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Thought for the weekend: A politician of principle

By Allen Sleith

Published 10/10/2015

You know how it goes. You're sitting in front of the TV when a programme comes on and, even though you hadn't intended to watch it, you find that you're 'hooked' and watch it through to the end.

That's what happened to me on Wednesday evening with a one-hour documentary on the late Dennis Healey. Whatever your own views on his political career, what shone through for me was his robust and engaging humanity. For one thing, he spoke about the need to 'make a space' for an enjoyable life outside politics. His love for his wife and family was warmly evident as was his delight in other passions such as music (an accomplished pianist), art (a painter) and, not least, poetry. The latter, perhaps, shaped for him by his schoolteacher parents and his own double first in classics at Oxford.

At one point he read a poem called The D-Day Dodgers, penned by a fellow soldier who, like Healey, had fought in Italy against what was the so-called 'soft underbelly' of the Axis forces. In reality this was a savage theatre of conflict. It was alleged that Viscountess Astor derisively called those Allied forces who fought there as 'D-Day Dodgers' and the poem that Healey read on camera, with obvious emotion, was a sarcastic rejoinder to her grotesquely wrong summation.

After war in Italy, Healey was therefore well fit to deal with any amount of 'civil war' within the Labour Party and it was impressive seeing how bravely belligerent he was at some raucous political conferences.

He could also laugh at himself, and one clip showed him playing piano in a sketch with Mike Yarwood, who was doing an impression of Healey's lookalike fictitious sister. One of his memorable throwaway lines was when asked if he regretted not being PM (he's been called the greatest prime minister Labour never had). His answer was that he preferred to do something rather than be someone. Healey came across as much richer than the caricature the Press often made of him, with a healthy balance of principle yet realism.

In short, he struck me as 'humanly human', to coin a phrase. Acknowledging his failing health and waning energy, his last irascible phrase to his documentary friend was - "Now sod off while I nod off."

Belfast Telegraph

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