Denis Healey: “his grandfather was a Catholic Fenian tailor in Belfast from whom he inherited his bellicosity…”

Before this one fades from the memory of the internet, here’s a mash up of the Daily Telegraph’s obit for Denis Winston Healey by my good friend and some time professional collaborator, John Pollock on Facebook:

The abiding memory of Healey as Defence Secretary was him standing with his back to the fire, the umpteenth gin in his hand, arguing points of strategy with the generals…Against Mrs Thatcher – whom he christened “Rhoda the Rhino” – and Sir Geoffrey Howe – whose questioning he scorned as “like being savaged by a dead sheep” – this was fine.

When he dismissed critics of his fiscal policies as “silly Billies” (an expression put into his mouth by the impressionist Mike Yarwood), this too drew laughter…Seeing the serried ranks of Kremlin old-timers on a visit to Moscow as shadow foreign secretary, he greeted them with: “Same old mafia again, I see!”…

Nor was he ever afraid to speak his mind; when asked on the BBC after the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 what he thought of Tony Blair’s claim that Saddam Hussein could have unleashed weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes’ notice, he replied with a single word: “Shit.”…He took pride, too, in being rated by Lobby correspondents an even more expensive lunch guest than Roy Jenkins.

He reached the heights by managing to conceal from most of his colleagues how cultured he actually was…

Indeed it was impossible to spend an hour in his company without being aware – unless he chose to conceal it – of intellectual gifts which in Continental politics would have been seen as an immense plus…his grandfather was a Catholic Fenian tailor in Belfast from whom he inherited his bellicosity…

He helped re-establish democratic socialist parties in war-torn Europe, and develop Labour’s commitment to Nato.”


  • MainlandUlsterman

    The depth of experience and intelligence of politicians like Healey is missing from most of today’s cadre. Academic ability is not everything – Jenkins being sniffy about politicians who didn’t have Oxbridge firsts sticks in the craw (and belies the fact Jenkins never made it right to the top, lacking a lot of political attributes less stellar students had) – but I do wonder if things have gone too anti-intellectual in politics now. Yvette Cooper’s brains – easily the most intellectually accomplished of the Labour leadership candidates – barely registered as a factor for Labour leadership voters. It really should have. But in the current politics, being an academic high achiever seems not to be something to reveal too much if you want to get ahead. Sad: we should not feel belittled to put the most able person in charge.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    An interesting point. I just Wiki’ed Corbyn and he “achieved” two A levels with E grades before one year of a degree in Trade Union Studies, which he then dropped out off.

    Good to see that just about anybody can rise to the top in Labour (sic).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    He ain’t smart enough I’m afraid. You see it when you see what stuff he uncritically swallows (viz Northern Ireland). That’s why it is truly frightening to have not so bright people in charge, whatever their other merits. Not that bright people avoid doing stupid things. But you cut down your risk quite a bit.

  • Nevin

    According to the 1911 census, Denis’ grandfather, James Healey, was born about 1852 in Glenfarne, County Leitrim and was a tailor in Todmorden, Yorkshire. Denis’ father William was born in Todmorden; his mother Winnie [Powell] was born in Ross-on Wye, Herefordshire.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Right you are, Nevin. It’s often claimed that he was from Fermanagh but probably that’s because Enniskillen is the nearest large town to Glenfarne (sorry Manorhamilton!).

  • Reader

    Well, that was the whole point of grammar schools, wasn’t it?

  • Nevin

    TS, some of Denis’ fellow passengers on board the Empress of Canada out of Liverpool which arrived in Quebec on 5 September 1949 included John Jacob and Inez Astor, R A Butler, Helen Violet Bonham-Carter, Conoly Hugh Gage [MP, Belfast South], Edward Ian Claud Jacob [later BBC Director-General], Qwilym Lloyd-George, Edward Austin Gossage Robinson [economist associate of J M Keynes] and Leslie David Stevenson Hunter [“The Road to Brighton Pier – the Labour Party”]. They were all members of the British Commonwealth Relations Conference Party and most were bound for New York. Denis’ forward address was given as British Information Services, New York.