Denis Healey, the son of an engineer, was was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire in 1917. When Healey was eight years old he won a scholarship to Bradford Grammar School. Influenced by the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon from the First World War, Healey became a pacifist and in 1935 resigned from the school's Officer's training Corps.
In 1936 Healey entered Balliol College, Oxford. While at university he became active in politics. He became concerned about the emergence of Adolf Hitler. He rejected his earlier pacifism and joined the Communist Party.
Healey later explained in his autobiography, The Time of My Life, why he took this decision: "For the young in those days, politics was a world of simple choices. The enemy was Hitler with his concentration camps. The objective was to prevent a war by standing up to Hitler. Only the Communist Party seemed unambiguously against Hitler. The Chamberlain Government was for appeasement. Labour seemed torn between pacifism and a half-hearted support for collective security, and the Liberals did not count."
On the outbreak of the Second World War joined the British Army and he served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. This included being Military Landing Officer to the British assault brigade for Anzio. He admitted: "Unfashionable though it is to admit it, I enjoyed my five years in the wartime army. It was a life very different from anything I had known, or expected. Long periods of boredom were broken by short bursts of excitement. For the first time I had to learn to do nothing but wait - for me the most difficult lesson of all. To my great relief, I found I did not get frightened in action - not that I enjoyed being shelled or dive-bombed any more than the next man; but fear never paralysed me or even pushed me off my stroke. On the other hand I was never called on to show the sort of active courage which wins men the VC. A dumb, animal endurance is the sort of courage most men need in war. I was constantly amazed by the ability of the average soldier, and civilian, to exhibit this under stress." By the end of the war Healey had reached the rank of major.
Healey left the Communist Party during the war and soon afterwards joined the Labour Party. He caught the attention of its leaders by making a speech at the 1945 Labour Party Conference: "The upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent. The struggle for socialism in Europe ... has been hard, cruel, merciless and bloody. The penalty for participation in the liberation movement has been death for oneself, if caught, and, if not caught oneself, the burning of one's home and the death by torture of one's family ... Remember that one of the prices paid for our survival during the last five years has been the death by bombardment of countless thousands of innocent European men and women."
In the 1945 General Election he stood for Pudsey and Otley and was defeated by 1,651 votes. In November, 1945, Healey became secretary of the International Department of the Labour Party. In 1952 Healey was elected to the House of Commons. On the right of the party, Healey became an outspoken critic of Aneurin Bevan and his followers. In 1959 Hugh Gaitskell appointed Healey to the shadow cabinet.
When the Labour Party was elected in the 1964 General Election, Harold Wilson, the new prime minister, appointed Healey as his Secretary of State for Defence. Wilson later commented: "He (Healey) is a strange person. When he was at Oxford he was a communist. Then friends took him in hand, sent him to the Rand Corporation of America, where he was brainwashed and came back very right wing. But his method of thinking was still what it had been: in other words, the absolute certainty that he was right and everybody else was wrong, and not merely wrong through not knowing the proper answers, but wrong through malice. I had very little trouble with him on his own subject, but he has a very good quick brain and can be very rough. He probably intervened in Cabinet with absolute certainty about other departments more than any minister I have ever known, but he was a strong colleague and much respected."
His colleague, Ian Mikardo, has argued: "Denis Healey is an outstanding talent, equalled by very few people I've met in the whole of my long innings. When he speaks on international affairs, he speaks with the authority that derives from an unmatched knowledge of what's going on in almost every country in the world, and his analysis of all those movements of events is almost always penetrating and enlightening. He is a cultured man of parts, of many interests outside politics (those politicians whose lives contain nothing but politics are always second-class politicians). He's a bubbly, witty man who can be a charming and entertaining companion.
Over the next six years Healey attempted to preserve the country's defence commitments but he eventually had to accept defeat and began withdrawing Britain's armed forces from Aden and the Persian Gulf. Healey held the post until the defeat of the Labour government in the 1970 General Election.
Edward Heath and his Conservative government came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
Harold Wilson appointed Healey as Chancellor of the Exchequer. At the 1973 Labour Party Conference he argued: " The main reason for this enormous foreign deficit is that he gave away four thousand million pounds in the last three years in tax reliefs, mainly to the rich, without cutting expenditure to scale and without making any attempt to be sure that British industry had the capacity to meet the consequent increase in demand, so we have had a steady increase in imports of manufactured goods, a yawning trade gap, and continual runs on sterling. But before you cheer too loudly, let me warn you that a lot of you will pay extra taxes, too. That will go for every Member of Parliament in this hall, including me ... There are going to be howls of anguish from the eighty thousand people who are rich enough to pay over seventy-five per cent on the last slice of their income. But how much do we hear from them today of the eighty-five thousand families at the bottom of the earnings scale who have to pay over seventy-five per cent on the last slice of their income - and thirty thousand of them actually lose twenty-five new pence or more, when their wages go up a pound?"
Healey was unable to solve Britain's economic problems and in 1976 Healey was forced to obtain a $3.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. When Harold Wilson resigned that year , Healey stood for the leadership but was defeated by James Callaghan. The following year Healey controversially began imposing tight monetary controls. This included deep cuts in public spending on education and health. Critics claimed that this laid the foundations of what became known as monetarism. In 1978 these public spending cuts led to a wave of strikes (winter of discontent) and the Labour Party was easily defeated in the 1979 General Election.
In 1980 Healey once again contested the leadership of the Labour Party. The left campaigned against his nomination. Ian Mikardo argued in his autobiography Back Bencher (1988): "When the leadership election loomed in 1980 my friends in the Tribune Group and many other people in the Party and the trade unions wanted to stop Healey because he was way out to the Right and was likely to go even further than Wilson and Callaghan in leading the Party away from its socialist principles. But even though I shared that view I had an even stronger motivation for frustrating his leadership bid. I had seen at first hand his emery-paper abrasive manner, his crude strong-arm all-in-wrestling ways of dealing with dissent, his undisguised contempt for many of his colleagues, his actual enjoyment of confrontation, his penchant for pouring petrol on the flames of controversy, and I was thoroughly convinced that if he became Leader of the Party it wouldn't be long before these aggressive characteristics of the would split the Party from top to bottom; and that was a prospect which scared me."
Healey was unexpectedly defeated by Michael Foot and had to be satisfied with the post of deputy leader. Healey resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in 1987. His autobiography, The Time of My Life, was published in 1989.