element in communism, especially the dialectical materialism. It was really the stupidity of the Russians in imagining that they could make a deal with Hitler that would stick, and continuing to do so after the fall of France, which made it very easy for me to leave. But my sympathy for the communists was increased by my experience in Italy where the communist party was the backbone of the resistance movement under fascism especially during the war. However, what killed any lingering sympathy was my experience as international secretary for the Labour Party, trying to keep the socialists in Eastern Europe alive under the communist regimes. I became very anti-communist at that time; indeed I was the chap who persuaded Morgan Phillips to make the affiliation of the communists to the Labour Party unconstitutional. The amazing thing is that right up to 1946 the communists were applying to affiliate to the Labour Party, although they were putting up candidates against Labour all over the country.
You say you are not proud of your political activities at Oxford. How would you rather have conducted yourself?
I was far too uncritical, as most youngsters were. At that time the undergraduate body was only 4500 at Oxford and 1500 were in the Labour Club which was run by communists over 250 people were communist party members. Almost anybody on the left became communist, including people who later became prominent Tories, like Biggs Davison, and I only mention him because I asked him before he died if he minded being named -whereas the others I don’t mention. The only democratic socialists who stood up to the communists were a Catholic called Michael Fogarty, who teaches economics in Glasgow, Chris Mayhew, and people like Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland. Tony could easily have joined the CP, for his views were very much the CP views, but Roy was never tempted; and of course his father was Attlee’s parliamentary private secretary. And there was the same CP domination of the literary world; all the young poets were members of the CP or flirting with it, except Louis MacNeice. Spender and Auden flirted with it, and half of the young painters were communists, both in France and in Britain.
One imagines that despite what was happening in Germany there was still the residual conviction, from less than 20 years before, that the Great War had been the war to end all wars. When did you stop believing that?
Oh, I never believed that. My generation in England became conscious of these issues in the early 30s when we took the school certificate at 14. We were swept away, my lot, by the poetry and novels against the First World War, which said it was a racket, a view held very strongly by Kipling, who wrote that wonderful couplet: ‘If someone asks you why we died/ Tell them because our fathers lied..’ So we didn’t regard the First World War as making the world safe for democracy, and indeed, as we were growing up to political consciousness Mussolini was already in power. Before I went to oxford we had the invasion of Abyssinia, and then the civil war in Spain during the holiday when I was cycling round Germany. My generation, after we’d fought in the Second World War, were determined not to make the same mess of it as they had after the First, and it was this feeling which was responsible for the tremendous Labour victory in ’45. And to be fair, the Labour government of that time did carryout the policies on which it was elected. Trouble is, it’s not found very many new policies since.
When war was declared you did not hesitate to volunteer. Did you ever consider any alternative to fighting?
Oh no, not at all, although it’s true I had been a pacifist and resigned from the OTC at school when I was 16. But at 21, when war was declared, I rang up immediately to ask to volunteer. And so did all my friends, even though we were severely upbraided by our CP mentors and told that it had suddenly turned into an imperialist war instead of an anti-fascist war. We told them to sod off.
Did you consider the case for pacifism to be an honourable one?
Not at that time, no, because it was a question of fighting a patent evil, and those of us who were at Oxford at that time had met refugees from Nazi Germany. My generation knew there was a terrible evil which must be stopped, and we had no doubt about that. Even when the bomb was exploded in Japan-we had no details of course -all I said was thank God I don’t have to go out to Asia now.
After the war you decided to forgo the academic career you had planned and you went into politics because, as you say, there seemed no other way of helping directly to prevent third world war. Was this resolve shaped largely by your experience of war?
The war and the failure to prevent the war with Hitler. My youth was dominated by the inevitability of war with Hitler unless people stood up to him, and then because they didn’t, we had the war. We felt it was an unnecessary war, and I still feel that about every war in my lifetime; the Falklands, the Gulf War – none of them would have happened if the people who finally stood up to aggression had made it clear to the aggressor in advance that they’d do so; but they didn’t.
Did writing your planned work on aesthetics suddenly seem too trivial an activity to engage in after the war?
I didn’t regard it as trivial, nor do I now; in fact I may still write, not a major work, but a trifling essay on the relationship between art and life. There is an argument which is perfectly respectable, that governments make very little difference to what happens socially and economically in a country. All the countries of Western Europe have developed social democracies, using those words in the most general sense, whether they’ve had right-wing governments or left-wing governments, or no government at all like Italy. But wars are made only by governments, and it’s only by engaging in an activity which directly impacts on governments, i.e. politics, that you can hope to prevent them. And I still feel that very strongly.
You met Edna in 1940…
Oh no, I met Edna as soon as I went to Oxford, because she used to go to the Ruskin dances, the only permitted contact between male and female of a social nature. I remember her as an attractive girl whom I called ‘tomato face’ because of her very red cheeks, but most of her friends called her ‘the Zuleika Dobson of St Hugh’s’. However, it was in 1940 that we really started courting.
Did you know then that she was the one for you?
Not at the beginning. She was my girl and we liked one another very much, but we didn’t really think about marriage. I didn’t want to make that kind of commitment at that time, partly because I thought I would probably be killed in the war. I lost five years’ marriage allowance by forgoing popping the question until I got back from Italy.
There is often a kind of Anglo Saxon awkwardness which men, particularly Oxbridge men, feel with women…
That was never so with me. I always felt comfortable in the presence of women, and I had had girlfriends from the age of 16, though I’m bound to say I don’t think I went to bed with a girl until almost the last year at Oxford. That was one of the many enormous differences between the 30s and today, that boys and girls didn’t go to bed with one another; that was absolutely not the case in the 30s, and I don’t think one suffered particularly because of it. I’m not against people going to bed when they want to, but I don’t think the present situation is more desirable than the earlier one. And we didn’t have the pill in those days. If you were wealthy and well informed you could-like Mary McCarthy – get a Dutch cap, but otherwise you relied on your male partner being prepared to wash his feet with his socks on which not many were.
Politics is a high-risk occupation for marriages and families…you have been very fortunate in yours. Do you think this was good luck, or good judgement?
It was good luck that I had good judgement. [laughs] We’ve had a happy marriage, Edna and I, with very little upset, but we were lucky. I think it’s very difficult for a politician’s wife, particularly if he’s in London all week and she’s in the provinces, which is the case with many. An enormous number of MPs have affairs with their secretaries, and the poor wife’s social life is confined to weekly visits to Sainsbury’s.
What view do you take of the current interest in the private lives of politicians and what might be called their moral frailty?
I think it’s grossly overdone. The French cannot understand the way we go on about this, but of course people wouldn’t go on about it so much if the government didn’t say it was returning to core values, and Barbara Cartland wasn’t able to claim authorship of the Tory attitude to life. That, I think, is what has made them excessively exposed. But if we take specific examples, such as the astounding press coverage of the actress in the oral sex case, I can’t think of anywhere in the world where that would be so except Britain. Sex is still a dirty thing to be sniggered at; what D H Lawrence called ‘the dirty little secret’ is still more prevalent here than in most countries.
But do you think it’s reasonable to expect higher moral standards of behaviour from politicians?
Not unless they preach higher moral standards. A clergyman caught out in adultery or pederasty is always going to be especially vulnerable, but in this context I recall a glorious remark by Schelling, the German moral philosopher, who was discovered to be sleeping with his girl students, and when he was asked how he reconciled that with his lectures, he replied, ‘Have you ever heard of a signpost walking the way that it’s pointing?’
When you entered the House of Commons in 1952, it was still regarded as something of a gentleman’s club … I imagine that was an aspect of political life which you fundamentally disapproved of…
To be fair, it was only the Tory side that was a gentlemen’s club. When I arrived in 1952 you could tell which parry an MP belonged to by looking at him. The Labour people tended to have badly cut suits or, if they were public school boys, to wear tweed jackets and scruffy trousers. Most Labour Party members were people who had worked as trade unionists in manufacturing unions. Now that’s totally changed, and you cannot identify the party of an MP if you go into the central lobby. The dress and behaviour of the classes have moved together very much in the last 40 years since I came in, and the manual working class is now scarcely represented. Ernie Bevin who was, I think, the greatest British foreign secretary this century, was an illegitimate child of a girl who worked on a farm; his education stopped when he was 11 years old, and he worked with his hands until he became a trade union leader. People like him have disappeared from the House.
Didn’t Bevin fail to handle the problem of Palestine by handing it over to the UN? Michael Foot for example, regards him as being responsible for what he has called ‘the Labour government’s act of eternal dishonour with painful consequences for our world today’. Isn’t that something you gloss over in your memoirs?
No, I think I deal with that very directly because I had to defend Bevin’s policy in front of Golda Meir in Zurich at the socialist international meeting. History will tell us whether Zionist nationalism in the end has been a good or bad thing, but a lot of my Jewish friends after the war belonged to a small party in Poland called the Polish Jewish Bund which was very anti-Zionist, because it regarded Zionism as a form of imperialism. So I could see the argument against taking land away from the Arabs and against the ethnic cleansing which the Jews carried out in Palestine during the first war. I saw that it would create enormous problems for Britain and the United States in the Arab world, which it has, and not only the Arab world, but in much of the Third World also. So I don’t feel as Michael Foot does about that; but then I don’t think Michael has much sense of reality, and this is one reason why he wasn’t a very useful leader of the Labour Party. The Foreign Office was almost universally hostile to the creation of a state of Israel and gave up because we came under such intolerable American pressure; but most of my friends in the Labour Party were Zionists, like Laski, Hugh Dalton, and some of the most remarkable Tories, like Winston. I had friends in the Zionist leadership in Israel – Shimon Perez is still a good friend – and a lot of them, particularly Aba Eban, who was a don at Cambridge before the war, always knew that the moral position of Israel in the Middle East would undermine its political position, as it has. Equally you have to come to terms with reality, and of course the state of Israel is a reality, though it’s also done things which one can’t possibly approve, such as some of the activities of Mossad, and the nuclear cooperation with South Africa, and so on.
In your autobiography you say that your first ten years in parliament were dominated by the internal divisions of the Labour Party which prevented it from mounting an effective attack on the Tories till Harold Wilson became leader. Hasn’t the Labour Party continued to be dogged by internal divisions?
Once Wilson became leader there were divisions over his leadership, but they weren’t fundamental policy divisions, and the same was really true of Callaghan. But I always regret that out of my nearly 50 years now as an active national politician in the Labour Party, both as an official and as an MP, we’ve lost two decades through internal arguments about dogma basically – the Bevanite ten years and the Bennite ten years of the 80s – and it takes a long time for a party to recover public trust. As for the Tories’ struggles now, the tension between the dogmatists and the pragmatists is just like the home life of our own dear queen.
You became defence secretary in 1964 in Wilson’s government, a post you held for six years. Looking back, were those the best years of your political life?
Yes. First of all, it was the first time I’d had power which is an indispensable condition of influencing policy at government level, so I enjoyed that very much. Secondly, perhaps to my surprise, I very much I liked the people I worked with, and I was intimately involved in foreign t policy which is my main interest. We were fighting wars in South America and Borneo, and it was the period when we had to decide, in order to cut I our coat according to the cloth, to give up our role east of Suez, apart from Hong Kong which we were committed to by history. I also had a major role in trying to reconcile the German and American positions on nuclear weapons in Europe. I enjoyed it very much, and on the whole I think I did a pretty good job.
You have described Wilson as ‘essentially frivolous’. In view of the recent biographies of Wilson, in which he has been largely rehabilitated, have you modified your critical view at all?
No, not really. He had very few political principles. He had no sense of direction, and he was an awful Walter Mitty. None of the people who worked for Wilson in the government whether it was Barbara Castle or Dick Crossman – really had much good to say about him. One of his weaknesses which wasted a lot of time is that he didn’t like to use his authority as prime minister to go against a majority of the Cabinet, and so to get round the problem he packed the Cabinet with yes men and yes women, just so that he’d have a majority.
Your five years as chancellor from 1974 to 1979 were rather stormy -the period was marred by a sterling crisis and then intervention by the IMF. How did that period compare in terms of job satisfaction with your time as defence secretary?
It was intellectually very much more testing, and it was physically much more demanding. I never had any spare time at all, but I think it was worth doing, and I’ve been relieved to find that a lot of my foreign friends who are still around think I did a very good job. Controlling spending is appallingly difficult, as all governments and chancellors have found, but the real problem is that you are at the mercy of external events. We’ve now got a single global financial market in which a thousand billion dollars a day can cross the exchanges in search of speculative profit, so no country can control its own exchange rate and therefore its own interest rates. We’ve also got a single global investment market, and people now will put a new factory wherever the relevant labour is cheapest or where it’s closer to the ultimate market. The power of the chancellor is terribly limited; things can come out of nowhere and hit you.
In the general election campaign of 1983 you did battle with Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary, but it was commonly believed that you despised Labour defence policy just as much as Heseltine. Isn’t that the unacceptable face of politics, to advocate something you don’t believe in?
Yes, but if you’re going to have choice and democracy, you’ve got to have parties, and you have to go along with the party unless you leave it. Some of my friends left the Labour Party, but nothing came of it, and I never thought it would. You say it’s unacceptable, but I’m afraid it’s the real world.
You became, as it were, the Greatest Leader Labour Never Had, and your fight against Tony Benn and the Bennites is given credit for turning the Labour Party away from almost certain self-destruction. Do you acknowledge that?
Yes. If I look back on myself as a politician, I think I should have worked harder for the leadership which I never really wanted, because as I’ve always said, I’d rather do something than be something. Because I didn’t fight harder we’ve had 15 years now of what I regard as very bad government. Of course once I’d lost that battle I felt I had an absolute obligation to fight Tony Benn hard for the deputy leadership, even though as the Americans say of the vice president’s job, nor worth a barrel of warm spit’ as a job in itself . If I’d not won that battle which, because of our weird constitution, I won by a hair of my eyebrow, I think there would have been a haemorrhage of people out of the Labour party. I always believed that if we stuck to it so that the sensible people finally had control of the National Executive we’d be all right, and I warned my friends in the Gang of Four, like Shirley Williams and David Owen, that it would take two years, and if they weren’t prepared to wait two years, too bad, but outside the party they wouldn’t come to anything; and they haven’t.
lf you bad won the leadership contest you could probably have become prime minister … what are your feelings about that?
‘Well, in a way I would have liked to have been prime minister, but I’ve only really wanted leadership to prevent baddies getting in, whether it was in the party or in the government. The premiership was never my objective. The thing I most regret about my life is that I never had a chance to be foreign secretary at a time when we had influence in the world. We don’t have influence now. Hurd can spend ten days in the Middle East and nobody knows he’s been or come back.
You have been described as the Labour heavyweight who never made it. Does that description wound?
I’m not wounded by what people say about me. I’ve always upset people by saying that as long as my wife loves me I don’t care about what the rest of the British people think. Besides, I get better treatment from the press than many people, although that’s partly because I’m not competing; I’m a clapped out old fart.
One analysis of your political career is that you’ve been more highly regarded out of office than in office, almost like a great painter who is suddenly discovered after he is dead. Presumably you see things rather differently?
To be fair, I was very highly regarded by people interested in defence when I was defence secretary, and I still am. Views about my record as chancellor are much more mixed, but I still think I got us through the most difficult period without the tragedies we’ve had since ’85 when everything went very badly wrong under Thatcher.
Charles Laurence, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1989, said: ‘When Healey’s moment to strike for the leadership came, be had too few friends left, and the Left had too many. He had spent too much time in the hinterland and not enough on the single minded pursuit of high office.’ Would you agree with that assessment?
No, I wouldn’t entirely, because the reason I was quite popular with the public is that I had a hinterland and people didn’t feel I was a career politician interested in nothing but his own advancement. My misfortune was that I had to run for leadership just after having to inflict misery on the party as chancellor, but if you make politics the be-all and end-all of your life you will be incredibly miserable, like Mrs Thatcher and Gorbachev.
You are fond of Kipling’s lines, ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same…’Is that a principle you have put into practice in your time in politics?
Yes, on the whole, although that was one of my father’s favourite poems rather than my own. I prefer Kipling when he’s not being so didactic but reflecting on the lessons passages of life, and one of my favourite from him is where he says: ‘The dog returns to its vomit, the sow returns to her mire, and the burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire. ‘He was a wonderful writer, greatly underestimated, and although he was a great believer in the British role in the world, he was not a triumphalism imperialist at all.
Your wife once famously remarked that Mrs Thatcher had no ‘hinterland’, by which she meant, to put it bluntly, she had read very few books and had no sense of history. You suggest that the same might be true of John Major, Trollope notwithstanding, and you conclude that public life is the poorer for it…
Well, there is a big question mark over Major’s devotion to Trollope. The point is you’ve got to have your real values outside the political world, so an interest in music and painting and literature is very valuable. The other important thing is – and I feel this particularly since the end of the Cold War – it’s very important to know history. I did a course in economics as a mature student when I was chancellor, and I’ve read books of political science which is an oxymoron like public privy, but the one thing you can learn from is history. Human situations recur again and again in history, and you cannot begin to understand what is happening in the Balkans or Eastern Europe, or even more Russia, without knowing a bit about the history of those countries. If you know about Nicholas II, Yeltsin is very easy to explain … another man who produces the first democratic elections and then dissolves the duma because it votes against him.
Your own interest in Virginia Woolf and Yeats and Emily Dickinson suggests that you do not think there is any sort of gulf fixed between poetry and prose. Are they just alternative uses of the imagination?
No, not entirely, because first of all poetry is very much more concentrated. The ambiguities which Empson discussed are much more complex in poetry than in prose, and in poetry the sound is also important.
When you read Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, do you feel yourself in contact with something specifically feminine, or are they rather two sensitive minds among others?
I think Virginia Woolf was self-consciously feminine and up to a point she was feminist. In A Room of One’s Own, you do feel you’re in touch with a woman’s mind, but a woman of extraordinary intellectual range and sensitivity. On the whole I prefer her diaries and letters to her novels.
Dickinson is absolutely unique – no man can write like that – and she clearly is very conscious of being a woman in what she writes, but without being in any sense feminist. I’ve no time for the claptrap of that charlatan Camille Paglia suggesting she is a sadist people will say anything for money.
I have the impression from reading My Secret Planet that you take a Romantic view of literature…Shelley calls literature the record of the best and happiest moments and Wordsworth believes that it might improve our moral sensitivity. Is that a view you share?
I half share it. You can only approach problems of the spirit in my view through the arts, and poetry is one of the main arts. But the greatest poet in our language was, if not gay, bisexual, and he was deeply realistic. That was why it was comic for this poor headteacher in North London to describe Romeo and Juliet as being infested with heterosexuality. [laughs] Shakespeare’s view wasn’t Romantic in the Shelley sense at all, and Wordsworth I put in a totally different group from Shelley because Shelley was an upper-class young man who wrote a typical public school Romantic leftism. But Wordsworth came from a provincial professional family; his father was a solicitor, and he felt very much out of the centre. His big experience was being excited and carried away by the French Revolution and then being terribly disillusioned by it. I admire Wordsworth enormously and I know why he’s called Romantic because he happened to write in that period along with Byron and Keats and Shelley, but I would put him in a way slightly ahead of the other so called Romantics. Again, you can’t conceivably call Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles Romantic in that sense and yet I admire them more than any of the others, including Wordsworth; and Shakespeare lived in this violent, brutal, cruel world and wrote about it totally honestly, without any spirituality. He had no feeling for that at all, just as he was very confused about sex -‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ yet on almost any page you read, you find something stupefyingly good.
Modern critical views tend to be dismissive about the meanings to be found in literature, saying it is all a matter of context…have you any sympathy with that way of thinking?
Not really. There’s a book by the Bishop of Oxford, Haris, who is rather a Tory on religion and beauty, in which he argues that religion is enormously enhanced by the arts, which I would hold; except that my view is terribly heretical in the literal sense in that I do not believe that any theology is worth the paper it’s written on. You cannot use the sort of logic you use in examining the phenomenal world, or in producing the microwave or the atom bomb, to consider questions of value. Questions of value relate to the spirit or the soul which you can best explore in my view through the arts. Religious experience I believe in strongly, but I don’t believe in a personal God.
You are also very interested in music and painting and photography. Does literature offer us something that the other arts do not, do you think?
Oh yes, of course it does. Music is the purest art form with no phenomenal references in the Kantian sense; poetry has to use words which are all referential, but it also uses sound, and the sound of poetry can be sweet: ‘daffodils,/That come before the swallow dares, and take/The winds of March with beauty…’ There is a music in Shakespeare’s lines which you cannot relate very directly to phenomena.
In My Secret Planet you quote Emily Dickinson saying, ‘It is an honourable thought to suppose that we are immortal’, but also when she says: ‘They went to God’s Right Hand/That hand is amputated now/And God cannot be found’. Can poetry offer us some viable alternative to what used to be called the comforts of religion?
Yes, but it can also provide the same comforts in a way. I don’t regard these as strict alternatives, because we’re now talking about an area which is not susceptible to logical analysis. I was told that Jonathan Miller described it as sentimental tosh when I said that the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s to the Deity Opus 132 in A Minor, The song of Thanksgiving on recovery from an illness, or indeed the Cavatina from his Opus 132,that these took me to the heights, or perhaps the depths, of religious feeling; but they do.
You write in your anthology that it was T S Eliot who made you realize that it was possible for an intelligent man to be a Christian. But if you reject the theology and dogma of the Church, in what sense would you argue that an intelligent man could be Christian?
‘Well, it’s difficult. If you belong to a church then you either have to accept one of the Protestant theologies, or the Catholic theology, yet Protestants and Catholics have actually killed one another for believing different theologies, and they’re doing so today in bloody Bosnia; so I regard theology as a mistaken endeavour, as Kant did. Once you erect an institution to promote a theology you’re moving in the worst political direction, because you are creating an institution which is supposed to teach a partisan view and to maintain that all other views are wrong, or even sinful.
If Donne and Vaughan, Marvel and Milton owe their power as poets to a religious conviction you can’t share, how can you regard them as other If than interesting museum piece?
Because they appeal to some of the deepest instincts I have in my spirit. But I don’t have to take their religion seriously, and of course Blake, whom I greatly admire, believed that Milton was of the Devil’s party but didn’t know it, and that the real hero of Paradise Lost is Satan.
In your book you raise what you call the most difficult question which confronted you at Oxford – the relationship between art and life. Have you been able to approach an answer since Oxford?
I hadn’t really thought about these things very systematically until I wrote My Secret Planet, and I don’t despair of producing a useful little contribution in this field during the second half of my life.
Like Kathleen Raine whom I interviewed last year, you are very dismissive of lris Murdoch. Raine called her ‘a mere journalist’; you say she is ‘unreadable’. Doesn’t this smack of intellectual elitism?
No. I liked Iris very much when she was a friend of mine as a student and I introduced her to Beckett’s Murphy, which I’ve always regarded as the pebble which dislodged her avalanche. But the problem is that I find her novels are basically games with characters who have characteristics you recognize but who don’t make up believable people; that’s my worry with her. About the only book of hers which I found compelling to read right through was A Severed Head, but I haven’t really tried very much recently because she seems to me to be doing an up-market intellectual Alan Ayckbourn. She is a serious thinker, of course, and though I haven’t read the new book she’s done about morality, my impression from the reviews is that she really rather agrees with me about all that.
Throughout our cultural history poets have sought to defend poetry against the prejudices of those inexperienced in it. What are the grounds now for a defence against the philistines, those with no sense of history or literary heritage…?
If people can’t appreciate poetry, too bad for them, but I don’t feel a need to justify or defend it. There’s always a risk when you get into that sort of argument that you’ll end up defending bad cases. It always struck me when I was a boy and I started taking an interest in painting, that there was a scandal every year about something being rejected by the Royal Academy, because it was too modern; but actually the paintings that were rejected were never very good. In any case there’s so much poor poetry at the moment. It’s rather like feminism: the great writers who want a square deal for women, like George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, they speak for themselves, but if I’m asked to defend Camille Paglia or one of these pretty new feminists like Roiphe or Naomi Woolf, I’m not going to waste my time.
You have earned yourself the reputation for being something of a political thug with remarks such as ‘virago intacta’ about Mrs Thatcher and ‘savaged by a dead sheep’ with reference to Geoffrey Howe. Is the political thug tag something you regard as a badge of honour?
Not particularly. The trouble with journalists is that one of them will use a phrase and the others rather like it, so they all use it from that moment on. The remarks you quote are not thuggish; they’re rather witty, which is why they’ve survived. The thuggery comes much more from those occasions when I have shouted at people or had to deal with those who voted against us on public spending in the House. But I’ll tell you of one exchange which hasn’t appeared in print before. After the ’92 election the Speaker held a party for all the retiring MPs, including me and Maggie. Maggie came over to me and said, ‘Oh Denis, I’ve just come across a phrase you used about me when we first were fighting across the floor of the House. You called me a “passionara of privilege”.’ I said, ‘Yes, but the best remark I ever made about you was only last year, when I said you combined the economics of Arthur Daley with the diplomacy of Alf Garnett.’ She looked terribly puzzled because she had never heard of either. But that’s not thuggery…
You have always reserved large quantities of vitriol for David Owen whom you likened to the Upas tree-poisoning the ground for miles around. Have you modified your opinion at all in recent years?
David’s tried to do a good job in Bosnia but he was put in when the chance of success had already disappeared. Once we’d recognized Bosnia as a state on the basis of a referendum in which the largest minority refused to take part, we were on a hiding to nothing. But I think he’s worked hard. He can be very offensive, but perhaps that was the one situation in which, as he was dealing with bastards, it was a good thing that he was a bastard too.
Your wife has never forgiven you for expressing in a speech in the House of Commons a personal affection for Mrs Thatcher whom she regarded as ‘lacking in common humanity’. Did you yourself come to regret what you call this moment of ‘careless charity’?
No, not really, though I can add something of interest to that. Edna and I both watched the four television programmes about Thatcher – The Downing Street Years – in which she looked exactly like her Spitting Image puppet, and I said to Edna at the end that it was the most frightening thing I had ever seen on television; to think that we were run by a raving hag who was surrounded by ministers who were fighting one another like weasels in a sack, that we had this for 14 years and nobody did anything about it. But Edna said, ‘No, I have quite a different feeling. I really felt the human and personal tragedy of this bright prefect from a grammar school in the provinces, who got to the top and then everything crumbled.’
You have sometimes said that you have lived in the most interesting time imaginable. That is the mark of a happy man … are there any shadows on that happiness?
The shadow is the fact that the end of the Cold War has meant a return to the worst aspects of history; we’re entering a period that will be as cataclysmic in its effect on the world as the period that came after the French Revolution. That was followed by the Napoleonic wars and then total uncertainty and the revolutions of ’48. I think we’re in for a very difficult century, but it won’t be a European century; it will be dominated by the powers in the Far East.
As you grow older . . . do you ever contemplate your own death? Are you afraid?
There was a book written shortly after the war by a young Hungarian about his experiences when the Russians came in, and the title was, I am 17 and I Do Not Want to Die. At that sort of age, the thought of death is profoundly repellent, but I find it much less so now. As people get older they don’t rage so much against the dying of the light.