The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell 1945-1956 
by Philip Williams.
Cape, 720 pp., £25, September 1983, 0 224 01911 2
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Political diaries are the raw material of both biography and history. Philip Williams, who has already quarried Gaitskell’s diary for his own massive biography, is not likely to have found significant new material in subsequently editing it for publication, or to have gained new insights. If he has, he has not drawn attention to them. Those who want the Gaitskell story, the man against his times, the man in the round, as seen by a scholar and admirer, will want to read Mr Williams’s own full-length portrait.

The diary is, moreover, incomplete in a number of crucial respects. First, it falls silent on 9 October 1956. Thus it excludes many – indeed most – of the major and traumatic events of the Gaitskell Leadership: the uneasy partnership with Aneurin Bevan as Deputy Leader; the 1959 General Election defeat and the subsequent struggle over the philosophy of the party; the Clause Four row of 1959-60; the first flowering and defeat of unilateralism in 1960-61; and, following his rejection of the Common Market in 1962, Gaitskell’s final triumph as Leader, both within the Labour Party and with the wider public outside.

Second, while 1945-56, the period covered by the diary, is in itself substantial and important, both in terms of Gaitskell’s own development and in terms of the major national and party events with which he was involved, he was a peculiar and irregular diarist. There are large omissions: 1945-47 has no more than thirty pages; 1947-49 one hundred pages; 1952-54 is covered by a few sketchy notes; and his own – successful – leadership campaign to succeed Attlee in December 1955 is totally omitted. Further, much of the diary was written, not on a daily or weekly basis, but as a series of retrospective essays, covering, according to the pace of events, from one to three months at a time.

These omissions inevitably pose the question: how did Gaitskell himself see his diary? An intellectual discipline, a self-imposed requirement to reflect on and learn from his own experience? A means of emotional and intellectual release? A record for history? A defence against misrepresentation? A source for a much later volume of memoirs or autobiography, never to be written? Gaitskell’s own explanation, to record ‘what might be called “inside events” of interest to future historians, or even the public generally’, is not satisfactory since what was excluded was certainly no less important than what was recorded. Yet no man who keeps a diary, running to six hundred printed pages, over an 11-year period, can fail to be strongly motivated. Why then did the engine and the energy falter so often – and why did it switch off altogether for the last six years? Mr Williams is himself perplexed. And his own explanation – that Gaitskell was only sufficiently motivated during those periods when, as a minister or as Leader, he was dealing directly with great events – is no more than a hypothesis.

Nevertheless, 11 years is far more than a fragment. It spans three main periods in Gaitskell’s political life. First, his ministerial experience in the 1945-51 Labour Governments; second, the long struggle with Aneurin Bevan which exploded with Bevan’s resignation in April 1951 and which ended (with Bevan but not with the Bevanites) only when Bevan became Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1957; third, Gaitskell’s first nine months as Leader and his heavy preoccupation, during that time, with the Russians whose leaders, Khrushchev and Bulganin, made their first visit to London, and with the events that led to the fiasco, the humiliation, of the Suez affair.

Gaitskell’s ministerial life began, in the first months of 1946, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, with Shinwell as his chief. They did not get on, and when Gaitskell took Shinwell’s place after the fuel crisis of 1947, he earned a major enemy for many years to come. But what the diary reveals, more clearly than I have seen elsewhere, is the important part that Gaitskell, though not a full member of the Cabinet, played thanks to his membership of the Cabinet’s Economic Sub-Committee, and, in the absence of Cripps, ill in Geneva, in taking the key government decision to devalue the pound in 1949. It was undoubtedly this that paved the way for his appointment, after the February 1950 General Election, as Minister of State at the Treasury, with large responsibilities for both public expenditure and international economic policy – and then, when ill health forced Cripps to resign, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was a creative and successful period, with Gaitskell – public expenditure apart – obviously in his element, enjoying every moment and gaining authority in Parliament, in the country, and with opposite numbers in both the USA and Europe.

On the other hand, it was this very ministerial experience which both prepared Gaitskell for and brought him into conflict with Bevan: a conflict whose prolonged and embittered course dominates the greater part of the diary. As Minister of Fuel and Power, Gaitskell gained the support of the National Union of Mineworkers, the friendship of that redoubtable sage and miners’ leader, Sam Watson, and through him, powerful new friends in the dominant section of the Trade Union movement: allegiances that were to be crucial in his subsequent battle for power with Bevan. The conflict with Bevan arose over Gaitskell’s Treasury role as controller of public expenditure. If devaluation was to work, if the dollar gap was to be closed, and the UK’s industrial base strengthened, public expenditure would have to be contained – as had been agreed by Sir Stafford Cripps (not Gaitskell) and the Cabinet earlier in 1949. What gave additional urgency to the issue was the Korean War in June 1950 and the Cabinet’s subsequent decisions, on two occasions, to increase and to increase again the UK’s defence programme.

The major over-spending department was the Ministry of Health and, in particular, the recently-established National Health Service, whose expenditure needs could not be accurately estimated and which was what we would call today a demand-led service. A special sub-committee under Attlee’s own chairmanship was set up to invigilate the Health Minister’s expenditure, with Bevan as chief defendant and Gaitskell as Treasury prosecutor. No one who has served in a Cabinet (including Mr Michael Heseltine today) would fail to recognise the reality of the problem and, given the political sensitivity of the National Health Service in the Labour Party (or of defence in the Conservative Party), its explosive potential.

Bevan first fought a successful rearguard action but, from the moment Gaitskell became Chancellor in the summer of 1950, they were set on a collision course. Cornered by Gaitskell’s 1951 Budget proposals, which included charges on teeth and spectacles, Bevan not for the first time – and he was by no means the first or last minister to do so – threatened resignation. Whether or not he meant it seriously, from the moment he publicly stated – in reply to a question at a heated public meeting in Southwark – that he would not serve in a government that put charges on the Health Service, the die was cast. Bevan could not back down: Gaitskell could either suffer a major personal defeat or resign himself. At the crucial moment, Attlee, the conciliator, was in hospital; Morrison in the Prime Minister’s chair. Gaitskell prevailed, and ten days after the decision to introduce the necessary Health Service charges legislation was announced, Bevan resigned.

Could it, even at a late stage, have been avoided? Possibly, not certainly. The chemistry of the two men made it highly unlikely. Michael Foot, in his eulogistic biography of his great friend, Bevan, quotes this passage from an obituary of Gaitskell, written in 1963 by John Strachey, who had strong relations with both men and who attended, as they did, the weekly dinner given for a small group of ministers by Stafford Cripps. Bevan, writes Foot, ‘would give Gaitskell a verbal lashing, and Gaitskell would reply with cold silence or a dry, factual contradiction. Walking away with Bevan one night, Strachey asked him why he was doing it: “Why are you going out of your way to make a rift between yourself and one of the really considerable men of the government?” “Considerable,” Bevan replied, “but he is nothing, nothing, nothing! ...” “I tried to explain to Bevan,” continued Strachey, “that the quiet rather slight man who sat opposite him had ‘a will like a dividing spear’.” ’ There is an element of Greek tragedy in all this, as though some inscrutable fate had decreed that Bevan and Gaitskell would find themselves locked in a conflict whose consequences were to affect not only themselves but the position of their party for years to come. Increasingly venomous, their quarrel encompassed, not just the Health Service, but foreign and defence policy, the philosophy and future direction of the Labour Party and, last but by no means least, the struggle for Attlee’s succession.

The Parliamentary Party split at the point of Bevan’s resignation. Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned with him, but the division was kept within bounds by the need to sustain the Government until Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 General Election. After that, the conflict rapidly increased in momentum: the Bevanites, with the Tribune group pamphleteering on their behalf, won the constituency section of the National Executive Committee and division in the Parliamentary Labour Party sharpened in consequence. Bevan’s mercurial temperament led to some extraordinary and self-defeating actions: his crude rebuke of Attlee from the Front Bench for what he considered to be an inadequate response to the Conservative Government’s statement on the Seato Treaty; his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet; his annual and unsuccessful contests with Gaitskell for the Treasurership of the Labour Party; his long campaign against German rearmament; his defiance of majority decisions of the PLP; the withdrawal of the Whip and his near-expulsion from the Party itself – frustrated at the last minute by Attlee – just before the 1955 General Election. In all of this Gaitskell was a principal adversary – increasingly angry with Attlee for his vacillation and with Bevan for his obduracy. The struggle reached its climax when Attlee resigned in December 1955, and Gaitskell became Leader of the party, defeating Bevan by a large majority.

In the third part of the diary, which covers the first nine months of Gaitskell’s Leadership, the Bevan theme is still there: but so, too, is the first glimpse of a modus vivendi, with Gaitskell’s offer and Bevan’s acceptance of the post of Shadow Colonial Secretary and, with it, his return to the Front Bench. Later that year, Bevan returned to the NEC as Party Treasurer – the post for which he had fought Gaitskell for the previous three years. But the change in their relationship was slow and uncertain. It was external events, though they approached them from very different angles, that nudged them together. The famous Khruschev dinner, given by the National Executive Committee, produced a Khruschev harangue of such sustained hostility to democratic socialism in general, and to the Labour Party in particular, that Bevan, no less than Gaitskell, was driven to forceful rebuttal and a restatement of the democratic socialist position. Similarly, in the crisis that followed Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, the two men were united in opposition to the folly, the deceit, the self-injury of that abortive escapade. These events – with the gaps in the diary skilfully and economically filled by Mr Williams – provide a continuing narrative and one that makes compelling reading: it leaves this reader at least with a strong sense of frustration that the diary should end on 9 October 1956, with the still more dramatic events of Gaitskell’s remaining six years as Leader either unrecorded or the record lost.

Unlike Attlee who preceded him and Wilson who followed him, he was an authentic figure of the Right. Certainly a genuine democratic socialist, but, by background, experience and temperament, an ‘insider’, a member of the new radical and intellectual Establishment. Within days of entering the House, as the first entry in the diary records, he is dining with the new Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, whom he served as a temporary top civil servant and friend during the war: ‘We talked about the officials in the Treasury and gave warnings against AB, WE and NBG. I spoke up strongly for Dennis (Proctor) and proposed that he should try and get John Maude.’ Indeed, so strong was Gaitskell’s recent Civil Service experience that, after attending another Dalton dinner for new MPs on 30 July 1945, he wrote, not a diary entry, but a minute – a first-class minute – in which the contribution of each was pithily recorded, with the Chancellor opening the discussion and Major Mayhew, Major Blackburn, Captain Chetwynd, Major Freeman, Mr Brown, Mr Gaitskell, Major Wyatt, Mr Durbin, Mr Willmott, Major Younger and Major Wells duly contributing, and the Chancellor summing up at the end. It would never have occurred to Gaitskell to say, as Wilson did – because he, Wilson, only hoped it was true – that ‘Labour is the natural party of government.’ Gaitskell took it for granted that Labour was at least a party of government and that he and his personal associates (though by no means all the then Labour ministers) were more than adequately equipped to govern. And he was right.

Honesty, courage, intelligence, reliability, judgment, loyalty and industry were the qualities that he himself possessed; and they provided the standards by which he judged his colleagues and contemporaries. Many fell short. Dick Crossman was ‘of course, unreliable ... one moment very good and sensible, at another moment totally lacking in judgment’. James Callaghan ‘causes me a bit of concern ... he is a most talented Parliamentarian and a man of very considerable charm, but he seems to me to have absolutely no philosophical basis. You never know what he is going to say.’ Of Edith Summerskill: ‘the more I see of her the less my opinion of her. She is extremely emotional, she does not listen very carefully, she is not really intelligent.’ Tony Benn, ‘although talented in many ways, a good speaker and a man of ideas, had extraordinarily poor judgment. He is the last person in the world I would go to for advice on policy.’ As for the National Executive Committee, there was an appalling lack of people who had both courage and intelligence. Apart from Jim Griffiths and, to a lesser extent, Harold Wilson, ‘frankly most of the rest are either just incapable of making good speeches – this is true of the best trade-union ones – or just entirely lacking in courage, with only one idea, namely to get as many cheers from the Left Wing as possible.’ Conference delegates, too, were of poor quality, ‘in the sense that most of them were remote from reality, miles and miles from the electorate.’ These are headmasterly judgments: but they were not malicious, and they were subject to revision – as performance improved.

Gaitskell wanted to get things done – and men and women competent to do them. Therefore, he wanted government, not opposition. He held firm principles and was intellectually convinced of the case for equality, liberty and international law. But he was concerned with the achievable, not the ultimate goals. His were the politics of conscience and reform, of reason and argument. What marked him as a leader of the Right was not the qualities, the standards or the principles that he espoused, but those other qualities and values of the Left that he failed to recognise or even found difficult to respect. What was missing was the poetry, not the prose; the politics of the heart, not the head; that special brand of romanticism and idealism that motivates so much of the Labour movement; the belief in the infinite possibilities of improvement, the perfectibility of man, the brotherhood that should unite the human race: a glimpse of Jerusalem. And that special abomination for an economic and social system that sets man against man. The imagination to see, and the will to accomplish, a new society.

It is this, not just a clash of ambitions and differences of policy, that lay at the heart of his conflict with Bevan. Bevan encapsulated the myth of the Party and made it, in the Health Service, vividly real. In a socialist Britain, every adult and child, however sick, however poor, would, to the limits not of money but of medical skill, be helped and healed. To Gaitskell, the Health Service was just one important part of a network of social services. All of it had to fit in with what the nation could afford, and to ask for open-ended spending on the Health Service was special pleading: the values were wrong and he was determined, not just to win the vote, but to win the argument and to prove he was right. Something similar was to happen again three years after the diary closed, in the great debate on Clause Four. A commitment to common ownership was the symbol and touchstone of the Party’s faith, and its will to change the basis of society. To Gaitskell it was an over-simple dogma and his intellectual honesty – as well as electoral considerations – impelled him to assault it.

The conflicting values and attitudes of Gaitskell and Bevan, of Right and Left, were real. And the gulf was constantly widened by the wild partisanship of their supporters, for both men had the capacity to charm and were able to evoke the deepest loyalties of those who knew them. So, caricatures and stereotypes were created: Bevan was reviled by Fleet Street and Gaitskell was the chief victim of the opinion-forming Labour press. Vicky’s brilliant cartoons, the Bevanite writers on the New Statesman, Tribune and Reynolds News, rarely ceased to denigrate and ridicule. And the lash of Nye’s tongue – the characterisation of Gaitskell as a ‘desiccated calculating machine’ – struck home. But Gaitskell had emotion, indeed passion, as the Suez crisis revealed; and after Bevan’s death, this was to be come even more evident in the course of his struggle against unilateralism and the Common Market. While Bevan conjured up the very spirit of socialism, it was Gaitskell who reached the deepest instincts of the British people. In the parlance of today, they should have been ‘a dream ticket’: but they were not.

Contemplating the Labour Party today, some will say that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The actors have changed; the issues – many of them – have moved on: but the heart and the head, the dream and the reality, continue, in their different mix, to motivate Left and Right in the Labour Party. They always will. The Labour Party cannot be led successfully either by those who are immersed in the dream or by those who have never glimpsed Jerusalem. It is that which makes the Labour Party so particularly difficult to lead – and it is also what makes leadership so essential in the Labour Party.

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