After Denis Healey's death a few days ago I wondered whether any of the old Labour politicians were still around and came to the conclusion that Healey was the last link with the Labour Party that still had some kind of a vision of the future. As it happens, their vision was all wrong and the Wilson/Callaghan governments were incompetent to an extraordinarily high degree. I hope my readers will not misunderstand me: I have no nostalgic feelings for the Labour Party of those years except that I do miss the personalities and the fact that there were some ideas, however wrong-headed, floating about on the left. What we have now is a party that has absolutely no notion of what it would like to see except for the fact that it does not like the way the world and, particularly, this country has developed in the last few decades and would like to turn the clock back to some mythical socialist or semi-socialist paradise. For that reason, I could not help sighing when I read about Healey's death though I also could not help remembering all the many things he and his colleagues got wrong.
While I do not agree with Andrew Roberts (please, nobody tell him that) about Denis Healey being the worst Chancellor Britain has ever had, I do not think he was much good. One cannot deny that Mr Roberts is correct in the following assessment:
The British are famously indulgent when it comes to elderly politicians, turning them into cuddly national treasures regardless of what they did in their prime, especially if they are on the left. It happened to Tony Benn and Michael Foot, is happening to Shirley Williams and is even going to happen to Neil Kinnock. Having reached the splendid age of 98 it was always going to happen to Denis Healey, but that doesn’t excuse the Sunday Times obituary by the novelist Robert Harris which described Healey’s five years at the Treasury in the 1970s as “bruising” when they were in fact catastrophic and humiliating for a western democracy.A couple of days after that article appeared, there was a response by Oliver Kamm who insisted that Denis Healey was not the worst Chancellor this country has ever had. (To be fair, there is hot competition for that title.)
They were the years of going cap in hand to the IMF, of the winter of discontent when the rubbish lay uncollected in the street and the dead went unburied, of the confiscatory 98 percent top rate of income tax when Healey deliberately chose to tax the rich till the pips squeaked (a phrase he unconvincingly afterwards denied using). All of these national humiliations were Healey’s fault, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the adulatory obits on the BBC and other media.
Let us now turn to the man whose death we are mourning today and whose tenure as Chancellor is usually judged to have been remarkably successful: Geoffrey Howe, who has died at the age of 88.
The BBC gives a general overview of the man and his career, mentioning that he died of a suspected heart attack "after attending a jazz concert with his wife Elspeth". Being acquainted with the redoubtable Lady Howe, the supposed real author of her husband's infamous resignation speech of 1990, I can well believe it.
The Independent gleefully provides a video of that speech in 1990, which is commonly held to be the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher's premiership. It also provides an extraordinarily badly written article by someone called Olivia Blair (no relation, I assume). Has the Indy given up hiring hacks who have writing and research skills?
The Telegraph has put up a picture gallery of Lord Howe of Aberavon's life and, one assumes, will have a more balanced obituary tomorrow. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Geoffrey Howe's life and illustrious political career will be for ever defined by that resignation speech. A few years ago, in the course of some research, I looked up the text in Hansard and was stunned anew by the sheer venom it expressed towards the Prime Minister. It is no wonder she and many others were shocked.
Several points need to be made. The first, a minor one, is that the American journalist who introduces the recording for an American audience, unlike the Indy hack, gets the title right: he was Sir Geoffrey Howe not Sir Howe. Which takes me back to my question about the Indy.
More importantly, Sir Geoffrey's analysis of the history and developments in the European Community (as it then was) is somewhat inaccurate and his predictions are wrong. Then again, many of the same arguments are being used now by the people who want us to vote to stay in the European Union. I suspect Lord Howe was not happy about political developments in this country in the last few years as far as the membership of the European Union is concerned.
Nor could he have been happy with the political development of the man who was sitting next to him and to whom he referred several times as one who was in agreement with him. The Rt Hon. Member for Blaby was Nigel Lawson, also a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, subsequently Lord Lawson of Blaby and most recently President of Conservatives for Britain. He is likely to play a prominent role in the campaign for Brexit.