- Hugh Dalton by Ben Pimlott
Cape, 731 pp, £25.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 224 02100 1
Hugh Dalton was a Member of Parliament for 35 years, a minister for 12, a Front-Bencher for 30 and a member of the Labour Party National Executive for 25. In the Thirties, as Ben Pimlott shows in this absorbing, perceptive and sometimes moving biography, he played a central part (after Bevin, the central part) in dragging the Labour Party out of the semi-pacifist isolationism of the Twenties into a grudging acceptance of re-armament and, when necessary, the use of force. As President of the Board of Trade in the wartime coalition, he laid the foundations of the post-war Labour Government’s regional policies. As chairman of the policy sub-committee of the National Executive, he did more than anyone else to shape the economic strategy on which the Labour Party fought the 1945 Election. He wrote 12 books, one of which ran to five editions over thirty years, and edited two others. He was an assiduous, not to say relentless patron of bright and, if possible, handsome young men, counting among his protégés Hugh Gaitskell, the most impressive leader the Labour Party has ever had, and Tony Crosland, one of its two or three most important theorists.
Yet none of this justifies a meticulous biography of more than seven hundred pages. Though Pimlott cannot bring himself to admit it, the truth is that, in talent and personality, Dalton never quite belonged to the front rank of politics. To be sure, he was a robust and formidable party warhorse – a kind of William Harcourt or Roy Hattersley, say – with enormous energy, considerable administrative drive and a powerful debating style. But he captured no imaginations, lifted no horizons and inspired no disciples. He left worthy memorials – the National Parks, for instance, and the spread of light industry to the depressed North – but he did not change the political or intellectual landscape.
As Keynes implied when he nicknamed him ‘Daddy’, there was something faintly ludicrous about his gnawing hunger for advancement, his insatiable appetite for intrigue, and his odd mixture of self-importance and self-doubt. He was a fusser, a buttonholer, a clasper of shoulders, a pacer of lobbies, at least metaphorically a listener at keyholes, endlessly obsessed by the narcissistic gossip and jockeying for position of the Westminster stock-exchange of reputations. As a minister he was also, and less forgivably, an appalling – in James Meade’s phrase, a ‘paranoid’ – bully, shouting at civil servants who could not answer back, insulting senior officials in the presence of their juniors, and displaying an astonishing incapacity to understand the ethic of public service or the requirements of team management.
Sometimes, he got his come-uppance. The best of Pimlott’s rich store of anecdotes concerns Dalton’s stormy relationship with Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, his Director General when he was Minister of Economic Warfare.
Dalton, it was alleged, had issued a peremptory order for Leith-Ross to attend on him instantly. When a Private Secretary explained that Sir Frederick was not available, the Minister merely repeated the command. Tracking down the Director General to the lavatory, the embarrassed Secretary passed a note under the door. ‘Tell him,’ came the reply, ‘that I can only deal with one shit at a time.’
Other anecdotes show Dalton in a more endearing, though still rather ridiculous light. A favourite one, of which there were several versions, describes his technique for building support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Roy Jenkins’s version is probably the neatest:
Once, as we were entering the Chamber, Hugh called cheerfully to a working-class member: ‘Hello, Fred!’ Turning to me, he said: ‘You know, Roy, you’ll never get on in politics until you learn to call that chap Fred.’ I pointed out gently that in fact the man’s name was Bert.