Coalition Phobia

Brian Harrison

  • Labour People, Leaders and Lieutenants: Hardie to Kinnock by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Oxford, 370 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 19 822929 1
  • J. Ramsay MacDonald by Austen Morgan
    Manchester, 276 pp, £19.50, June 1987, ISBN 0 7190 2168 5
  • Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical by Patricia Romero
    Yale, 334 pp, £17.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03691 4
  • Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst by Barbara Castle
    Penguin, 159 pp, £3.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 14 008761 3

If there is a third successive Conservative election victory this summer, Labour will plunge once more into debating its own history. Not reluctantly, because as Kenneth Morgan points out, the Party ‘has been captivated, even obsessed, by its history’; even more than the Conservatives it is, he says, ‘a prisoner of its past’. Yet the debate will probably be more painful than in the recent past, because it will need to be more searching and less sectarian. In important ways, Morgan’s book of biographies will fertilise the debate. Its clear style promises the first essential: plenty of readers. Most of its 27 biographies originated as book reviews and – in the tradition set by A.J.P. Taylor – they reappear without footnotes or full scholarly apparatus, though with a substantial ‘Select Bibliography’. The newcomer gets double value from a book of this kind, for it combines surveying the abundant recently-published material on 20th-century British labour history with the integrating perspective of a sympathetic and very knowledgeable historian. Morgan’s biographies do not aim at any deep analysis of personality; nor are they as preoccupied with the organisational and structural constraints on the individual as the blurb leads one to expect. They aim rather to set each subject briefly into context, and then straightforwardly to narrate the essentials of his career. The individual’s contribution to the Labour movement is specified; assets and drawbacks are carefully juxtaposed; and at the end a balance is struck which aims at fairmindedness and usually attains it.

The book’s second major merit is its range. There are few historians who could now operate with such ease all the way from Keir Hardie to Neil Kinnock. Morgan combines historical knowledge with a lively interest in current politics; he shows no coy academic inhibition about linking up the two, for he knows how amply each can enrich the other. Take, for instance, his excellent chapter on ‘Joe Gormley, Arthur Scargill and the Miners’. If all historians during the miners’ strike of 1984-5 had shown such balance, knowledge of context and willingness to face unpalatable truths, their profession might have done more to reduce the dreadful suffering that stemmed, on that occasion, from inept trade-union leadership. Instead of engaging in romantic nostalgia over lost (and unrecoverable, perhaps even undesirable) ideals of proletarian community, Morgan rightly tells us that the miners ‘should forget their history and wipe away memories of past glories, triumphs and defeats’.

Morgan’s range is typological as well as chronological. In what he describes as ‘a highly personal selection’ of biographies, he does not flinch from analysing those who reached the top – MacDonald, Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson. But he has just as much to say about those dedicated but less well-known people who did so much to build up the Labour Party’s machine: Henderson, Morrison, Dalton and Rita Hinden. And in the figure of Morgan Phillips this third major strength of the book overlaps with its fourth (predictable from the historian of modern Wales): its emphasis on the Party’s Welsh component (Mabon, Noah Ablett, James Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan). Morgan also has a sharp eye for important or significant but neglected figures. How right he is, for example, to see the career of the political scientist Harold Laski as one of ‘intense and enduring human interest as a tale of a man of transcendent intellectual integrity who strove to reconcile socialist planning with a liberal and pluralist view of democracy’.

Still more interesting is Morgan’s chapter on ‘The Planners’ (is it a coincidence that the book’s two best chapters – this one and the chapter on the miners – are not biographical in emphasis at all?). The Second World War is often credited with generating the post-war Butskellite consensus, but Morgan argues here that the war’s role was to provide an opening for people who had developed their consensual ideas much earlier: for young socialist economists like Durbin, Gaitskell, Meade and Jay. Because of their group discussions Labour in 1945 ‘was intellectually prepared for the economic realities of power in a way inconceivable at any earlier time in its history’.

If Morgan provides ample ingredients for Labour’s self-examination, how far does he guide the Party towards reassessment? His political tastes limit what he can offer. He writes about people drawn from ‘the British political tradition in which I generally feel most comfortable’, and in several asides he intones what has now become almost an orthodoxy in academic circles: a loathing of Thatcherism. He speaks of ‘the psychosis of pessimism, and the cynicism of the marketplace’; he refers (rather oddly, in the decade of North Sea oil, the ‘Big Bang’, the Channel tunnel and secure membership of the Common Market) to ‘the introspective, defeatist Britain of the mid-Eighties’; and he feels the need to be kept cheerful ‘in a disillusioning world’.

He does not tell us his precise location on the left, but reading between the lines it looks as though he is the sort of Labour supporter who places a very high premium on party loyalty. Securely placed midway between his Party’s Right and Left, he prefers those who know the Party through and through – Henderson, Morrison, Callaghan, Foot; less congenial are those who are in some respect outsiders – Gaitskell and the Webbs, for example. Mild disapproval awaits those who in some sense betray the Party, whether (like Roy Jenkins) by leaving it, or (like the Militant Tendency, Tony Benn, Moss Evans or Arthur Scargill) by embarrassing it. ‘My criticisms,’ says Morgan, ‘are criticisms from within.’

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