Maximum Embarrassment

David Marquand

  • Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism by John Campbell
    Weidenfeld, 430 pp, £15.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 297 78998 8
  • The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton: 1918-40, 1945-60 edited by Ben Pimlott
    Cape, 752 pp, £40.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 224 01912 0

As the Labour Party continues to unravel, it becomes more and more obvious that the follies and misadventures which have plagued it during the last few months can be understood only against the background of the betrayals, suspicions and hatreds of more than a generation of civil war. It is not, of course, the only mass party of the Left in trouble. The German Social Democrats – only a few years ago, one of the most competent and cohesive governing parties in the Western world – are also going through lean times. So are the American Democrats. But trouble is one thing: systematic self-mutilation is another. Despite their current difficulties, neither the American Democrats nor the German Social Democrats give off the smell of death. With the possible exception of the French Communists, Labour is the only mass party of the Left which has suffered a prolonged and apparently irreversible haemorrhage of support for more than fifteen years. The reason is that – again with the possible exception of the French Communist Party – no other mass party of the Left has found it so difficult to adjust to the technological and social changes which have robbed its traditional themes of their appeal.

It would be wrong to suggest that these difficulties spring from any single cause. They have to do, among other things, with the nature of British class relations; with the structure and values of the British trade-union movement; above all, perhaps, with the stubborn anti-intellectualism which pervades the whole political culture. But there is no doubt that part of the explanation lies in the decade of fratricide which followed the fall of the Attlee Government in 1951. From the start, the Kinnock-Hattersley leadership has been hemmed in by the legacy of the Wilson Government of the Sixties, and by the even more disreputable legacy of the Wilson-Callaghan Government of the Seventies. It has no incomes policy because it has been unwilling to re-open the wounds left by the 1966 wage freeze, by the battle over ‘In Place of Strife’ in 1969, and by the grievances and resentments which led to the winter of discontent in 1979. It has an incredible and self-contradictory defence policy because its followers are determined not to allow it to repeat Wilson’s perfidy over Polaris. And the Wilson and Callaghan Governments stumbled and prevaricated as they did partly because their followers were haunted by the ghosts of Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan.

To be sure, the Labour Party was an unruly and fissiparous coalition, with an extraordinary propensity to shoot itself in the foot, when Aneurin Bevan was still an unknown backbencher and Gaitskell a university lecturer. As the latest instalment of Ben Pimlott’s magisterial edition of Hugh Dalton’s diaries reminds us, the current leadership’s dismay at the vagaries of the ‘loony Left’ has plenty of precedents from earlier days. To take an example almost at random, here is Dalton on a meeting of the Constitutional Sub-Committee of the Party’s National Executive, held in January 1934 to consider the recent pronouncements of Sir Stafford Cripps:

Cripps seems quite unable to see the argument that he is damaging the party electorally. It is all ‘misreporting’, or picking sentences out of their context. He has become very vain and seems to think that only he and his cronies know what Socialism is or how it should be preached. His gaffes cover an immense range – Buckingham Palace – League of Nations – ‘compelling’ Unions to declare a General Strike – prolonging Parliament beyond five years, unless ... ‘seize land, finance and industry’ (without compensation?) – Emergency Powers Bill in one day, giving ‘all necessary powers’ ...

  I make a violent – perhaps too violent – speech asking that this stream of oratorical ineptitudes should now cease ... It is the number of these gaffes which is so appalling. Our candidates are being stabbed in the back and pushed onto the defensive. Tory HQ regard him as their greatest electoral asset ...

  Attlee says I am like a pedagogue addressing a pupil. I wish the pupil were a bit brighter.

By the end of the decade, the pupil had become even more obstreperous, and the pedagogue even more contemptuous of his ability. In January 1939, Cripps launched the campaign for a Popular Front which culminated in his expulsion from the Labour Party. Shortly before the dénouement Dalton reflected:

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