The Greasy Pole Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Victory in war, as in politics, often goes to the side which makes fewer, or less serious, mistakes’ was how it was summed up by one with searching experience of both types of human activity. Denis Healey held the most exposed and demanding jobs in British politics after serving time in the army, including a spell as Beach Master for the Allied forces storming ashore in 1943 at the Italian port of Anzio. He ended the war as a major and when emerging into what was known as peace quickly attained a superior ranking on the Westminster Front Bench rather than in the warm sea of that Italian beach. So all things considered it was not an insult, or necessarily damaging, to be described by him as resembling a casualty of the farmyard.
Because those words were aimed, as accurately as any of the projectiles at Anzio, at the Conservative bastion Geoffrey Howe while Healey was Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post in which it was vastly preferable to make the fewer mistakes. Healey remembered this well and it went down in some kind of history: ‘In one debate he had raised some difficult questions in his opening speech. I did not want to be distracted from my own argument by answering them, so I dismissed them by saying that I found his attack “rather like being savaged by a dead sheep” ’. This response to a considered opposition argument by resorting to childish insult was a part of Healey’s need at the time to disguise the fact that his policies as Chancellor were directed at dealing with the current crises of British capitalism through debasing the living standards of workers. Howe referred to the incident in 1983 when he responded to Healey congratulating him on being reluctantly appointed by Margaret Thatcher as Foreign Secretary (it was in fact more of a demotion} by burbling that it was ‘like being nuzzled by an old ram’. Which Healey accepted as a welcome enlivening of a dull afternoon; he liked and respected Howe as one who also grappled with the impossible labours of making sense of capitalism’s insanity economies.
Howe was too young to match Healey’s authentically managerial experience of the war so he had to be satisfied with drilling the school Home Guard and setting up a National Savings group. Just before the end of the war he was conscripted into the army and reached the heights of a commissioned officer. After demobilisation he went through what was carefully known as a ‘judicious marriage’ and set himself to qualify in law, eventually reaching the levels of a high-earning QC. Politically active, he became chairman of the Bow Group and contributed to a pamphlet which argued that the trade unions were too powerful and enjoyed some privileges which should be cut back (a policy which Prime Minister Harold Macmillan thought would be ‘inexpedient’ ). After two expected doomed efforts to get elected into Parliament at Aberavon in 1955 and 1959 Howe succeeded in the more welcoming Babington from 1964 until 1966 when he was defeated. It was easier for a Tory to contest the comfortingly leafy seat of Reigate, where he remained the Member from 1970 until he retired from Parliament in 1992. After the Conservative victory in 1979 Thatcher plucked him from the back benches to be her Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was typically a time of severe economic crisis, the flavour of which was inflation running as a continuous threat to working class conditions with the purchasing power of wages, pensions and the like continuously eroded. In response Howe could offer no more than some outworn policies fashioned roughly from the assumption that the trade unions were the crucially self-destructive factor. Against the opposition of many established economists he imposed ‘monetarists’ policies, which could offer no remedy to the unemployment which was reaching an historic high; in January 1982 it exceeded 3 million, in some areas affecting almost 20 per cent of the liable population, with particular damage to areas suffering from the decline of established industries such as car production, textiles…
Meanwhile relationships between Howe and Thatcher were uneven; ‘On your own head be it, Geoffrey, if anything goes wrong’ was a typical comment from her in 1979 about a clutch of policies which included the abolition of exchange controls. Matters came to a head in 1983 when she moved him to Foreign Secretary. Howe was not entirely happy about this; apart from anything else it deprived him of the right to use luxurious accommodation in Carlton Gardens in London and Chevening House, the 17th century stately home in Kent where Howe and his wife had very much enjoyed playing hosts at smart social events. In June 1989 Howe accompanied Nigel Lawson, who was his successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to an early morning meeting at Ten Downing Street when they more or less threatened to resign if Thatcher persisted in her opposition to their proposal of British membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. She refused to be cajoled in this way and what she witheringly described [as] a ‘nasty little meeting’ ended with Howe looking ‘insufferably smug’.
It was soon after this that her first act in a reshuffle was to inform Howe that she intended to replace him as Foreign Secretary with John Major. Howe resisted, which led to some lengthy and abrasive negotiations settled only by the offer of the use of another stately home and the post of Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister, which ensured that Howe would always sit on Thatcher’s left at Cabinet meetings. Such symbolism is clearly vital to the smooth working of capitalist politics. But the arrangement soon crumbled away when Howe resigned with a speech which has endured as an example of bilious revenge. It was on 13 November 1990, soon after Thatcher had boasted how she would dismiss the proposal of a single European currency: ‘The bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground. That’s my style’. To which Howe responded that he was resigning because being in Thatcher’s government was like an opening batsman whose bats had been broken before the game by the team captain.
Denis Healey died on 3 October 2015.
Geoffrey Howe died on 9 October 2015
Two more examples of the resolve and talents often applied to condition the inhuman plunder of this system of capitalism and to deceive millions of others that there is no other way.