Denis Healey, by Edward Pearce

John Campbell welcomes a searching biography of the Labour heavyweight who lacked the killer instinct - but wonders if the left-right battles of the past mean much to a new generation
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It has become a truism that Denis Healey was the best leader the Labour Party never had. Edward Pearce has already devoted part of a previous book, The Lost Leaders, to that proposition; now he has devoted a whole biography to it. An equally good case can be made for Nye Bevan, Roy Jenkins, even – who knows? – Gordon Brown. But in each of those instances there were rational grounds for preferring (respectively) Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair. In 1980, the party needed its collective head examined for choosing Michael Foot.

Healey was punished for being a serious politician at a time when the party was still in headlong flight from reality. He told the left with brutal tactlessness that they were "out of their tiny Chinese minds", and they didn't like it.

Perhaps Labour could be led back to sanity only from the left, by Neil Kinnock. Yet it is not quite as simple as that. Though unquestionably serious about the objectives of politics, Healey was never sufficiently interested in the political process to make a good leader.

He was always too much of a loner, who made no effort to build a following in the party as Jenkins, Callaghan or even Tony Crosland did. His reticence was connected to his famous "hinterland" – he was genuinely more interested in art, music, literature, gardening and his family than in political gossip.

He enjoyed networking with European and American politicians far more than with British ones. By experience and choice he was a foreign-affairs and defence specialist. When translated to the domestic sphere as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he struggled at first. He did get on top of the subject but remained essentially a technician.

He had another weakness. Though reputed to be a bruiser, at crucial moments – over the Common Market in 1971, over the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 – he shrank from conflict. He might have prevented the SDP defection in1981 if he had shown a clear resolve to take on the Bennite left; but he was strangely passive, going along with Foot's appeasement, driving the Gang of Three (David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers) to throw in their lot with Jenkins rather than persuading them to stay and fight. He lacked the quality of leadership when it mattered.

In fact, he was not really a bruiser at all, but an academic manqué who only pretended to be a bruiser – helped by his heavy build and beetling eyebrows. To get on in the party, he disguised his cultural hinterland, played up his "silly billy" image and dumbed himself down, not fully revealing his true nature until his memoirs. His phoney anti-intellectualism is ultimately the reason that he never quite did himself justice.

His early career was one of the most thorough apprenticeships any British politician ever had. After a testing wartime experience in the Italian landings, and a bloodthirsty speech at the 1945 party conference (gleefully quoted against him by the Tories ever after), he landed the important backroom job of International Secretary of the Labour Party.

He spent seven years devilling for Ernie Bevin, writing policy pamphlets, maintaining dialogue with continental socialist parties and educating the party in the realities of the Cold War, weaning it from naïve pro-Sovietism to solid support for Nato. In the 1950s, while never a paid-up Gaitskellite, he made himself the most brutal scourge of sentimental Bevanism. No wonder the left never forgave him.

Much of this is hard going for the modern reader. The internecine feuding of the Italian Communist Party, the bitter arguments about German rearmament, indeed the whole mindset of early Cold War politics, is almost unimaginably remote. It is to Edward Pearce's credit that he does not gloss over this formative period in Healey's life; but he does not succeed in making it easy.

In truth, the same applies to the whole book. Most of Denis Healey's career was dominate by highly complex issues. In 11 years in government, he held only two departments – Defence from 1964 to 1970 and the Treasury from 1974 to 1979. As Pearce comments, he was spared Harold Wilson's mania for frequent reshuffles. In both jobs he had to fight endless battles of a formidably technical nature – first over aircraft carriers, nuclear strategy and defence systems while attempting an orderly retreat, not a scuttle, from Britain's overstretched commitments East of Suez.

Then, over incomes policy and spending cuts, he painstakingly negotiated the 1976 rescue package from the IMF and pushed it through the Callaghan Cabinet against bitter opposition from both right (Tony Crosland) and left (Tony Benn), let alone the howling fury of the party conference.

All these battles Pearce describes in lurid and exhaustive detail. It is gripping stuff, if the reader is willing to make the effort. But you do have to read too many sentences two or three times to get the hang of them. His writing is powerful but clumsy, epigrammatic but often overwrought, erudite but self-indulgent. He cannot resist cramming too many ideas into the same sentence and throwing off provocative opinions. Yet this is a thoughtful book that captures the flavour of a long-lost time when politics was taken seriously – when Labour Cabinets met for hours at a time, sometimes several times a week, and argued policy options passionately; when, as Pearce writes sardonically, "people from the constituencies were allowed to make speeches criticising the party leadership" and the leadership would have to answer them. If the past is a foreign country, then the 1970s are as distant from our shallow, spin-doctored world as the 1940s are.

This raises a related problem of contemporary history. As a child of the Cold War and a political journalist who has followed the travails of the Labour Party since the 1960s, Edward Pearce is steeped in the events and assumptions he describes. Many of those who read his book and most who buy it will share his familiarity.

Yet Pearce is also writing – or should be – for students and others who were not born when Denis Healey last held office, to whom the Cold War is ancient history and even the terms "left" and "right" – so fundamental to his generation, so resonant with hidden meanings – are increasingly obscure. It is admittedly difficult to bridge these two audiences; but I am not sure that Pearce has really tried.

The first volume of John Campbell's biography of Margaret Thatcher, 'The Grocer's Daughter', is published by Pimlico. The second volume will be published next year