LONDON, JUNE 26 -- After more than 20 years as a Cabinet minister and senior spokesman for the Labor Party, Denis Healey today gave his final parliamentary speech as a member of Labor's front bench team.
Healey, 69, said he would continue in Parliament, serving his constituency of Leeds East, which first elected him 25 years ago and voted him in again during the recent general election here. But, he said, he was leaving the job of shadow foreign secretary he has held for the past seven years to make room for a younger man.
"I shall be 74 or 75 when the next election takes place," he said today, "and I think it's very important that my successor . . . has a chance to play himself in and make his qualities known to the country."
One of Britain's most senior statesmen and politicians, and several times a candidate for Labor Party leadership, Healey is known for his debating skills -- as well as for his trademark bushy eyebrows that seem raised perpetually in surprise. The eyebrows are a feature he shared with former British ambassador to Washington Oliver Wright, causing President Reagan last winter to greet the visiting Labor politician by saying, "Good to see you again, Mr. Ambassador."
Reagan was considered lucky not to be stung by one of Healey's famous epithets. In recent years, he has referred to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as "Rhoda the Rhino." He compared being criticized by Thatcher's soft-spoken and sometimes mumbling foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, to being "savaged by a dead sheep."
Healey had made no secret of his wish to end his career as foreign secretary for a Labor government, a prospect that was dashed two weeks ago when Thatcher was reelected for a third term.
He had several of the top jobs in his own party, including serving as defense secretary under Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970, and chancellor of the exchequer from 1974 to 1979 under Wilson and James Callaghan.
In a broadcast interview today, Healey said the defense job was "the thing I enjoyed most." A strong opponent of the war in Vietnam, Healey said today he was "particularly proud that we won a very difficult war in the Far East in Borneo" during his tenure, "and that I insisted we never once dropped a bomb from an airplane. . . A few hundred miles away, the Americans plastered Vietnam with napalm and all sorts of horrible things, and of course, they were defeated."
But on most issues, Healey is on the "soft left," or right wing of the Labor Party. He was a strong supporter of NATO, and its nuclear deterrent, an issue that caused him to publicly criticize his own party's unilateral disarmament stance in 1983.
Labor proposed the same disarmament policy during the most recent election campaign. But, although Healey was known to disagree with it, he remained silent.