After a decade of decline, the old, Fabian right of the Labour Party is now so chastened that it is hard to remember that it was once the dominant tradition in British left-wing politics. These two volumes of autobiography bring back its great days: in doing so, they also throw a good deal of unintentional light on the reasons for its fall. Michael Stewart and Douglas Jay were both awarded Firsts at Oxford in the Twenties, entered Labour politics in the Thirties, held junior office in the Attlee Government in the Forties, supported Gaitskell in the battles of the Fifties and were appointed to Wilson’s Cabinet in the Sixties. Both served their country and party honourably, faithfully and as selflessly as anyone can reasonably be expected to do. Both exhibited, to an almost alarming degree, the characteristic Fabian virtues of rationality and reliability. Both are so obviously fish out of water in the Labour Party of the Eighties that the reader can almost hear them gasping for breath. Neither has the remotest idea why.
Douglas Jay belongs to the aristocracy of Fabianism; Michael Stewart to its bourgeoisie. Jay is a quintessential mandarin: old Wykhamist, scholar of New College, Fellow of All Souls. At 29, after spells on the Times and the Economist, he was appointed City Editor of the Daily Herald. At 30, he published an influential work of socialist theory, which anticipated many of the ‘revisionist’ arguments of the Fifties. At 33, he was an Assistant Secretary in the wartime Ministry of Supply, and at 38 economic adviser to the Prime Minister. He went from the Prime Minister’s office to a safe Labour seat in South London, and after only a few months on the back benches was appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury. When Labour left office in 1951, he had been near the centre of power for the best part of ten years.
Michael Stewart had it harder: from Brownhills Road Elementary School in South London to Christ’s Hospital, and from Christ’s Hospital to St John’s. After Oxford, he became a schoolmaster; during the war, he rose from lance-corporal in the Intelligence Corps to captain in the Education Corps. While Jay was using the City page of the Daily Herald to make propaganda against appeasement, Stewart was teaching economics to sixth-formers; while Jay was helping to set up the Development Areas, Stewart was lecturing to the troops in the Middle East. His ministerial apprenticeship was drabber too. Like Jay, he reached the Front Bench almost immediately after reaching the House of Commons. But whereas Jay was appointed straight away to the most powerful and prestigious Department in Whitehall, Stewart started as a Whip, the lowest form of ministerial life, and progressed to the Labour Party’s equivalent of a Mongolian power-station, a Parliamentary Secretaryship at the War Office.
In the end, of course, the tortoise beat the hare. Michael Stewart joined the Cabinet in 1964 as Education Secretary, but within a few months he had been promoted to Foreign Secretary. He headed the Foreign Office for a total of three and a half years, and the Department of Economic Affairs for 18 months. After 1970, it is true, he went to the back benches, but only after five years as one of the central figures in the Wilson Government. The curve of Jay’s career, on the other hand, flattened out after the fall of the Attlee Government in 1951. Having climbed steadily, and without apparent effort, for most of his twenties and thirties, he spent his late forties and fifties trudging along a kind of parliamentary plateau – well above the ruck of ordinary backbenchers, but well below the peaks. He was a loyal and courageous Gaitskellite, but his most celebrated intervention on Gaitskell’s behalf – an article in the right-wing Labour weekly Forward, implying that the Labour Party would never win another election unless it changed its name – did his cause more harm than good. He published another reassessment of socialist theory, but it lacked the sweep and depth of Crosland’s and Strachey’s contributions on the same side of the ideological divide, and the glitter of Crossman’s on the opposite side. In Parliament, he was overtaken by younger men – George Brown, Jim Callaghan, even Denis Healey. When Labour returned to power in 1964, he was given the important, but hardly central, office of President of the Board of Trade. Three years later, he was brutally and unceremoniously sacked. Since then, he has hung on in politics as a backbencher – indomitable, incorruptible, but increasingly isolated, estranged from his natural allies on the right of the party by his detestation of the EEC, and from Anti-Marketeers on the left by his loyalty to the revisionist social democracy he first preached forty years ago.
Their memoirs redress the balance of their careers. Michael Stewart’s is a classic Privy Councillor’s autobiography – bland, decorous, full of long descriptions of visits to distant continents, firmly committed to the principle of nil nisi bunkum and about as personal as a Cabinet minute. The enormous decency and fair-mindedness of the author come through, but only just. His ideas and feelings, hopes and fears, loves and hates are rigidly suppressed. He tells us that he joined the Labour Party as a schoolboy of 16, and insofar as he belongs to any school of socialist thought he is a Tawneian, and that he still accepts the Tawneian thesis ‘that capitalist society, based on the principle of individual acquisitiveness, is bound to encounter Nemesis.’ Because he tells us, we believe him. But we do not feel the belief. Tawneian socialism, or rather Stewart’s conception of Tawneian socialism, remains an abstraction: the schoolboy of 16 who was converted to it, even the elder statesman of 74 who still professes it, remain shadowy and unreal. As a backbencher Labour MP in the late Sixties, I admired Stewart more than almost any other senior minister. On the rare occasions when I encountered him socially, I either froze into a shaming, gawky silence or (even more shamingly) found myself talking much too loud and much too fast. His book has the same effect. One senses that one is in the presence of that rare animal, a good man. One then stands about, staring at the carpet and wishing that someone would say something.
Jay’s, by contrast, is one of the most revealing political autobiographies of the last twenty years. In the first place, he is almost free of bunkum. Even he cannot resist long accounts of EFTA ministerial meetings, but these are a small price to pay for his splendidly unedifying inability to think well of his opponents and his robust capacity to pursue old rivalries beyond the grave.
I never found I could harbour much sympathy with those who were deeply opposed to my convictions on fundamental issues such as appeasement, or the EEC, which affected the whole future of this country. To maintain amicable relations with people who disagree on minor arguable controversies, including some in other parties, is certainly a refreshing part of democratic life. But tolerance is one thing, and friendship another. It is hard in my experience to feel personal affection towards those who are actively working to destroy, however unconsciously, something for which one cares deeply.
Later passages make it clear that that is an understatement. Not only is Jay unable to like or sympathise with his opponents: he wilfully refuses to make the slightest effort to understand them. Thus he attributes Roy Jenkins’s support for British membership of the European Community to his friendship with the Bonham-Carter family and his consequent assimilation into the ‘Liberal way of life’, Lord Longford’s to his membership of the Roman Catholic Church, Michael Stewart’s to the influence of the Foreign Office, the Foreign Office’s to ‘departmental empire-building’ and the Conservative Party’s to its ‘age-long desire’ to reimpose taxes on food. The presence in the Pro-Market camp of non-Liberal, non-Catholic, non-food-taxing, non-empire-building non-friends of the Bonham-Carters is not even acknowledged, much less explained. As a contribution to history this is laughable. Without the support of mainstream Labour social democrats – without the Bill Rodgerses, the Willy Hamiltons, the Vic Feathers and the Roy Granthams – the Pro-Market cause would never have triumphed. But what would be inexcusable in a historian can be an advantage in an autobiographer. Jay’s resolute refusal to assume a mellowness he does not feel gives his book spice it would otherwise have lacked. It also helps his readers to understand why he acted as he did.
The same is true of his strange, half-envious, half-disapproving relationship with Richard Crossman, a Winchester and New College contemporary. After they left Winchester, Crossman was Jay’s closest confidant. But he let him down over an arrangement to share digs, and the shock to Jay was so ‘stunning’ that they did not speak again for some years. Looking back, Jay evidently sees Crossman as a kind of fallen angel, personifying the anti-Fabian (and anti-Wykhamist) principle of Unreliability. Crossman is for ever blurting things out when they ought to be kept secret, allowing himself to be captured by ephemeral enthusiasms for the fashionable and the meretricious, unsettling everybody by changing his mind for no good reason and, above all, making a fool of himself by allowing his unreliability and frivolity to be detected by others. At Winchester, he competes for the English poetry prize with ‘an elaborate and rather unintelligible composition in the latest fashionable style of T.S. Eliot’. He is beaten by Jay, who had the sense to play safe ‘with a series of sonnets in the manner of Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth and Keats’. At Oxford, he loudly proclaims his intention of competing for the Chancellor’s English Essay prize, only to forget all about it. As a new backbencher in the House of Commons, he ‘recklessly’ moves a critical amendment to the Address, and then fails to vote for it. As a fellow Cabinet Minister, he makes his colleagues wonder whether his prime object is ‘to carry out the Government’s policies or to collect material for his diaries’. For all this, there is a simple explanation. Not only was Crossman’s mother half-German, but one of his maternal grandfathers was wholly German. That fact, Jay writes darkly, ‘contributed, I realised in later years, to a fair understanding of Dick’.
Jay’s interpretation of it contributes even more to a fair understanding of Jay. He sees himself, above all, as a British patriot (or perhaps as an English one: significantly, he uses the words interchangeably, as though the Scots and Welsh did not exist) – in love with British ways, practising, as best he can, the solid, unpretentious British virtues and defending the British heritage from the slick, the glib and the cosmopolitan. The tastes which enabled him to beat Crossman in the competition for the poetry prize at Winchester remained with him at Oxford. There, Jay tells us, D.H. Lawrence and The Waste Land ‘attained almost the status of cults’. However, his own ‘lifelong distaste for fashion led me, I fear, somewhat to undervalue them. It was Hardy, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, Housman and above all Shakespeare’s Sonnets which to me rang truest and struck deepest.’ In a moving passage at the end of the book, he writes that, as he grows older, he becomes more attached to the values of Athens as against those of Sparta:
It may seem paradoxical to add that for that very reason my admiration for the spirit and institutions of this country grew incomparably stronger in the years 1939 to 1940, when I suppose the British showed the greatest fidelity in their history to the Spartan virtues. But in those years the British people also seemed to me to believe that they had something precious to defend, and wished to establish something even more civilised thereafter. What other country, after all, has preserved an unbroken record of constitutional government for nearly 300 years, and fought right through the two Great Wars, without attacking anyone else or being first attacked, to eventual victory? In a morass of transient controversies, let us not forget that. It is one reason why I can conceive of no better fortune when the time comes to cultivate private rather than public aspirations, than to live, love, garden and die, deep in the English country.
There is, of course, no logical connection between a love of Housman or the English countryside – or, for that matter, an admiration for Britain’s stand in 1940 – and opposition to membership of the EEC. In Jay’s case, at any rate, the emotional connection is so obvious that it scarcely needs pointing out: to him, being British means, among other things, not being European. Less obviously, his attitudes to England, English literature and English history also help to explain his otherwise baffling inability to understand his opponents on the opposite side of the argument. For the Pro-Marketeers were patriots too: but with a different sort of patriotism. For them, Britain was part of Europe, culturally, socially and politically as well as geographically. British history was a theme in European history, incomprehensible apart from the other European themes which were interwoven with it. To stand aside from the European union developing on the other side of the Channel would have been to deny, not perhaps Hugh Gaitskell’s tendentious ‘thousand years of history’, but the two thousand years since the Roman legions first set foot on British soil. Thus, for Jay, the Pro-Marketeers’ victory was an emotional affront as well as a political defeat. He cannot bring himself to find out what the Pro-Marketeers really thought, because he cannot bring himself to admit that he was defeated by the forces which in fact defeated him. He cannot do so because the very existence of those forces – or, at any rate, their existence in sufficient strength to win – denies both his view of the world and his image of himself.
None of this is true of Stewart. Like most Labour politicians, he was sceptical about British membership of the Community in the Fifties. But he changed his mind in the Sixties, and since then he has been one of the staunchest Pro-Marketeers in the Labour Party. On domestic policy, too, his attitudes are by no means identical with Jay’s. Though a right-winger, he has usually been closer to the ‘centre’ of the Labour Party than Jay. Had he not become Foreign Secretary, he would probably have been one of the most egalitarian Education Ministers in British history, a role which Jay would have found hard to fill. Despite these differences, however, it is the similarities between the two that strike the reader most, and it is in these similarities that their significance in Labour history lies.
Both first held ministerial office in the Attlee Government; both pay affectionate and perceptive tributes to Attlee’s character and achievements; both can best be understood politically as Attlee’s children. The term is most obviously appropriate for Jay. ‘Attlee,’ he writes, ‘was a straightforward Victorian Christian, who believed one should do one’s job and one’s duty, whether as an Army Officer or Member of Parliament or Prime Minister’; his own father, he adds, ‘was in character a similar type, and sprang from a similar background; so that the characteristics were not unrecognisable to me’. Stewart does not make an explicit comparison of that sort, but the reader senses a similar response:
The reliable, self-respecting working man and his wife, who have learnt that if they want justice they must strive for it themselves, not wait for the gentry to give it to them – these are the rock on which the Labour Party was built, and it was these who Clem not only represented, but came to personify ... Starting with conventional middle-class – and working-class – beliefs in king, Country and Empire, he had the vision to see how these ideas must develop in the 20th century: defence of the country required not only adequate forces but collective international action, and the Empire must become a multi-racial Commonweath ... As the record of his Government shows, he was ‘left-wing’ on matters of public ownership and the distribution of wealth, but had no patience with those who asked for the moon or expected everything to be done at once.
It is a good picture of Attlee and, for that matter, a good picture of Stewart. For those, like me, who grew up when the Attlee Revolution was in full swing, it is also an immensely attractive picture. Attlee was not the plaster saint some Labour mythologists have depicted. But the government he headed did more good to more people than any other British government of this century, and did it in a more honourable and honest way. As that formulation implies, it was, of course, a distinctly paternalist government, anxious to do good to people rather than to create the conditions in which people might do good to themselves and to each other: ‘the reliable, self-respecting working man’ is apt to have a short way with the unreliable and unselfrespecting. But although we are now conscious of the limits of paternalism, even of the most attractive sort, it would be anachronistic to blame Attlee and his colleagues for operating as they did. In 1945, no nonpaternalist option was available. The choice lay between Fabian paternalism and Tory paternalism. There can be no question that the Fabian variety was more generous, more compassionate, and closer to the attitudes and aspirations of its beneficiaries. The real trouble is that reliability – whether working man’s or Wykhamist’s – is no longer enough. Fabian paternalism has run its course, but the Fabian paternalists – precisely because paternalism was so successful thirty years ago – have hardly begun to recognise the fact. On the evidence presented here, Stewart and Jay are still unaware of it. They bring it home just the same.