Lessons from Denis Healey’s tenure as Secretary of State for Defence in the 1960s

The similarities with the Labour government of 1964 and a potential Labour government of 2024 are hard to overstate, especially when it comes to defence – the shadow defence secretaries in the lead up to both elections even share the same surname.

When Denis Healey became the Secretary of State for Defence in 1964, he faced an imposing task. Labour was coming to power after over a decade in opposition, the world was increasingly unpredictable, and Britain’s finances were in a poor state. Denis Healey would stay in his position for 6 years, and by the end of his tenure, Britain’s armed forces were economically sustainable and more suited to the key tasks at hand. That Labour in the 1960s was able successfully to manage the UK’s defence needs under such pressing conditions is a remarkable achievement, and one which a potential Labour government of 2024 should look to learn from. Outlined below are four key lessons from 1964-1970:

The battle starts at home

Key to any successful defence secretary is the ability to manage inter-departmental and inter-service rivalries. Defence in the UK has been starved of funding over the 2010s. Securing as much funding from the Treasury as possible is important, but this requires a convincing narrative on the return on investment. That Russia’s war against Ukraine and a more assertive China have not been able to fully convince the Treasury of the need for more defence investment shows how difficult this task can be. As Denis Healey said in his memoir, the Treasury ‘Seemed to know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. In addition to taking the case to the Treasury, managing inter-service arguments between the Army, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will be needed. Thankfully these rivalries are far less intense than they were in the 1960s, but finding ways of managing divisions (usually over procurement) as Healey did, will be needed.

Making the most of a tight budget

During Denis Healey’s time, owing to the UK’s relative economic decline (and recurring Sterling crises), defence spending was reduced from over 7% of GDP to under 5%. As in 1964 the nation’s finances today are in a poor state, but to a lesser extent. The UK currently spends around 2.1% of GDP on defence, with an ambition to raise it to 2.5% given the deteriorating global security situation, in reality the uplift should be even greater. However, despite some more money coming to the defence budget, a defence secretary will still face tough choices due to limited resources. Denis Healey was able to squeeze maximum value from his budget through tough but rational economising. Several expensive programmes were cancelled (such as the TSR2 aircraft), cost-effective alternatives were chosen (such as the Hercules aircraft), and multinational projects were explored (such as the Jaguar aircraft). A future defence secretary should not be afraid of cancelling projects that run over budget, exploring cheaper alternatives, and pursuing collaboration wherever possible (such as through AUKUS and GCAP).

Understand geopolitics to establish priorities

Denis Healey had an ability to see clearly what mattered most to national security and where the military was best employed. He is perhaps most widely known for his part in Britain’s withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’, which better allowed for the focusing of limited resources on the UK’s interests in Europe, where threats were more severe. Healey correctly understood that with the home islands under threat, military strength had to be focused on deterring the Soviet Union. However, Healey also understood the importance of the Indo-Pacific to Britain, saying hebelieved that our contribution to stability in the Middle and Far East was more useful to world peace than our contribution to NATO’ and that it was right and possible to maintain a presence in the region; it was only a continually deteriorating financial position that changed the situation. Similarly, a future Labour government should realise that Russia is in fact weaker than it was two years ago (let alone compared to the 1960s) and that, although continuing support for Ukraine is absolutely vital (as is managing the maritime threat from Russia), the greatest test to national security will come in the Indo-Pacific. A war in that region involving China would be catastrophic for world peace and prosperity, and a Labour government should do whatever it can to help deter Chinese aggression.

Build up experience of military matters

Denis Healey was helped in his work in that he had direct military experience from the Second World War. He built on this by throwing himself into the deep end of defence issues, constantly visiting deployed forces and seeking the opportunity to discuss affairs with experts and foreign militaries. Any future Labour defence secretary should not only seek to understand military affairs through regular discussions with experts, but to also see first hand how military work is conducted. This will take up a good deal of that most precious commodity, time, but its value cannot be overstated.

The national security situation facing a potential Labour government in 2024 is indeed daunting, but there are similarities and lessons to be learnt from one Healey to another which can help enable a successful and cost-effective response.


For more on Labour Party history, see Lord Roger Liddle’s Review: Richard Toye’s Age of Hope.