Labour's lost leader

Hugh Gaitskell
October 4, 1996

Brian Brivati's biography of Hugh Gaitskell is a major work of scholarship that is both readable and informative and covers the personal character of his subject as well as his political work.

Richard Cohen is to be congratulated on having commissioned this book which will remain a major source for those who want to study the life of one of the most interesting political leaders of the postwar Labour party.

When Stafford Cripps resigned as MP for Bristol South East and chancellor of the exchequer in 1950, Hugh Gaitskell went to the Treasury and I succeeded Stafford in Bristol.

From then until he died, I got to know Hugh quite well without ever having been a confidant in his inner party political campaigns or a regular member of the Hampstead set.

Gaitskell's first Budget in 1951, which took Britain into a major rearmament programme that we could not afford and did not need, triggered the resignations of Nye Bevan and Wilson and launched the party into a period of great division which lasted until 1957 when Gaitskell and Bevan were reconciled.

During those years, the bitterness among the Gaitskellites against the Bevanites was deep and personal and it cost the party a lot of public support which kept us out of office until Wilson led a reconciled party to victory in 1964.

Looking back on the arguments over the cold war, it is now possible to see how USpressure was used to persuade us that the Soviet Union planned to invade Western Europe and justified enormous military budgets and the nuclear rearmament programme.

In retrospect, Bevan's opposition to the 1951 Budget cuts in welfare to pay for those programmes was right. We could not afford it and it led to the denial of necessary investment to re-equip British manufacturing industry after the war, quite apart from launching us into McCarthyite witch hunts against those who opposed these policies and leading them to be branded as communists, fellow-travellers and sometimes KGB agents.

But since we now know that the Russian army has been unable to exert control over Chechnya, it is unlikely that it could have overrun the massed forces of Nato. Nor, indeed is there any evidence that the Russians intended to attack the West.

Although Gaitskell's 1960 conference speech in support of the atom bomb, pledging himself to "Fight and fight and fight again", is seen as central to his career, it was, in my judgement, quite wrong in the contempt it showed for those in the party who, following the Keir Hardie and George Lansbury tradition, believed in peace and thought that the existence of nuclear weapons, let alone the threat of their use, was a crime against humanity.

Gaitskell played a very courageous and positive role during the Suez war, within a year of his election to succeed Clem Attlee, and his speeches in the Commons reflected his deep passion for international policies, based on the UN Charter, in marked contrast to the weak and flabby response of the more recent Labour leadership towards the Falklands and Gulf wars.

My own connection with Gaitskell over these years was principally as his adviser on broadcasting, which brought me into very close contact with him and led to my being included in his campaign team for the 1959 election where Labour seemed to be doing very well until Gaitskell gave a pledge that if Labour was elected, there would be no increase in income tax.

That announcement, coupled with an unwise suggestion by Harold Wilson that purchase tax would not be increased either and the suggestion that all the necessary improvements in public services would be paid out of increased economic growth, destroyed, at a stroke, the credibility of the policy and the morale of the party.

Soon afterwards, Gaitskell launched into his campaign to reform Clause Four and as a newly elected member of the National Executive, I was present when that attempt failed early in 1960.

It is common now to imagine that this was an early example of the "modernisation" fever which has now gripped the Labour leadership. But rereading Gaitskell's alternative draft, it can be seen to be well to the left of anything that New Labour is offering. And although it was presented to the 1960 party conference, it was hardly ever referred to again.

Indeed, on Wilson's first day as leader, after the tragic death of Gaitskell in early 1963, he was asked in the House of Commons by a Tory MP whether he supported Clause Four and replied "Yes", and put an end to that sterile controversy until it reappeared as part of some ritual slaughter that was thought necessary two years ago.

Gaitskell's other significant contribution was to speak out strongly against British membership of the EEC. He did it from a deep commitment to the Commonwealth which united the party, apart from a handful of Eurofanatics, one of whom, Roy Jenkins, Gaitskell once during a conversation with me, called "an extremist" - a word which gave me much pleasure.

Brivati also adds the personal dimension which Nye Bevan, who saw Gaitskell as a "desiccated calculating machine", may not have realised - namely that he was a kindly, sociable, amusing and altogether charming person to know with a real feel for life that attracted the people who may never have agreed with his rather prickly and academic form of argumentation.

It was these personal qualities that attracted passionate loyalty among his immediate circle and inspired many others to see in him one of the greatest leaders for the 1960s and 1970s that lay ahead. The Gaitskellites, like the Bevanites and the Thatcherites, still have an influence on the shape of British politics.

Now that we are on the eve of a likely Labour Government under a leadership that has chosen explicitly and specifically to distance itself from both the trade unions and the rich inheritance of socialist thought, it may be tempting to suppose that years after his death, the Gaitskellites, are entering into their inheritance. But I believe that would be a profound mistake since Gaitskell worked very closely with the trade unions and used their bloc votes to overwhelm the individual members of the party who then numbered far more than now.

And he was a socialist who believed in equality and who, in 1945, speaking in the House of Commons on Churchill's first motion of censure against the Labour Government, drew a sharp distinction between Labour MPs and their Tory opponents. "We believe, for example," said the young Gaitskell, "that the present capitalist system is inefficient, that it produces insecurity and that it is unjust. Can anyone deny those things?" He could not have put it more clearly and now, when Keynes is seen as old hat and market forces are worshipped on a global scale, these words resound with a new relevance.

It is impossible to forecast what would have happened if Gaitskell had lived to become prime minister, though there is no doubt that he was a principled man inspired by a genuine passion for social justice.

But those who dream of what might have been should never underestimate the achievements of the man who succeeded him. Wilson carried a united party to victory on four occasions and left some really formidable achievements behind him that are now being treated with contempt as a mere "tax and spend" era, implying that Wilson was reckless over public expenditure.

It is for that reason that although Gaitskell mistrusted Wilson, he would never have gone along with the repudiation of the achievements of past Labour governments which is now the common currency of New Labour.

Nor, I feel sure, would he ever have countenanced the systematic character assassination of Wilson which is now in progress.

As we move into the new millennium the globalisation of capital threatens the existence of democracy itself, allowing the bankers and speculators to dictate to elected governments while the gap between rich and poor gets wider and wider and the social fabric of individual societies is increasingly shattered.

It is inconceivable that Britain or any other country could accept a political party structure that offered no choice of social or economic transformation.

It was the ideas of socialism which challenged the two-party system that existed in Victorian Britain and gave working men and women a choice through the Labour party.

Those voices will still be needed, worldwide, in a new form of internationalism if we are to avert the disaster that monetarism could bring.

And when that awareness, now increasingly shared at the grassroots, finally penetrates the leadership of the Labour party, Gaitskell might still re-emerge as an advocate of full employment, planning and social justice that could put him at risk in the eyes of the spin doctors.

Hugh Gaitskell was a formidable leader with a sharp mind and a genuine kindness of nature. His memory needs to be preserved and he is fortunate to have had such an able biographer and such an imaginative publisher who have brought out this important book at such a relevant time.

The Rt Hon Tony Benn is MP for Chesterfield.

Hugh Gaitskell: A Biography

Author - Brian Brivati
ISBN - 1 86066 073 8
Publisher - Richard Cohen
Price - £25.00
Pages - 492

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