The unexpectedly high quality of Alastair Campbell's published diary, The Blair Years, which I came to late and have just finished reading, leads me to wonder if we spend enough time being grateful for living in a post-imperial culture whose politicians and political operatives manage, in a gratifying number of cases, to write their memoirs on a human level. We don't necessarily have to like the person doing the talking. Alan Clark, for example, would have been reprehensible for his opinions if he had not been so patently unhinged. But his Diaries have been compulsory reading ever since they came out. There are so many good books on this particular shelf, in fact, that some of the best ones, after their early fame, forfeit the continuous respect that they deserve.
High on that list, in my opinion, should be placed Denis Healey's The Time of My Life. The book is a delight to read, and would be significant even if it were dull, because Healey was such a substantial representative of that generation of British left-wing idealists in the late 1930s who favoured Communism as an answer to Fascism, until they found out the hard way that the two brands of totalitarianism were effectively identical. To put it bluntly, they learned that grand plans kill. Idealists of today, though they are less likely to pledge allegiance to a foreign power, are just as likely to be impatient with the imperfections of liberal democracy and its ordinary politics. A reminder that ordinary politics are the only kind that count is always useful. Healey's memoir embodies that truth, as well as providing a model of prose. Since Healey, it seems fair to say, is of an age when we should not hang about if we want to praise him while he is still with us, perhaps it is time for someone to give an account of just how good the book is.
Before discussing its enduring merits, however, we should face the possibility that younger auditors might need reminding of just how big a wheel Healey once was. Let the following few sentences stand as the brief biography that the reader needs in order to appreciate the fact that Healey's autobiography, published in 1989, would have been an event even it had been bad. Healey was born near London in 1917 and raised mainly in Yorkshire, as the Scholarship Boy of a hard working family. After grammar school, he gained a double first at Oxford, spent a brief period as a starry-eyed young Communist, and went on to serve in the British Army during the Second World War. At Anzio, a graduate course for those who survived it, he was Military Landing Officer for the British assault brigade. His experiences in the frustrating Italian campaign, a grim education in the art of the possible, translated readily to postwar British politics. After six years as the Labour Party's International Secretary, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Leeds in 1952, and served for 35 years on Labour's Front Bench both in power and out. In Government he was both Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in Opposition he was Shadow Foreign Secretary. Whatever the post, he showed such conspicuous ability that many still wonder why he was never Prime Minister, but the best answer is probably the most obvious: though he had the common touch, his superiorities were too striking. Among them was a wide range of learning, worn without pretension but not easily emulated.