THE TIME OF MY LIFE

By Denis Healey

Norton. 607 pp. $29.95

DENIS WINSTON HEALEY (yes, though essentially Irish working-class in background, an admiring father gave him that middle name in the last year of World War I) is a regular guy, both as a party politician and a knockabout public entertainer, roles in which he admires himself with good reason and characteristic bonhomie. He is the Old Faithful of the Labor Party, a survivor of all its splits and stupidities through what he calls "the years of disunity, extremism, crankiness and unfitness to govern." If Labor was ever what Harold Wilson called "the party of government" Healey was one of the obvious figures to put in its shop-window.

Seasoned by almost 40 years in the House of Commons and long service as minister of defense, chancellor of the exchequer and deputy leader of the party, Healey is a man of combative loyalty, much political intelligence and dedicated energy, besides being a good photographer, a watercolor painter, a poetry buff, a decent pianist, a man who enjoys his family life and a stage-comic manque. There are not many men in British public life who can remind you both of Talleyrand, the greatest of all survivors, and George Robey, the darling of the music-halls. No other cabinet minister, I am sure, has ever been given a riotous initiation into the Order Against Political Pomposity at the bucolic Aachen Festival or played the Wizard of Oz in a television pantomime. "I have enjoyed making a fool of myself on television with comedians," Healey writes, and only the other night I saw him laughing his head off in the camp Dame Edna show.

Too pleased with himself by half is what Healey's critics say, and point to the name-dropping that parades Healey's chumminess with the great, the good and the cultured -- an irritating trait that produces lists of politicians, journalists and performers largely unknown to American readers. Yet he is entitled to more than a touch of self-satisfaction in an autobiography that records a long and public-spirited career in a party that has never trusted clever men and has often preferred his gift for vituperation to his moderate policies.

For Healey is a clever man. A scholarship took him from a Yorkshire grammar school to Balliol, the Oxford college renowned as a political nursery (for him, like many other students of his generation, the apprenticeship in the '30s included a brief fling in the Communist Party). Ending six years of a fairly tough war in Italy as a major he spent the next six as international secretary of the Labor Party, which was tough in a different way. The socialist movement in Europe was in ruins, and the Cold War made things worse, with some parties split about working with the Communists and others, in Eastern Europe, forced into fusing with them. Healey was in the thick of those fights, as a party official at Transport House (the party headquarters), and as a coherent opponent of what was loosely called "a socialist foreign policy," a kind of neutralist middle-way between Washington and Moscow that eventually flowered into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Standing firmly, with many American friends, for the American connection, Healey long suffered the slings and arrows of the anti-American left, and that stance was one reason why he so narrowly failed to become Labor's leader when the party swung so disastrously to the left 10 years ago. The serious core of this book is his insider's account of the origins of the Cold War, the emergence of NATO, the problems of nuclear strategy and the unification of Europe.

On nuclear policy and Europe, however, Healey has been less consistent, and possibly more anxious to find a footing on the shifting sands of Labor foreign policy. He can be disarmingly frank in some confessions of error, especially on the financial policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, and it is hard to say whether and when he wanted Britain to be washed into the Common Market.

He differs of course, from most of his colleagues in the Labor leadership because he is, as he admits, a loner, a very gregarious loner, one might say, but certainly a man who has held back from the cliques that thrive on party intrigue and in-fighting. He has been a good member of Parliament, served for a time on the party's executive, fought his corner in conferences as well as cabinets, but he never built a power base in the organization. That can be a strength in a minister, backed by his official machine, but it can be a handicap when it comes to party positions and policies.

But in this respect the image is pretty much the man. "I always wanted to do something rather than to be something," Healey says, and the grind of useful work has always seemed to attract him more than the search for power or money. The spoils of office he most obviously appreciated was foreign travel, no matter how far, how often or how tiring. And in the process the backroom boy from Transport House grew into a genuine world statesman, inspired by straightford and honorable motives. He chooses the words of the Polish radical philosopher Lesjek Kolakowski to express them well. "Democratic Socialism," Kolakowksi writes, "has no prescription for the total salvation of mankind," only a "commitment to a number of basic values, hard knowledge and rational calculation . . . an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produces avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and irrational envy."

Progress, in short, consists in decent approximations. That would be as an epigraph for this autobiography. It would also do as an epitaph for the lively and constructive life it describes.

Norman MacKenzie, emeritus professor of the University of Sussex, is the author of biographies of Dickens, Wells and the Fabian Socialists.