British statesman Healey dies at 98

Lord Healey and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at their first meeting in Singapore in 1966 to discuss British defence spending.
Lord Healey and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at their first meeting in Singapore in 1966 to discuss British defence spending.ST FILE PHOTO

LONDON • Lord Denis Healey, one of the heavyweights of British post-war politics - often described as the best prime minister the opposition Labour Party never had - died on Saturday at the age of 98.

Known for his wit, oratorical skills and large bushy eyebrows, he held the key posts of defence secretary and finance secretary in the 1960s and 1970s. The BBC reported that Lord Healey died peacefully at home.

"A great man and a genuine public servant has left us," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. "We should mourn with his family and give thanks for all he gave our country."

Born in the year of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lord Healey was a member of the Communist Party as a student at Oxford University, later moving to the Labour Party. He was a Member of Parliament for 40 years until 1992 when he entered the House of Lords.

His first Cabinet role was as defence secretary under Prime Minister Harold Wilson between 1964 and 1970.

Lord Healey said his greatest regret was that he did not serve as foreign secretary, to indulge his passion for international affairs.

He counted among his friends former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, as well as Singapore's founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who described him as having a powerful intellect, "like a computer which kept on putting out new solutions as more data was fed in".

Yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted on Facebook a picture of Lord Healey and the late Mr Lee at their first meeting.

He paid tribute to the statesman, recounting the then Defence Secretary's help to Singapore when Singapore became independent.

Mr Lee recounted that while Britain wanted to withdraw its forces to ease the defence burden on its then troubled economy, Lord Healey "fought to keep British forces in Singapore as long as possible" .

He also wrote that despite British regulations to destroy surplus equipment, Lord Healey agreed to give the surplus equipment to Singapore, and also agreed to British forces training Singapore's air force to operate the country's first fighters.

A parliamentary orator of stature with an intellect to match, he provided some of the more memorable moments in the House of Commons. He once described arguing with former Conservative minister Geoffrey Howe as being "savaged by a dead sheep" and once promised to tax the wealthy "until the pips squeak".

He served as chancellor of the exchequer between 1974 and 1979, during which time Britain lurched from economic crisis to crisis, culminating in a low point when he had to request a loan from the International Monetary Fund. He later named the day that Britain paid back the IMF debt as "sod-off day".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'British statesman Healey dies at 98'. Print Edition | Subscribe