Denis Healey (1917-2015): clever critic of Soviet life

Denis Healey, who died last Saturday, was a twin of the Russian Revolution. Unlike many of his peers, he got the Soviet Union right.

Born in 1917, he was a Communist in 1930s Oxford who went on to serve the Labour Party with distinction as a moderate voice of unparalleled power. Like all the best statesmen, from William Gladstone to Winston Churchill, he was a professional politician, one of lifetime commitment, huge political skill, deep intellectual seriousness, a certain common touch, and great knowledge of policy. He had wide contacts across world politics — and absorbing interests beyond politics.

Drawing on all of these attributes, he came to understand the USSR. This was no small feat. In his sense of modern Russia, he far outstripped the present incumbents of the offices he held: Defence Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, had Labour won in 1983 or 1987, would-be Foreign Secretary. Those who care about Russo-British relations have at least one reason to mourn his passing (those who care about an electable Labour Party have many more).

Healey was a tough-minded Defence Secretary in the 1960s, serving in that office for six years. Twenty years earlier, he had fought in the Second World War. But he was also a calm diplomat who did not resort to name-calling or obvious bluff. He did not believe that the Soviet Union was ever going to attack NATO. Instead, he recognized that, until the end of the 1980s, Moscow was prepared to use force to keep hold of its Warsaw Pact satellites. This was not just a moral problem: it was the greatest threat to NATO members, because ‘once fighting started there, it might conceivably slop over the Iron Curtain and involve the West.’ NATO’s priority in Europe should be to maintain ‘conventional forces at least large enough to control such incidents.’ Reducing the nuclear risk was paramount.

He travelled widely and frequently, and visited Moscow many times. His repeated snapshots of Soviet life suggested to him that ‘ordinary Russians had seen substantial improvements in their standard of living during the Brezhnev years.’ Writing some time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he argued: ‘I suspect that Gorbachev may come to regret the record of unrelieved failure he has attributed to his predecessor, particularly if perestroika fails to produce similar improvements for the average citizen.’

As ever, the analysis was acute, the judgement sharp, the expression confident. People say, as usual, that we will not see his like again. Of course we will, though Labour needed someone like him in the summer, just as the great offices of Defence and diplomacy need someone like him now.

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