From The Socialist Register 1980, pp.148-169.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF file from the Socialist Register Website.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The British Labour Party, since its early days, has always been a party of social reform whose ideas and policies have been largely articulated within a socialist rhetoric. There are certain crucial differences, at least in theory, between a party of social reform and a reformist socialist party. The former, whatever its social basis, may be defined as a party within a political democracy whose aims and purposes are the introduction of social reform into the existing structure of capitalist society; and whose objectives in no way challenge the fundamental property relationships of that society. A reformist socialist party, by contrast, is one whose long-term perspectives are the transformation of capitalism into one or other versions of a socialist society, to be accomplished through the steady modification of existing institutions, and by parliamentary means. The rhetoric and terminology of reformist parties are socialist; their practice is invariably moderate, involving piecemeal social change. These reformist socialist parties always have a Right, Centre and Left within their organisations, and it is, of course, the Left which will especially emphasise the long-term objectives of a socialist transformation. On these definitions the British Labour Party, once it adopted the Constitution of 1918, has been a reformist socialist party whose practice in and out of office has been discrete social reform.
Those who established the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 – which became the Labour Party in 1906 – inherited a body of ideas which were the Fabian version of liberal collectivism. The crucial assumptions may be summarised as the use of state power to remedy social injustice and, as far as practicable, social inequality; a neutral theory of the State which involved a passionate belief in the primacy of Parliament, and in the possibilities of absolute control by a working-class party once an electoral majority was assured; a firm conviction that there were ‘rules of the game’ to which all responsible political parties would adhere. For those who were the architects of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century, whatever their particular commitment to any particular version of socialist doctrine, a parliamentary majority equalled state power; and the history of the widening political democracy in Britain before 1900 was for them ample justification for their argument.
The basic assumption about political behaviour has always been the firm conviction that political parties will play the parliamentary game according to its traditional rules; and this is interpreted to mean that Conservatives will accept the will of the majority at a general election, and will not seek to subvert that will. But the thesis went further in the belief that there were no forces in society that would be able to withstand effective political control emanating from a majority government at Westminster. C.R. Attlee, leader of the Labour Party between 1935 and 1955, made explicit these ideas in a book written in 1937: his most radical political years, it may be noted:
The Labour Party opposes Government policy, and seeks to convert the country to its point of view, but it does not carry on a campaign of resistance, passive or active, to hinder the ordinary functions of government being carried on. It accepts the will of the majority, which has decided that the country shall be governed by a Capitalist government, and it expects its opponents to do the same when it is returned to power. 
There are certain corollaries of this general thesis that need emphasis. The argument embodies the assurance that since real power resides in those who control Parliament, the owners of economic wealth and strength can either be legislated out of existence, or effectively curbed and regulated. It follows, if these things are true, that there is no basis for the concept of class struggle as in any way central to the dynamics of capitalist society. ‘Interests’ there are, of course; and many such interests will be so selfishly motivated that only the most stringent management and administration will curtail their anti-social effects. But this is far from any comprehension of the meaning of class struggle; and it has always, therefore, been possible for the Labour Party, and more particularly, the Labour Party leadership to think and talk and act in terms of national interest rather than in terms of working-class or socialist interest. And this approach – the concept of national interest – has found expression in many different ways, from the explicit statements of Ramsay Macdonald on the eve of the first minority Labour Government in 1924 to Attlee’s return from Potsdam in 1945, when he recalled ‘that our American friends were surprised to find that there was no change in our official advisers, and that I had taken over with me [as my Private Secretary] Leslie Rowan, who had served Churchill in the same capacity’. 
There are two other consequences of the ‘national interest’ approach that need emphasis One, the supposed neutrality of the civil service, has already been suggested. The other, the identification of Labour leadership with the Conservatives over matters of foreign policy, is of great importance and significance, and establishes the limitations of the social parameters within which a Labour administration allows itself to operate. The conflict over appeasement towards the Fascist powers in the 1930s temporarily obscured what had already been an agreement over fundamentals before 1933; and it was during and after the Second World War that the acceptance of consensus in foreign affairs began to be taken for granted. After 1945, for a number of additional reasons this meant a position of subservience to the demands of American foreign policy, and although the reformist left wing of the Labour Party has usually had a different approach and stance, it has rarely been influential as a pressure group, and never effective against the basic conformity of the Labour leadership with Conservative assumptions and policies. There have been certain exceptions – the important matter of Indian independence is one – but in no area of parliamentary politics is the impact of socialist rhetoric so feeble as it is in foreign affairs; and in no period has this been so striking as the last 20 years.
The most important achievement of British labour in the twentieth century, now rapidly being undermined by the Thatcher Government, was the progressive incorporation of welfare policies into social life. The political strength, density and cohesiveness of the propertied classes in Britain have always been so powerful that advances in social welfare have come about only after intense political struggles; and the bitterness of the conflict has led many outside the Labour Party, as well as those within its ranks, to exaggerate what in practice has been obtained. Social welfare is quite commonly identified with socialism, and this supposed correspondence has been much fostered by successive Labour leaderships. What is remarkable here is the poverty of social-democratic theory in this, as in other contexts, and equally remarkable has been the failure of the Left, within and without the Labour Party, to offer a popular alternative: popular in the sense of its penetration into popular consciousness.
The leadership of the British Labour Party has undergone interesting, indeed significant changes in its social composition over the past eighty years. The Party emerged in the early years of the twentieth century out of the political alliance of the trade unions with numerically small groups of socialists; and it was the socialists who largely engineered the break with liberalism and the Liberal Party. Their support in the country at large was working-class and most of the leaders were of working-class origin, as were the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party down to the Second World War. Within the Parliamentary Labour Party there has taken place, however, a gradual shift towards an increasingly influential middle-class stratum, professionally or university educated; and the change has been especially marked since 1945. It is not argued here that social origins are more than one factor in a constellation of complex forces determining political attitudes, or the balance of political forces within a Party of the Left. But life styles, and their changes over time, are not unimportant, and in the case of the subject of this present essay – Hugh Gaitskell – we have one of the more extreme examples of a Labour politician whose origins were far removed from the working people his Party was in existence to represent, and whose own upper-middle-class life style was in no way altered throughout his adult years.
The recent biography of Hugh Gaitskell by Philip Williams provides the opportunity for a re-appraisal. The work has been executed on a massive scale: 787 pages of text with another 212 pages of notes and index; and whatever the merits or otherwise of the volume, it offers an immense quarry for future research workers into the history of the Labour Party in the middle decades of the twentieth century. 
Gaitskell had almost no experience of the life of the Labour Party at its local levels, or of the wider movement in general. In this he was similar to Wilson, and unlike all the Labour Party leaders who preceded him: Keir Hardie, Ramsay Macdonald, Lansbury and Attlee. His father was an Indian civil servant, working mostly in Burma, and the family had a long tradition of service in the army. Gaitskell was educated at an upperclass prep school in Oxford, and then went to Winchester, a haven for the sons of the professional upper middle class which was supposed to be somewhat more intellectual than the general run of public schools. Winchester’s impact on Gaitskell, according to his own account, was emotionally and intellectually stultifying. A good deal later in life Gaitskell wrote to his daughter Julia about the transition from the smothered atmosphere of Winchester to the heavenly freedom of Oxford: ‘The great thing for me was the flowering of intellect and personality – much repressed at Winchester. Feeling oneself developing was exciting – and also getting rid of a lot of adolescent shames.’ 
It is necessary to listen to the tone of Gaitskell’s phrasing as well as to his actual words He remained to a notable degree within an undergraduate vocabulary and intonation for the rest of his life. ‘Heavenly freedom’ was his phrase in 1959, four years before his death; and like so many among the British upper classes, he was marked by his school and university experiences to a quite extraordinary extent. Gaitskell’s school career had been fairly undistinguished – the phrasing is that used by the public schools about their pupils – and in the closed circle of ex-public school boys in Britain, school careers have never been unimportant. Here is Philip Williams, discussing the relations between R.H.S. Crossman and Gaitskell in adult life, in terms that in most countries would be regarded as no more than adolescent chat, but which in his biography are presented as matters of fact; and which presumably are meant to be taken seriously: ‘Crossman too was a Wykehamist: indeed their relationship was always warped, as Crossman (typically) recognised, by his own far more glittering record at the school.’ 
Gaitskell’s career at Oxford was interesting, not because his contemporaries thought him outstanding in any way, which they did not – he was academically quite good and got a First – but from the style of his life there. ‘Oxford in the middle twenties’ he wrote in 1959:
was gay, frivolous, stimulating and tremendously alive – it was a brief blessed interval when the lives of the young were neither overshadowed by the consequences of the last war nor dominated by the fear of a future one. Most of us sighed with relief and settled down to the business of enjoying ourselves. 
There is a revealing passage in Williams, again told straight, which is instructive not only about Gaitskell but about university life at Oxford in these years. In his first term Gaitskell went for elementary economics tutorials to Lionel Robbins, then a very young tutor. Williams got the story from Robbins. ‘He would sit on Robbins’ sofa reddening with suppressed mirth at the mild impertinences of his Australian fellow pupil until his decorous Wykehamist reticence broke down in peals of helpless laughter.’  In other words, in his nineteenth year, still a giggling schoolboy. He was never, in his Oxford years, seriously interested in ideas; he had no time for undergraduate or, except occasionally, for national politics; he made what was regarded in the intellectual backwater that Oxford was in the inter-war years – at least in the social sciences – the ‘adventurous choice’ of Modern Greats (i.e. PPE: Philosophy, Politics and Economics); he moved occasionally ‘on the fringes of a homosexual set whose tastes were then quite prevalent among the aesthetics’  and altogether he ‘spent much more time with girls than most undergraduates did’, but many years later he ‘sharply denied having been a ladyliller’.  It is not clear whether ‘ladykiller’ is Gaitskell’s word or a description by Williams. The former is more likely, for Gaitskell never appears to have moved beyond a callow appreciation of himself, and he seems to have had an unfortunate habit for summing himself up in clichés. A few years before his death, when he was in his early fifties, he wrote to a correspondent: ‘To thine own self be true was the great creed of my developing phase at Oxford. And I still believe it is the most important thing of all.’  ‘To thine own self be true’: as canting a phrase as the ‘integrity’ which Williams scatters through many pages.
It is difficult to discover what intellectual influences played upon Gaitskell in his Oxford years. Housman was a favourite poet; Proust, and the inevitable Lawrence, were among his admired authors; when he was secretary of his College play-reading society ‘he broke with custom by bringing in modern authors like Ibsen and Strindberg’ – a nice touch of Oxford parochialism, Ibsen having been first played in London in the late 1880s, and Shaw having written The Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891. In his second year at Oxford Gaitskell began to read some socialist theory which, except for half of volume one of Capital – which half is not noted – was in the British Fabian tradition: Dalton, Tawney, the Webbs and J.A. Hobson. Presumably a reading of this kind of literature was encouraged by the choice of his degree, and he must have begun to think about social questions; for the turning point in Gaitskell’s career came at the time of the 1926 General Strike, when he took a decision that went against the stream: he supported the strike.
This decision, of course, is of the greatest interest to the historian, for it led to changes which affected the whole future life of Gaitskell. How did it come about that the repressed adolescent from Winchester took this quite momentous step out of his own class background? We are told that already during his first summer vacation he was showing signs of challenging certain traditional values, and there are other, quite minor, pieces of evidence which point in the same direction; but the question is not really confronted by his biographer. One must not, however, make too much of a mystery of the affair. It only needed a modicum of decency to overcome the accretions of class prejudice and refuse support to the hard-faced mine-owners and their ministerial supporters; and at the same time, it is necessary to note the limitations of Gaitskell’s own support for the strike. He thought the miners were being badly treated by the Government, and he continued to collect money during the lock-out which followed the ending of the General Strike. But intellectually, as against his political commitment, the Strike does not seem to have made much difference to him. He admitted – very much later in 1958 – that ‘I did not honestly think a great deal about it. I knew that once the chips were down my part was on the side of the strike. I considered that the Government had behaved badly to the miners and that was that’.  The most important personal, and political, consequence of his support was that it led to the beginning of a close association with G.D.H. Cole. It was the latter’s influence that decided Gaitskell to take the British labour movement as a special subject in his third year. Cole taught it, and this was Gaitskell’s first serious contact with some parts of the past history of the labour movement. One of his undergraduate essays – on Chartism – was later published as a WEA booklet. It is written very much in the Cole tradition of these particular years; less radical, for example, than the Hammonds.
Oxford in the middle twenties; and G.D.H. Cole. One of the remarkable features of British university life in the 1920s was the general absence of anti-war sentiment and feeling, and a prevalence of liberal-conservative politics among the very small minority who were politically-minded. There was certainly a widespread, for the most part inarticulated, pacifist and anti-war mood in the country as a whole – Wertheimer commented on it in his 1929 volume on the Labour Party  but it was not until the late twenties and early thirties that occurred the great outpouring of books, plays and poems with their themes of bitterness, disenchantment and betrayal.  During Gaitskell’s years at Oxford anti-war themes were largely absent; certainly Gaitskell himself left no record of being in any way touched by them, and their absence is a not unimportant face in his intellectual history. As to Cole, the interesting thing about him at the time he became friendly with Gaitskell is that he was in the most reformist phase of his whole political life. Guild socialism had come to an end, and the trauma of 1931 was still in the future. This was the period when Cole was working on the volume which was published in 1929 – The Next Ten Years in British Social and Economic Policy – the most parliamentarian and Fabian of all his political policy statements throughout his career.
In the summer of 1926, then, Gaitskell made what was to become a lifetime commitment to the Labour Party, although no one could have predicted that at the time. There is no evidence that during his Oxford years he was involved in any personal or political experience that could be in any way described as radicalising; and it is interesting that the generation of Oxford socialists who were his contemporaries and who became well-known politicians or theoretical writers, all exhibited the same politically moderate stance as himself. Most of them, like Gaitskell, were certainly influenced by Cole; and these personalities include Colin Clark, E.A. Radice, John Parker, Douglas Jay and Evan Durbin, the last named being probably less persuaded by Cole than any of the others mentioned.
By the time Gaitskell left Oxford he had moved from a non-political liberal conservatism to a moderate labourist approach to political problems. But he was emphatically not a very political person in the way that Crossman was, and this was to remain true for many years afterwards. As a result of Cole’s influence, Gaitskell spent a year as a WEA tutor in Nottinghamshire; and this is made much of in all accounts of his life. This was the time when he was supposed to have come closest to working people; when he taught ‘unemployed miners at Nottingham, whose sufferings he never forgot’. This is Williams, writing on p.767; but Nottingham, as he also told his readers on p.22, ‘was prosperous in 1927-8, and the coalfield was one of the least badly hit’. The miners’ union was among the most politically moderate in the whole country, and in the aftermath of the General Strike it was the centre of the most serious breakaway union from the MFGB, that of George Spencer. Gaitskell in his own lifetime, and Williams in his biography, squeezed as much political capital as possible from this year among the workers, but the reality was somewhat different from the myth that has been allowed to form. Naturally Gaitskell learned something from the social contact with working people he now made for the first time in his life. But how much he learned, and the ways he learned it, and what he thought about his new experiences, need to be carefully examined. He was, it is clear, highly uneducated for the job of tutor to which he had been appointed. The first lecture he gave to a miners’ class was on Saving and Economic Progress: ‘the full classical doctrine in which thrift ... is crucial’. Gaitskell was telling this story in 1952, and confessed he was surprised at what he called his ‘audacity’. We get a remarkable insight into what Gaitskell really thought about this Nottingham year in a letter he wrote on the 9th December 1927 – after he had been in Nottingham for just about two months. Williams quotes the three extracts given below in three different places, and most readers would not know, without a careful search of the footnotes, some 750 pages on, that it is one letter which is being referred to. Which order the extracts come in the actual letter cannot be judged; but they are quoted here in the order in which they appear in the biography. The first is a pleasant example of the, mostly, unconscious paternalism and snobbery of an upper-class Englishman towards the lower orders. The miners, Gaitskell wrote:
the nicest sort of people – indeed I like very much all the working people I have met ... more honest and natural than the Middle Class who are always trying to be something they aren’t and who are never quite sure whether they are saying the right thing.
The second extract is an illustration of his intellectual naivety, and of the narrowness and parochial quality of his Oxford education:
I am very interested in the question of ‘class’. 1 would like to write something on it some time. It’s quite extraordinary how important the thing is as a whole and historically though it does not exactly make my work difficult (sic). But of course meeting so many people who have lived and do live so utterly differently from oneself is peculiar.
And finally, the crunch: what he really felt about Nottingham and why he could not get away quickly enough. This third extract comes in the same letter, let it be said again, written about two months after he had arrived in the town:
I see tremendous danger of stagnating here. I went to London a few days ago. The difference is quite remarkable – there is so much more vigour and better taste and better intelligence and more personality in the atmosphere. 
So by early May – not much more than six months after he had arrived in Nottingham, he had accepted another job. Not for him a commitment of any substance for his lovely miners – the ‘nicest sort of people’. His less ‘honest’ and less ‘natural’ Middle Class friends and acquaintances were pressing him hard to find something more congenial to his own class and education; and when Noel Hall, of University College, London, offered him an assistant lectureship in economics, he took it, on the advice, among others, of Lionel Robbins. But Nottinghamshire, and the suffering miners, remained a most useful reference point. For the future Labour politician it was the answer to the question: ‘And what did you do in the war, Daddy?’!
Gaitskell remained at University College for eleven years. As an economist he was of no more than average ability: W.A. Robson describing him as ‘a nice, ordinary competent economist, we all meet dozens of them’.  Gaitskell was not, from Williams’s account, seriously concerned with the fundamental disagreements that existed among economic theorists during this decade, between the neo-classicists and the Keynesians; and in this unconcern he was following the leading personalities in the economics department of LSE. When Gaitskell first went to University College he attended the LSE lectures of Lionel Robbins, partly to learn something about lecturing techniques, partly to remedy his own intellectual deficiencies in the subject. Robbins was an extremely competent performer at the lectern, and he belonged to the extreme liberal tradition within orthodox economics. His practical politics, expressed mainly in the pages of the Lloyds Bank Review, were in the tradition now accepted by the Thatcher Government, and even Robbins in his autobiography had to refer in mildly disparaging terms to his own practical offerings at this time.  LSE economics was the bulwark of conservatism in the thirties against the heretical views coming from Cambridge. What economic teaching at LSE added up to was an intellectual mish-mash, contributed to by Arnold Plant, T.E. Gregory, Benham and, of course, ‘the most distinguished muddle-head in Europe’, as Keynes once described Friedrich von Hayek. Only a few of the younger tutors, in particular Kaldor and Lerner, seemed to be fully aware of what was happening at Cambridge before the General Theory was published in 1936. Now Williams does not help to situate Gaitskell at all clearly in these doctrinal conflicts, but the impression is that Gaitskell, who was neither very competent in theory, nor very interested, showed no signs of leaning towards Cambridge, and he remained uncritical towards LSE orthodoxy. The matter is by no means unimportant, since it confirms once again his easy acceptance of the ideas and values of his own conservative upbringing except where his direct, and narrow, political concerns were involved. There does not appear to have been any tension arising out of Gaitskell’s acceptance of bourgeois values in general, and his social-reforming propensities; and one must assume that this was the consequence of the character and the nature of Gaitskell’s reformist socialism, which in no way involved the vision of a radically different kind of society. He certainly pursued with vigour the exploration of reforming policies for future Labour governments He became assistant secretary of the New Fabian Research Bureau, established by Cole in March 1931, and he was also chairman of the economics section. With Dalton and Jay he became a member of the XYZ, a select dining club where City sympathisers met for economic and financial discussions with certain of Labour’s top leaders. Like many of his Labour friends, Evan Durbin in particular, Gaitskell was greatly impressed with the experience of Sweden. He was theoretically in favour of an extension of public ownership, equivocal on the subject of workers’ control (which in fact dropped out of the discussion) and like all his Labour colleagues, was increasingly impressed with the supposed growing influence of the Bank of England and the Treasury over the City. The deduction was obvious: nationalise the Bank of England and the basic financial levers of control would be in a Labour government’s hands. By the end of 1936 Gaitskell and Durbin had agreed that provided the Bank was nationalised, the socialisation of the joint stock banks was no longer a necessary condition for a short term programme. What has often been missed in the discussion of the thirties was the effective consolidation and success of the right-wing theorists within the Labour Party. During the previous decade it had been the ILP intellectuals who provided blue-prints such as the Living Wage policies – never used, of course – but after 1931 it was the right wing which produced the ideas that proved lasting. It was not Cole, now returned to a more radical phase, nor Laski, nor the theoreticians of the Socialist League who were to underpin the post-1945 Labour Governments with their socialist theorising, but Dalton and the New Fabian nursery who elaborated the practical policies carried through in the aftermath of the war. It was certainly not obvious before 1939 that Gaitskell would be the most successful politician of the future, but it was the group of which he was a part who articulated the assumptions upon which the Attlee governments were to legislate. The group included George Catlin and Douglas Jay, Evan Durbin and Michael Postan. Both the latter were bitterly anti-communist and anti-Marxist; both were markedly revisionist (of traditionalist socialist theory) and Postan was closely involved in the discussion of the key text which Durbin published in 1938: The Politics of Democratic Socialism. So was Gaitskell, and after the initial wave of social radicalism in the two years or so immediately following the end of the Second World War, it was the ideas of the Dalton group that formed the staple theory of the Parliamentary leadership throughout the 1950s. Gaitskell later summarised the main objectives of the group as they evolved in the second half of the thirties:
They believed in making the economy more efficient; they believed in the possibility of full employment; they believed in social reforms which would gradually undermine the class structure, so that in due course a happier and more socially just society emerged. These were the ideals they held in front of them, and it was in order to advance these that they had gone into politics. 
This was written in 1951, and there is a precision in the statements almost certainly the result of hindsight – the reference to full employment, for example – but in fundamentals this is an adequate summary. What is interesting about Gaitskell in this decade before the wars, however, is not that his economic policies were moderate and cautious – he was concerned about the possible flight of capital in the event of a Labour victory, but he did not think the problem at all insoluble – but that his political attitudes do not seem to have been even mildly radicalised. It has been a common historical phenomenon of the past forty years that many socialists who went through the thirties became at the time much tougher, more radical, in their political ideas and practice while their fundamental philosophy remained unchanged; so that when full employment and welfare policies became normal, it was not difficult to slough off the more militant political postures of the earlier period. Not so with Gaitskell, for whom the thirties was not a radicalising experience at any level. For a couple of years after 1931 he used fairly strong language on the platform, as did almost everyone who had not gone MacDonald’s way; but with Gaitskell this phase did not last long. His Vienna experience was, in this context, quite crucial for an understanding of his personality. He went to Vienna in the autumn of 1933, attached to the university for the whole of the coming academic year. The Nazis had taken power in Germany in the spring of 1933; and Gaitskell was present in Vienna in February 1934 when Dollfuss ordered the attack on the socialist workers’ tenements. Gaitskell acted in an exemplary way in succouring his socialist comrades, but the political effect upon him was to strengthen his support for parliamentary democracy, and to harden him against the political radicalism that was so commonly expressed within the Labour Party at this time. And it was in these years that he declared his total rejection of Marxism; hardly a point worth noting since his interest in the subject had never been more than marginal.
Before he went to Vienna he had become Labour candidate for Chatham. He was adopted in 1932, was a good candidate and effective campaigner, and polled reasonably well in the general election of 1935. He decided not to stand again for Chatham, and in 1937 rather reluctantly accepted an offer from South Leeds. His reluctance was because ‘he had intended to concentrate on academic work and drop politics for the time being’  – an instructive comment for the year before Munich, and for a future leader of the Labour Party. But he was still not a political sort of person. This biography by Williams is massive, and nothing Gaitskell was concerned with, or interested in, is likely to have been missed. So when the very detailed index has no reference to any of the Hunger Marches (not even to Ellen Wilkinson’s Jarrow march) or to the Left Book Club, or to George Orwell, or to John Boyd Orr or Dr. McGonigle, it must be assumed that these were not matters or events or personalities that greatly concerned him. There is one reference, and one reference only, to the Spanish Civil War where in a private letter Gaitskell expressed his anger against the Chamberlain Government; and unlike his close friend Evan Durbin he was unequivocally against Munich.
He remained, then, down to the outbreak of war, what he had been since his Oxford days: a collectivist liberal who like so many of his generation saw the Labour Party as the only political force capable of effecting radical social reform. Beatrice Webb, whose political evaluations and prophecies were by no means consistent or correct, seems to have got some things at least right about Gaitskell, following a visit from him to the Webbs in February 1936:
[He] is said to be one of the rising young men in the socialist movement. Like Durbin he is fat and self-complacent; clever, no doubt, but not attractive; like Durbin, he is contemptuous of Cripps and a follower of Morrison and Dalton, and, I think, he is anti-communist ... Gaitskell altogether demurs to our view that the younger generation are going definitely communist ... The Trade Union Movement is today, he thought, stale-mated as a progressive force in Great Britain as it is in the USA ... With a mass of unemployed, strikes are of no avail. Political action of a reformist character – including municipal administration, was the one and only way according to Gaitskell: he was in fact an orthodox Fabian of the old pre-war school. What is wrong about this group of clever and well meaning intellectuals ... is the comfort and freedom of their own lives; they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by the peaceful continuance of capitalist civilisation. 
Gaitskell became a civil servant as soon as war began in September 1939; and after serving as a fairly low grade officer, he became chef de cabinet to Hugh Dalton when the latter was appointed Minister of Economic Welfare in the Churchill administration of May 1940. When Dalton was transferred to the Board of Trade in February 1942 Gaitskell went with him, and was first concerned with fuel policies and then with a wide range of problems connected with the home front. He proved an excellent administrator, and in these years learned a great deal about the relationships between the Civil Service, their Ministers and Parliament. In the general election of 1945, which brought a massive Labour victory, Gaitskell was easily elected for South Leeds, spent a year on the back benches and then in May 1946, became Parliamentary Secretary to Emmanuel Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power. When Attlee reshuffled his government in October 1947 Shinwell was moved to the War Office, and Gaitskell took his place. Alf Robens became his parliamentary secretary. In the last year of the 1945 government, because of the increasing illness of Stafford Cripps, Gaitskell began to take on special responsibilities at the Treasury, a tribute to his growing reputation as an efficient administrator and Minister. After the general election of 1950, which left Labour with an overall majority of five, Gaitskell was made Minister of State at the Treasury, directly understudying Cripps, and in October 1950 he succeeded the latter as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was only 44, and from a number of points of view it was an unusual appointment. For one thing, up to that time, senior members of Labour administrations normally had some standing with the rank and file of the Party; and Gaitskell had none. And there were serious rifts within the Cabinet – the position of Bevan being the most difficult – which might have been at least partly healed if a different appointment had been made. For Gaitskell was now confirmed and accepted as on the right wing of the Party, and in his own career it was the first major step towards the Party leadership. How far his academic and bureaucratic experiences over the previous two decades had hardened him into a revisionist of the existing reformist socialist approach is made clear by his biographer, summarising a comment made by Gaitskell at this time:
On first learning that he was to take Cripps’ place, Gaitskell had told William Armstrong [Cripps’ private secretary, and now his own: later head of the Civil Service] that over the next ten years the principal task of a Socialist Chancellor would be the re-distribution of wealth, which unlike the greater equalisation of incomes was not generally accepted; once that was accomplished, the philosophical differences between the parties would gradually diminish and their rivalry would turn increasingly – as in the United States he said – into a competition in governmental competence. 
It may be noted at this point that Gaitskell’s attitudes towards American political parties remained the same for the rest of his life. In visits in 1956 and 1960 he underlined the close parallels he found between the Democrats and the British Labour Party; and he found John Kennedy’s administration especially sympathetic.
There is a further comment to be made about the Armstrong quotation, Greater equalisation of incomes, Gaitskell had said, was generally accepted – unlike the need to re-distribute capital wealth more equitably. Here he was at one with his colleagues and friends on the Right of the Party – now including Crosland – who in these years of the Labour Governments were seriously arguing that social changes of great magnitude had occurred, and that Britain was no longer a capitalist society in the hitherto accepted sense. This was the theme which dominated the symposium, New Fabian Essays, published in 1952. C.A.R. Crosland put the argument most emphatically in his contribution to the Essays, and not all his fellow contributors accepted completely his thesis; but all were agreed that changes of a quite fundamental kind had occurred. Crosland himself, while to an extent modifying his earlier thesis, was still writing in 1956 (in The Future of Socialism) that ‘capitalism has been reformed almost out of recognition Despite occasional minor recessions and balance of payments crises, full employment and at least a tolerable degree of stability are likely to be maintained’.  It was this belief that the unemployment and unused resources of the inter-war years were now no longer possible, together with an unqualified faith in the power of governments to legislate social reform of an egalitarian kind, that were the main intellectual foundations of the post-war Labour revisionists. They believed that the world boom they were living through was the result of improved economic techniques at the disposal of governments; that it was within the competence of governments, through financial policies, to control output, investment and the levels of employment in ways which would eliminate the sharp fluctuations of pre-1939 capitalism. It was, further, the continual refrain of Liberal and Conservative as well as many Labour commentators, that against this background of full employment in Britain there had taken place a marked diminution of economic inequality; income and wealth, and especially the former, were being more equally distributed; widening educational opportunities were increasing social mobility; the 1930s levels of poverty had gone for ever; and that there was developing a re-casting of the social structure, in Western Europe in general, whereby the working class and the middle classes were converging, in income levels and in life styles, and not least in social expectations. 
It is necessary to underline how widespread these ideas and beliefs were among Labour intellectuals of Gaitskell’s own generation: those who supported him in his successful bid for the leadership of the Labour Party, and who sustained him thereafter. It is also necessary to note how close the connection was between the arguments of Crosland in the fifties and the earlier work by Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism, first published in the late 1930s and republished, with a preface by Gaitskell, in 1954. Durbin, until his death by drowning in 1948, had been Gaitskell’s closest friend; and Gaitskell’s preface to the 1954 reprint emphasised his intellectual debt to Durbin. The revisionism of the 1950s was for him, therefore, not a new mode of thinking about society; the experience of the war years and the period of Labour rule after 1945 did no more than confirm the political and social trends which he and his friends were already accepting before 1939. The new factor in the post-war years was full employment. Keynesianism offered a theoretical basis for what, in fundamentals, was already appreciated as the basis for their social reformism.
Gaitskell’s promotion to the Chancellorship of the Exchequer was in October 1950. A few months earlier, in August, in response to strong American pressure following the outbreak of the Korean war, the Labour Government had agreed to increase substantially its armament programme: to £3,600 million over three years. On the 29 January 1951 Attlee told the House of Commons that the Cabinet had agreed on a further expansion to £4,700 million. The sum stated was a trebling of resources for armaments over a year earlier, and it represented an increase from 8 per cent of GNP to 14 per cent: the highest proportion in NATO, and exceeded only by the United States. There was, it should be added, no possibility that national resources could be made available on the scale proposed; indeed the Tories, when they returned to office, reduced the targets set by Labour. But the Attlee government had totally accepted the American version of world politics, and their agreement to increase their spending on armaments – which could only mean an end to an already greatly reduced commitment to social improvement – was wholly within the anti-communist spirit of the world reactionary crusade that America was leading. Inside the British Cabinet Gaitskell was a firm and undeviating supporter of the proposals for increased defence spending, and it was his Budget of April 1951, which imposed certain health charges in the interests of finding extra finance for armaments, that led to the resignation of Bevan and his colleagues. Throughout the last period of a faltering Labour administration – with most of its senior members ill or desperately tired-Gaitskell emerged, in Roy Jenkins’ words, ‘as the one strong man of the Labour Government’s last year’.  And when the Tories won the election in October 1951, the most significant thing about Gaitskell was that he continued to push himself into a national role. It could easily, of course, have been otherwise. Gaitskell still had no base in the movement; the trade unions hardly knew him; and he was yet to make any mark in the annual party conferences or within the PLP. But Gaitskell had developed a shrewd sense of power, and he was extremely ambitious: characteristics which his biographer is oddly reluctant to accord him. But in the world of politics no one gets to the position of national leader by default. It has to be worked for.
The years which followed the defeat of Labour at the general election of November 1951 saw bitter internecine struggles inside the Labour Party. Attlee was 69 in 1952, and it was expected that his successor would soon be chosen. There were two obvious contenders: Herbert Morrison and Nye Bevan. Morrison had many enemies; the Left detested him; he suffered from Attlee’s personal dislike; he had few friends among the trade union leaders; and his performance on foreign affairs had been disastrous. Nye Bevan, from a very different standpoint, also suffered from many of the same disadvantages, notably from the ferocious hostility of certain leading trade unionists, and the opposition of a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But he had one outstanding area of support: the constituency parties. At the first Party conference after the Labour government’s resignation – Morecambe 1952 – Bevan headed the poll in the election for the constituency members, and Bevanites took six of the seven seats.
Gaitskell, by the time of the Morecambe conference, was just beginning to enter the arena in the contest for the leadership. He had continued to speak in favour of the rearmament programme after Labour left office – an unpopular stance with the rank and file of the Party – and already by the spring of 1952 some journalists were beginning to speak of him as the obvious rival to Bevan. What made Gaitskell’s position clear beyond doubt as the future leader of the political Right of the Party happened in the immediate aftermath of the Morecambe conference. During the conference Arthur Deakin, bringing fraternal greetings from the TUC, had commented sharply on the ‘struggle for the leadership’. His remarks included advice to the Bevanites to ‘get rid of their whips, dismiss their business managers, and conform to the party constitution. Let them cease the vicious attacks they have launched upon those with whom they disagree, abandon their vituperation, and the carping criticism which appears in Tribune’. Much of the rest of his speech was lost in what Michael Foot described as ‘Vesuvian’ interruptions.  Four days later Gaitskell expanded on Deakin with a McCarthyite speech which immediately made him the obvious front runner for all right-wing trade unionists Gaitskell himself had stood for the executive committee in the constituency section, and had polled 330,000 votes against 620,000 for Crossman, who was the lowest successful candidate. Gaitskell spoke to a small audience at Stalybridge, and what he said, whatever excuses his friends later made for him, he believed. While he claimed that the Party leadership had won all the major policy decisions, he alleged that many resolutions came from the Daily Worker. Here are his words:
I was told by some well-informed correspondents that about one sixth of the Constituency Party delegates appeared to be Communists or Communist-inspired. This figure may well be too high. But if it should be one-tenth, or even one-twentieth, it is a most shocking state of affairs to which the National Executive should give immediate attention.
In another part of the speech he attacked the Bevanite press, and insisted that ‘the solid sound sensible majority of the Movement’ must reply. It would not endanger the unity of the Party:
For there will be no unity on the terms dictated by Tribune. Indeed its ... vitriolic abuse of the Party Leaders is an invitation to disloyalty and disunity. It is time to end the attempt to mob rule by a group of frustrated journalists and restore the authority and leadership of the solid sound sensible majority of the Movement.
It was a speech characterised in other places at this period as witch-hunting and inevitably it reverberated throughout the Labour Movement; it made any general rapprochement between Left and and Right out of the question; and it was the beginning of the alliance between Gaitskell and the right-wing unions – who commanded the majority bloc vote in Labour Party conferences – that was to bring him to the leadership of the Party.
The Stalybridge speech was calculated. As early as the previous July Dalton had noted in his diary that he found Gaitskell ‘very tense and unsmiling ... in danger of having an obsession about the B[evanite]’s’. About the time of the speech itself Gaitskell wrote to a correspondent: ‘it is clear to me now that we must fight. The worm must turn’. Four days later he wrote to another correspondent that if Attlee continued to remain silent, the morale on their side would collapse.  And after the Stalybridge speech Gaitskell continued to enhance his role as the new, tough leader of the political Right that the unions had been looking for. They gave him the Treasurership of the Party, and he took a prominent part in the campaign to support German rearmament. In the attempt to expel Nye Bevan from the Parliamentary Labour Party Gaitskell once again exhibited his intransigence. After the failure of the last bitter episode in the affair he wrote in his Diary:
[M]ost of my friends think I was very foolish to allow myself to be carried on by the ‘right wing’, with the inevitable result that the Bevanites ‘framed’ me as the ‘Chief Prosecutor’ ... I always find it difficult to behave in these matters in the subtle way which my own friends seem to expect. I don’t see how one can have strong loyalties with people like George Brown and Alf Robens, not to speak of the TU leaders, and continually refuse to do any of the dirty work for them and with them ... my own position is no doubt weaker ... but I cannot regard that as the only thing that matters One would get no fun out of politics if one spent all one’s life thinking in terms of the single object of one’s own political access. 
Within less than nine months Gaitskell had been elected leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party; his ‘fun’ paid dividends.
With Gaitskell’s accession to the leadership of the Labour Party the revisionist current entered into the mainstream of Labour Party policy-making. In the years from 1956 the re-statement of Labour policy in revisionist terms went ahead steadily, obscured for many by the conflicts over foreign policy and the nuclear debate; and although Gaitskell formally lost the constitutional battle over Clause 4 – the wholly logical development of his own and the Party’s revisionism in the 1950s – it made no difference to the reality embodied in Labour’s programme. In the years immediately preceding his death in 1963, Labour Party policy was reduced to reformist objectives which now no longer even involved the rhetoric of the transformation of society into a socialist commonwealth. This was Gaitskell’s main contribution to the history of the Labour Party in the twentieth century; and the limited perspectives for change which he offered to the Party over which he presided have lasted from his day until the present. Wilson, when he succeeded to the leadership after Gaitskell’s death, followed carefully the Party policies Gaitskell had established; only his accent and intonation were different. And in Wilson’s language it all sounded very different. As Crossman wrote in his Diary on 5 March 1963 – less than two months after Gaitskell had died – the programme Wilson was articulating ‘sounded astonishingly left wing ... no one had any idea until that weekend that the Labour Party had quite radical policies on every subject under the sun.’ 
While its socialist rhetoric in domestic matters has markedly weakened during the past twenty years, the Labour Party’s conservatism is nevertheless most clearly pronounced in the area of foreign affairs. Here, since 1945, there has never been any pretence. Labour ministers in the war-time coalition had accepted Churchillian conservatism in world affairs; in office themselves after 1945 and led by Ernie Bevin, Labour’s foreign policies were never seriously questioned by the Conservative Party: a statement which even includes the acceptance of Indian independence. Acquiescence in reactionary policies abroad cannot be combined with radical policies at home – radical, that is, in socialist terms; and to use this touchstone to evaluate Gaitskell’s politics reveals his traditionalism in the context of any serious structural change in the organisation of society. During the Second World War his biographer offers no suggestion that Gaitskell ever had doubts about Coalition foreign policies, of which Greece was one of many which seriously troubled British socialists In the Attlee Government after 1945 Gaitskell was a close and earnest supporter of Ernie Bevin; an early convert to the Cold War; and among the Cabinet’s most resolute supporters of the vastly increased rearmament programme, for which as Chancellor in 1950-51, he had to find the money. Inevitably, he supported America over Korea, and equally inevitably, he supported and vigorously advocated German rearmament. In October 1954 Tribune quoted him as saying: ‘I doubt if foreign policy will play a big part in the next election – not because it is not important, but because Mr. Eden has, in fact, mostly carried on our policy as developed by Ernest Bevin, in some cases against the views of rank and file Tories’ ; and at the time of the 1955 election Gaitskell wrote to Dalton that he was ‘quite sure that ... the less we bring foreign policy in the better’.  Throughout his years as a leading Labour politician Gaitskell was an enthusiastic, committed and undeviating supporter of the American alliance. After the 1952 Morecambe conference, at which the Labour right wing were so decisively rejected by the constituency parties, he told a journalist: ‘There is only one thing we have to do in the next few years, and that is to keep the Labour Party behind the Anglo-American alliance.’  And the climax of his support for the alliance in general, and for the conservative establishment at home, came in the bitter debates at the end of the decade over the nuclear bomb; which he won.
Gaitskell came to the leadership of the Labour Party partly, at least, because of the electoral history of the previous three decades. The Party leaders between 1945 and 1951 were already prominent figures before the war began. But in 1931 the Parliamentary Labour Party had been reduced to around 50, and the 1935 general election only gave them another 100. When Attlee came to choose his government in 1945, there was at least one missing generation in the middle ranks of experienced politicians. Gaitskell became Minister of Fuel and Power at the age of 41; Harold Wilson went to the Board of Trade when he was under 30. With a larger field to choose from, it is unlikely Attlee would have nominated Gaitskell as Chancellor of the Exchequer when he did.
Gaitskell proved to be a not very effective politician, and on a number of tactical issues within the Party he made serious mistakes. He was, indeed, an appalling tactician. What sustained him, in his struggle for the leadership, and subsequently, was the block vote of the right-wing trade unions. It is true that by the time of his death his authority within the Labour Party was greater than it had ever been, and was, in fact, unchallengeable. But Bevan by this time was already dead, having several years earlier made his political accommodation with Gaitskell and the right wing of the Party; the Left without Bevan, and defeated over the nuclear issue in 1961, were in disarray, their situation apparently made more confusing by the anti-EEC stand that Gaitskell was beginning to advocate – a position, it should be added, that had nothing to do with socialism.
Gaitskell, by upbringing, education and professional training, was well conditioned for the role of a very moderate political leader in the particular and peculiar moment of time represented by the 1950s. ‘He was’ his biographer summed him up, the standard-bearer of Attlee’s post-war consensus, labelled and misinterpreted as Butskellism: the mixed economy, the Keynesian strategy, full employment, strong but not overweening trade unions, the welfare state, the Atlantic alliance, decolonisation, and a tacit understanding that governments, whether moderate Conservative or democratic Socialist, would not strain the tolerance of the other side too violently. That legacy makes him a natural hero for social democrats. 
No doubt: except that some things are missing from this nostalgic account of life as it was in the decade or so before 1963 – such matters as British Guyana, Cyprus and Aden, for example; or the extraordinary profiteering bonanza that the ‘new-style’ capitalism enjoyed in Britain in the 1950s; or MacCarthyism, an international as well as an American phenomenon; or the rapid slide towards full-scale intervention in Vietnam in the years immediately preceding Gaitskell’s death; or Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, one of the very obvious signs of the stirrings in the colonial and neo-colonial world. The ‘post-war consensus’ in Britain was a shortlived, parochial and myopic response to a rapidly changing world that within a decade of Gaitskell’s death would be in long-term crisis: its tensions and contradictions obvious to all, including even social-democrats. Moreover, on his own home ground Gaitskell misread the course of social change. In the year before Gaitskell died, Richard Titmuss published his Income Distribution and Social Change, in which the widely accepted beliefs of the supposed income-levelling trends in British society were sharply denied; and since 1962 the literature on social inequality and the ‘re-discovery’ of poverty has been extensive, and its documentation has destroyed the easy generalisations of the Labour revisionists of the 1950s. But when all has been said about Gaitskell’s lack of skill as a political leader or his failure to understand the contradictions developing in the world or the naivety with which he approached the economic complexities of his own society, it is the English middle-classness of his political attitudes and reactions that remains with the reader of the Williams biography. Here, as a last example, is part of a letter Gaitskell wrote to a friend at the height of the crisis in France in May 1958, two days before de Gaulle became prime minister:
Oh God isn’t the news awful? de Gaulle doing his best to lose us the Cold War and Cousins doing his best to lose us the Election. I feel very sad about France – worst of all is the hypocrisy – Army officers seizing power and trying to pretend it’s all quite legal – People assuming that this old egotist of 67 can solve their Algerian problems ... when it’s all really just this bad temper induced by humiliation and inability to accept the facts of life.
I’m afraid that what looks like being a military dictatorship in all but words will have a terrible effect on NATO and the West, The Communists will gain as the resisted – neutralism will spread – and left-wing parties everywhere will be driven further left – or at least become pacifist, It’s bad enough having to back reactionary feudal regimes in the Middle East and I’ve never been very keen on Portugal as a nice representative Democratic State – but to have France like this! 
The writer of these words was the leader of the British Labour Party who, had he lived, would have been a Labour Prime Minister. Instead, the Labour movement got Wilson who sounded, but was not, different.
The Gaitskell biography by Philip Williams is a long drawn-out argument for the defence. Williams liked Gaitskell, and greatly respected him, and while there is a large amount of information provided for the reader, it leans very obviously to Gaitskell’s side. This enormous volume is useful because it offers the possibility of a discriminating analysis different from that put forward by Williams. The biography, it must also be said, is hopelessly ill-proportioned; it would have been a good deal more useful if cut to a third of its present size, and it needed to be more sensibly balanced between its different parts. The war years and the Attlee governments do not require for example over 150 pages to explain the main trends of Gaitskell’s career over this period. There are, too, some methodological questions to be scrutinised: the large scale use, for example, of oral testimony. Obviously, a biography of this kind must rely quite heavily upon the opinions of contemporaries, but the evidence offered needs always to be very carefully evaluated. There are some respondents used by Williams in whom one can have no confidence; there is at least one who is widely known as a very intelligent story-teller of half-truths and falsehoods, when it suits the purpose. Oral historians cannot afford to be promiscuous in these matters. It may be doubted, to quote a trivial example, whether Gaitskell’s impact on people really was ‘absolutely magical’ to quote one gushing respondent from the war years ; and on a more serious level, is it possible that Eric Roll thought Gaitskell ‘tremendously impressive’ when they met at a weekend conference in the 1930s? Twenty years later Roll might well have made this judgement, but in the earlier decade Roll was well-known as a Marxist economist whose name was often coupled with that of Maurice Dobb, and it is improbable that he would have given any marks at the time to one of Dalton’s revisionists.
In the same month that Williams’ biography was published in the autumn of 1979 Dora Gaitskell gave a remarkable interview to Polly Toynbee which was published in the Guardian on 15 October 1979. We must make the assumption that Polly Toynbee got most things right, and that her straight quotations from Dora Gaitskell are accurate. The marriage, it was made abundantly clear, was a happy one; but the interview confirmed that in his personal attitudes as well as his political life Gaitskell remained to a marked degree the product of his conservative upbringing. He treated his wife kindly, affectionately, but not generously. She knew nothing of his considerable investments – the result of a large legacy left him when he was a young man – and during his lifetime Dora Gaitskell never had much money of her own. More telling was his general attitude towards her as a person in her own right. Here are her words as quoted in the Guardian interview:
I think that he never really gave me as much confidence in myself as he could have done. He never really encouraged me at all. I was only for domestic life, and I feel now I could have done more with my life.
The central problem of this biography, however, remains its assessment of Gaitskell as a political figure. Williams sums him up as the outstanding leader lost to Britain in the last twenty years of decline, a theme taken further by a number of reviewers of the volume. But there is nothing in Gaitskell’s career to suggest that he seriously comprehended the world in terms that were qualitatively different from those understood by his Labour Party successors, or that he could have provided solutions to the world crisis of capitalism that has been steadily growing during the past decade. Wilson and Callaghan followed the lines of country that Gaitskell had already mapped. The fundamental consensus with the Tories that Gaitskell bequeathed to those who followed him became deeply embedded in Labour Party thinking and practice; and the logic of that kind of accommodation, when set against the background of worsening crisis, led inexorably to the revisionism of the radical Right which the Thatcher Government represents On the world scale, Gaitskell’s defeat of the anti-nuclear movement in Britain, and his fundamentalist support for the American alliance, have contributed to the increasing militarisation of the world today and have made immeasurably more difficult a movement for disarmament and a lowering of tension. Gaitskell’s legacy to the British Labour Movement, continued by Wilson and Callaghan, has had disastrous results, the consequences of which are only today beginning to be seriously debated in the aftermath of the electoral defeat of 1979. There is a very long way to go.
1. Attlee, C.R., The Labour Party in Perspective (1937), p.219.
2. Miliband, R., The State in Capitalist Society (1969), p.111.
3. Williams, Philip M., Hugh Gaitskell, A Political Biography (Cape, 1979). Where only page references are quoted, it is this volume to which they refer.
4. Williams, p.15.
12. Wertheimer, E., Portrait of the Labour Party (1929), esp. Ch.4.
13. For a brief discussion, see John Saville, May Day 1937, in Asa Briggs and John Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History (1977), esp. p.248ff.
16. Lord Robbins, Autobiography of an Economist (1971), Chs.VI and VII.
21. Crosland, C.A.R., The Future of Socialism (1956), Ch.2.
22. See John Saville, Labour and Income Redistribution, in Socialist Register (1965) pp.147-162; J. Westergaard and H. Resler, Class in a Capitalist Society (1975) esp. Part I.
23. Jenkins, Roy, Leader of the Opposition, in Hugh Gaitskell, 1906-63 (ed. W.T. Rodgers, 1964), p.118.
24. Foot, M., Aneurin Bevan, Vol. 2, 1945-1960, (1973), p.381.
28. Quoted in R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1961), p. 333, note 1.
33. p.30. The quotation from Eric Roll, which follows in the text, is on the same page.
Last updated on 4 July 2010