Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review : The Time of My Life by Denis Healey (Penguin 1990)

When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancellorship included inflation of 27%, interest rates of 15%, industrial strife and an IMF bailout. What is less familiar is the lover of poetry and theatre, the fluent linguist who broadcast on BBC World Service in French, Italian and German,who made deep and lasting friendships with so many people in so many walks of life around the world. In this splendid political autobiography, Healey attempts to put the record straight, and prove that there was more to him than the political bruiser that he was often taken for.

There is an element of self-justification in how he presents his time in office, but in his biggest battles history looks quite favourably on the outcomes he achieved. His first love was International Affairs, and one senses that the fact that the Foreign Secretaryship eluded him was a cause for regret. As defense secretary he oversaw Britain's withdrawal from unsustainable commitments East of Suez, whilst maintaining a nuclear deterrent with a degree of independence from the United States.

As Chancellor, he claims that if treasury PSBR forecasts had been accurate, he needn't have had to go cap in hand to the IMF - and indeed the loan was repaid by the time that Healey left office. After the traumas of 1975 and 1976 the economy had been dramatically turned round. By 1977, the Balance of Payments was positive, the pound was worth more than $2, interest rates had fallen to 5% and both inflation and unemployment were falling.Yet from that unnaturally propitious position, Callaghan's government persisted with an income policy too far, and the result was the Winter of Discontent. Healey is understandably scathing on the asinity and self-interest of  Union chiefs such as  Moss Evans and Clive Jenkins, who failed to show the leadership of their predecessors and whose dogmatism and lack of foresight indirectly led to twelve years of Thatcherism.One of the great pleasures of this book is its incisive pen-portraits - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Vic Feather are accorded deep respect, but his scorn for those implicated in Labour's implosion following their loss in 1979 is withering.

This great pleasure of this book is to accompany such a warm and engaging companion through his rise from a relatively humble background through Balliol and up through the ranks of the Labour party to the highest offices of state. His perspective from the inside of negotiations with the likes of the Americans on nuclear detterence, is eye-opening, his analysis of the events in which he was involved acute. Yet it is the characters that he has met which make this book special, many names with which one won't be familiar but all described with a warmth when deserved and a brutal dismissal when not. Everyone knows his description of Geoffrey Howe - who he liked and respected- from the House of Commons, yet not nearly as savage as his dismissal of his old foe Tony Benn in this book: "It is ironic that Tony Benn's ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind - the uranium mine in Namibia that he authorised as Energy Secretary which helps to support apartheid...and an aircraft [Concorde] which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fairs are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers." Like the man himself, insightful, uncompromising but ultimately fair.

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