Dream Ticket

Peter Shore

  • The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell 1945-1956 by Philip Williams
    Cape, 720 pp, £25.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 224 01911 2

Political diaries are the raw material of both biography and history. Philip Williams, who has already quarried Gaitskell’s diary for his own massive biography, is not likely to have found significant new material in subsequently editing it for publication, or to have gained new insights. If he has, he has not drawn attention to them. Those who want the Gaitskell story, the man against his times, the man in the round, as seen by a scholar and admirer, will want to read Mr Williams’s own full-length portrait.

The diary is, moreover, incomplete in a number of crucial respects. First, it falls silent on 9 October 1956. Thus it excludes many – indeed most – of the major and traumatic events of the Gaitskell Leadership: the uneasy partnership with Aneurin Bevan as Deputy Leader; the 1959 General Election defeat and the subsequent struggle over the philosophy of the party; the Clause Four row of 1959-60; the first flowering and defeat of unilateralism in 1960-61; and, following his rejection of the Common Market in 1962, Gaitskell’s final triumph as Leader, both within the Labour Party and with the wider public outside.

Second, while 1945-56, the period covered by the diary, is in itself substantial and important, both in terms of Gaitskell’s own development and in terms of the major national and party events with which he was involved, he was a peculiar and irregular diarist. There are large omissions: 1945-47 has no more than thirty pages; 1947-49 one hundred pages; 1952-54 is covered by a few sketchy notes; and his own – successful – leadership campaign to succeed Attlee in December 1955 is totally omitted. Further, much of the diary was written, not on a daily or weekly basis, but as a series of retrospective essays, covering, according to the pace of events, from one to three months at a time.

These omissions inevitably pose the question: how did Gaitskell himself see his diary? An intellectual discipline, a self-imposed requirement to reflect on and learn from his own experience? A means of emotional and intellectual release? A record for history? A defence against misrepresentation? A source for a much later volume of memoirs or autobiography, never to be written? Gaitskell’s own explanation, to record ‘what might be called “inside events” of interest to future historians, or even the public generally’, is not satisfactory since what was excluded was certainly no less important than what was recorded. Yet no man who keeps a diary, running to six hundred printed pages, over an 11-year period, can fail to be strongly motivated. Why then did the engine and the energy falter so often – and why did it switch off altogether for the last six years? Mr Williams is himself perplexed. And his own explanation – that Gaitskell was only sufficiently motivated during those periods when, as a minister or as Leader, he was dealing directly with great events – is no more than a hypothesis.

Nevertheless, 11 years is far more than a fragment. It spans three main periods in Gaitskell’s political life. First, his ministerial experience in the 1945-51 Labour Governments; second, the long struggle with Aneurin Bevan which exploded with Bevan’s resignation in April 1951 and which ended (with Bevan but not with the Bevanites) only when Bevan became Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1957; third, Gaitskell’s first nine months as Leader and his heavy preoccupation, during that time, with the Russians whose leaders, Khrushchev and Bulganin, made their first visit to London, and with the events that led to the fiasco, the humiliation, of the Suez affair.

Gaitskell’s ministerial life began, in the first months of 1946, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, with Shinwell as his chief. They did not get on, and when Gaitskell took Shinwell’s place after the fuel crisis of 1947, he earned a major enemy for many years to come. But what the diary reveals, more clearly than I have seen elsewhere, is the important part that Gaitskell, though not a full member of the Cabinet, played thanks to his membership of the Cabinet’s Economic Sub-Committee, and, in the absence of Cripps, ill in Geneva, in taking the key government decision to devalue the pound in 1949. It was undoubtedly this that paved the way for his appointment, after the February 1950 General Election, as Minister of State at the Treasury, with large responsibilities for both public expenditure and international economic policy – and then, when ill health forced Cripps to resign, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was a creative and successful period, with Gaitskell – public expenditure apart – obviously in his element, enjoying every moment and gaining authority in Parliament, in the country, and with opposite numbers in both the USA and Europe.

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