Digging up the Ancestors

R.W. Johnson

  • Hugh Gaitskell by Brian Brivati
    Cohen, 492 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 1 86066 073 8

Political parties need a tradition, a line of descent – in a word, heroes. In this respect the Labour Party has always had some difficulty. The obvious candidate would have been the first man to lead Labour to power, but Ramsay MacDonald put himself beyond the pale: indeed, the psychological wound he left as ‘the lost leader’ was of more lasting significance than anything he achieved in power. Oswald Mosley, the most impressive of the Young Turks to contest MacDonald, lurched into even deeper disgrace, while Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury were simply not memorable. Clement Attlee, the leader for twenty years and the man who led Labour to the new Jerusalem of 1945, was, in the event, the most serviceable hero, but he was never beatified, let alone canonised. Not only did he lack charisma but, as a former army major educated at Haileybury, he was always something of an oddity within the Party, and despite many attempts to suggest the contrary, a dry stick. An old trade-union hack whom Attlee sacked from the Government pleaded his case with passion: ‘Why, Clem, for God’s sake why?’ ‘Not up to it,’ came the cheerful reply. Throughout his premiership Attlee read only the Times, partly for its cricket coverage but also, he said, because knowing its bitterly anti-Labour views in advance, he always found reading it ‘restful’. Attitudes of this sort did not sit well with a party which has always seen itself as a crusading organisation.

And after that? Harold Wilson was the most successful Labour leader, winning four elections, but the recent spate of admiring biographies cannot rescue him from ignominy. The whole point of Wilsonism, after all, was to box and fox through the burning minute. It is hardly surprising that the long-term verdict on him should be bad: he despised the very notion of the ‘long term’. Nobody tries to make a case for James Callaghan, Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock as candidates for the pantheon and some of the devotion to the late John Smith derives, no doubt, from a desperate endeavour to find a leader of note somewhere. Hence this book. ‘Hugh Gaitskell was the grandfather of Tony Blair’s revolution, the original Labour moderniser,’ the blurb begins. With Labour under Blair mobilising for a climactic campaign after 18 years of Tory rule, there is a need to invoke tradition, a legitimate line of descent, especially in view of Blair’s comprehensive abolition of most things that made Labour feel that it was Labour. Yet, on the very last page, Brivati tries to take evasive action: ‘Tony Blair’, he declares, ‘is no Hugh Gaitskell.’ It is a little late, with just one paragraph to go, to deny the evident rationale of his book.

And Brivati needs a rationale: Philip Williams’s monumental biography of Gaitskell is unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed. Not only was Williams the greatest political analyst of his time but he had access to the voluminous private papers which, since Gaitskell’s death more than thirty years ago, have remained closed to other researchers, Brivati included. He never quite overcomes this handicap, and often sounds more like a tour-guide than a familiar of the world he is writing about.

He points out in his own favour that Williams was an official biographer and a Gaitskellite and that he, Brivati, is not (he was born three years after Gaitskell’s death); nor is he bound by a self-denying ordinance, as Williams was, to refrain from discussing his subject’s private life. What that discussion entails is a possible homosexual involvement at Oxford, when Gaitskell was part of a gay circle around Maurice Bowra. All one can say about it is that if Gaitskell did have a gay side, it detracted not at all from his enjoyment of women. Brivati thinks that he and Dora Gaitskell may have had an arrangement which allowed for his probably quite numerous affairs, particularly his long relationship with Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann – certainly the Gaitskells often dined with one or both Flemings, making one wonder quite what the mutual understandings were.

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