Denis Healey, a dexterous British socialist politician who used leadership positions to downsize his country’s empire by militarily retreating from Asia in the 1960s and accepting harsh terms for an international loan in the 1970s, died on Saturday at his home in Alfriston, Sussex. He was 98.
His family announced the death.
Lord Healey brought a fierce intellect and combative style to helping Britain map a more modest global strategy in the quarter-century after World War II.
As secretary of state for defense from 1964 to 1970, he slashed Britain’s military budget and closed most of its bases east of the Suez Canal. As chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979, he addressed raging inflation, a weakening pound and economic chaos by turning to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan in 1976.
The fund set tough criteria for reining in public spending, infuriating fellow Labour Party members who felt their own government was caving in to international capitalists to save the pound from collapse.
Lord Healey’s wage restraints were salt in the wounds, and in later years he felt that the Treasury had exaggerated the size of the problem.
A heavily built, tall man with bushy eyebrows, Baron Healey of Riddlesden, as he became known in 1992, was known for his articulate pugnacity. He once called himself “a bit of a thug,” and proved it by likening an attack by the Conservative politician Geoffrey Howe to being “savaged by a dead sheep.” (Politicians puzzled for years over what such an onslaught might involve.)
The press called Lord Healey a bully, bruiser and brawler. A victim once said that he “could not see a belt without hitting below it.”
In spite of these qualities — or perhaps because of them — he was a longtime star of his party. He served as deputy leader, and he lost races to become leader in 1976 and in 1980, when he lost to Michael Foot by only 10 votes. Edward Pearce, in his 2002 book, “Denis Healey: A Life in Our Times,” called him “the Labour Party’s in-house intellectual, a sort of cerebral handyman.”
Indeed, Lord Healey was often hailed as “the best prime minister we never had.”
On Saturday, as news of his death spread, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said: “We’ve lost a huge figure of postwar politics.” Mr. Healey, he said, “told his party hard truths about Britain having to live within her means.”
The current Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called Mr. Healey “a Labour giant whose record of service to party and country stands as his testament.” Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, praises him as a “towering intellect.”
Denis Winston Healey, whose middle name honors Winston Churchill, was born on Aug. 30, 1917, in Mottingham, southeast London, then a part of Kent, but moved with his family to Yorkshire at the age of 5. He went to Balliol College at the University of Oxford, where he joined the Communist Party in 1937 because he liked its stand against Hitler. He was also chairman of the Labour Club, and graduated with highest honors in classics and philosophy.
He left the Communist Party after the fall of France in 1940. That year he was drafted into the British Army and served in the Royal Engineers. He rose to the rank of major, fought in campaigns in Sicily and Italy, and taught himself good Italian. He was the “beachmaster” in charge of landing British troops at Anzio.
In 1945, he ran for Parliament and lost. That year he also married Edna May Edmunds. She died in 2010. His survivors include two daughters, Cressida and Jenny, and a son, Tim.
After his defeat, he became an official in the Labour Party, helping set foreign policy positions. In 1952 he won a seat in Parliament from Leeds, which he represented for 40 years before joining the House of Lords in 1992. He allied himself with the moderate wing of his party against leftists grouped around Aneurin Bevan and Tony Benn.
When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, he appointed Lord Healey to the defense job. He unified the three armed services within the defense ministry, canceled new weapons and introduced tighter civilian controls in the manner of Robert S. McNamara, then the United States defense secretary and Lord Healey’s friend.
Critics on the left assailed his support of the Vietnam War and opposition to the use of force in the breakaway colony of Rhodesia. They also castigated his strong support for Britain’s remaining a nuclear power, even as it retrenched globally. (In the last years of his life, Lord Healey said Britain no longer had use for the bomb.)
After Labour lost in the 1970 general election, Lord Healey served as his party’s spokesman on defense, a position called “shadow secretary.” He then served as “shadow chancellor.”
When Labour won in 1974, Prime Minister Wilson named him chancellor. After Mr. Wilson resigned in 1976, Lord Healey ran for his party’s leadership but was defeated by James Callaghan, who automatically became prime minister. Lord Healey continued as chancellor under Mr. Callaghan.
Lord Healey again ran for the Labour leadership post in 1980 but was defeated by Michael Foot, 139 to 129.
Lord Healey always insisted that he did not mind not reaching the political summit, saying he wanted to do something rather than be something. He was later deputy party leader and shadow foreign secretary, and was credited with helping to hold his party together at a time of struggle against fragmentation. In 1994, he was an early supporter of Tony Blair to become leader of the Labour Party after the death of John Smith.
He generated international headlines in 1983 when Britain and Argentina were fighting over the Falkland Islands by saying that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “glories in slaughter” and that she had “wrapped herself in the Union Jack, exploiting the sacrifices of our troops.”
Lord Healey’s wit, particularly when directed against Mrs. Thatcher, tickled British politicians. In 1987, Julian Critchley, a Conservative member of Parliament, told The New York Times, “His diatribes against Margaret and his use of ridicule have really given pleasure to thousands, not least the government frontbench, all of whom used to sit there smirking like mad, trying not to show they were enjoying it.”
In later years, he enjoyed photography and devoted time to the piano and to crime fiction. In a 2012 interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said he swam 20 pool lengths a day in the summertime and missed his wife “very much indeed.”
He was an intellectual in politics who did not always hold his tongue, and who was never a great favorite of the Labour left. “I don’t think it’s so much that I’m tooclever by half, as has been said about some politicians,” he once said. “I think that’s it sometimes that I do say what I think without calculating the consequences, and this is very damaging for a politician.”
Lord Healey used humor to make precise points, but his most famous line described all too many situations. What he called “Healey’s First Law of Holes” advises, “When in one, stop digging.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated one of Lord Healey’s accomplishments as Britain’s secretary of state for defense. He closed most of the country’s military bases east of the Suez Canal, not all of them.