At 88 Denis Healey exudes still a mischievous vitality. "What is it you want to talk about?" he asks as a slightly unnerving opening gambit. I say I would like to talk about Harold Wilson on the 30th anniversary of his resignation and to move on to discuss Iraq, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He pauses. "And shall we talk about Einstein too?"
I assume he is joking and yet Healey could speak eloquently on Einstein. Indeed is capable of moving swiftly from Blair to Einstein, stopping off to reflect on Iris Murdoch and the poetry of Yeats. Instead I stick at first with Wilson.
Healey worked closely with Wilson, as Defence Secretary in the 1960s and as an embattled Chancellor in the 1970s. He knew him better than most. I begin by asking about a theme topical once more in relation to Blair. How was it that Wilson managed to resign voluntarily as PM and entirely on his own terms? "Wilson had an enormous amount of political common sense. He could be opportunistic and very vain, but when he felt his time was up he decided to go before he was pushed."
A common view is that Wilson left because he sensed his powers were weakening through ill health. Healey offers a much more political analysis. "People saw him as a man without strong values. I have no doubt he would not have lasted very long if he had not resigned."
He offers reluctant praise for Wilson's leadership in the context of Labour's enduring divisions. "Yes. Wilson kept it together. He was good at that, as Atlee was. The divisions made it essential to have a leader of a party capable of working with people of many different views."
Beyond this acknowledgement Healey remains an unforgiving critic. Retrospectively some of the other titans from that era changed their minds. Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn have hailed Wilson's essential decency and skills. Healey continues to regret the lack of values and vision. "I can't say I liked Wilson. I admired his abilities but found I couldn't like him because of his lack of values. I can't think of anything remarkable he did except keep the party together and win power."
Last week the BBC broadcast a drama documentary in which Wilson was shown to be obsessively concerned that a military coup was being planned against him. Healey is dismissive. "It was all absolute bloody nonsense. Wilson was always worried about people plotting to get rid of him. Funnily enough the only person he didn't distrust was me. He often used to discuss the problems as he saw them, this talk of a coup. We talked over breakfast in his room when I lived next door as Chancellor."
What did he say to Wilson when a coup was raised? "I told him it was all bloody nonsense. He continued to believe it. He was very neurotic about it. I wouldn't say he was paranoid. My explanation is that Wilson didn't have much self-confidence."
I suggest that winning elections must give politicians some self-confidence. "You would be surprised. It's often the case that apparently successful politicians lack self- confidence. I know others but I won't name them."
Recently the former Labour MP Giles Radice wrote a brilliant book arguing that if Healey, Jenkins and Tony Crosland had worked together they could have saved the Labour Party from its near fatal descent in the late Seventies. Healey blames Jenkins for the disparate and unco-ordinated approach. "The trouble was Roy Jenkins was not interested in party politics at all. All he wanted was to be a leader and the party did not matter. Tony Crosland and I had much more in common. But Tony and Roy were bitter rivals and then they became bitter enemies. So there was no point when all three of us could have worked closely together."
We are speaking at a time of fresh turbulence within Labour. Yet the internal tensions are whimpers in comparison with Healey's era. Thirty years ago Labour was split over every key policy from state ownership to nuclear disarmament. I ask him to reflect on what appears almost a tragic irony of leadership. Wilson was obsessed with unifying a divided party. Now that Labour is more united than it was, Tony Blair seems to define himself by taking on his party. Although Healey has called for Blair to stand down his tone is more affectionately restrained.
"I know Tony very well and I like him. But I think he does have views of his own and he wants to be leader without any challenge. Of course his relationship with Gordon has been uneasy because Gordon thought he would hand over the leadership and Tony never has." Given his relatively emollient tone I ask why he thinks Blair should go now. He becomes less restrained. "Tony is making more and more mistakes. Now he's got all these idiotic problems over the peerages. The first mistake was the war against Iraq, then foundation hospitals, a policy that had not been thought through, and top-up fees for universities that will deter the poor from going and now the row over peerages that was unnecessary."
He is especially scathing about Iraq. "Tony made a fundamental error from the very beginning when he decided to support the Americans. He was trapped from that moment. I warned him about the consequences. There is a real problem with the current generation of political leaders. They have had no personal experience of war and therefore they often get it wrong. If Tony had known what war was really like he would have worked harder to avoid conflict. I always stood up to America when I thought they were wrong. It is still possible to preserve a relationship and yet challenge what they are doing."
Of the political figures who arise in our conversation only Brown gets an unqualified endorsement. "Gordon has been the best chancellor since the war, better than everyone else including me. He'll be a very good prime minister and I hope it wont be too long before he gets the job."
Healey contrasts the present with his own political and economic context, the raging inflation, the battles over public spending and the mighty unions. In his memoirs he revealed that quite often as Chancellor he was ill with exhaustion. "Yes. Most nights I wrote in my diary: Went to bed dog tired! It was a very difficult period."
Healey now spends most of his time in his cottage at Alfriston in Sussex, an idyllic village nestled between the South Downs and the coast. As we speak his wife, Edna, prepares the dinner. Also in her 80s she remains as vibrant as her husband. Edna (he calls her Ed) has just finished her memoirs in which many of Healey's colleagues are vividly recalled.
Healey was seen as a future leader for much of his career but has now a single regret. "I am not bothered about the leadership, but I very much wanted to be Foreign Secretary."
He doesn't brood much on what might have been. "My main interests are poetry, painting and music." He plays the piano although fears he is getting "worse and worse". With a characteristic flourish he delivers a self-deprecating quotation: "Like a bunch of ragged carrots stand the swollen fingers of my doughty hand." Still he plays on and is contemplating a new book on people he has known, illustrated with his own photos. "I have 42,000 slides and 10,000 prints."
Politically he looks ahead with optimism: "The Tories have a better leader now but they are not doing well in polls and - remember - people do less well in elections than in the polls. I am looking forward very much to seeing Gordon in No 10." We do not get round to discussing Einstein.Reuse content