Hugh Dalton 
by Ben Pimlott.
Cape, 731 pp., £25, March 1985, 0 224 02100 1
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Hugh Dalton was a Member of Parliament for 35 years, a minister for 12, a Front-Bencher for 30 and a member of the Labour Party National Executive for 25. In the Thirties, as Ben Pimlott shows in this absorbing, perceptive and sometimes moving biography, he played a central part (after Bevin, the central part) in dragging the Labour Party out of the semi-pacifist isolationism of the Twenties into a grudging acceptance of re-armament and, when necessary, the use of force. As President of the Board of Trade in the wartime coalition, he laid the foundations of the post-war Labour Government’s regional policies. As chairman of the policy sub-committee of the National Executive, he did more than anyone else to shape the economic strategy on which the Labour Party fought the 1945 Election. He wrote 12 books, one of which ran to five editions over thirty years, and edited two others. He was an assiduous, not to say relentless patron of bright and, if possible, handsome young men, counting among his protégés Hugh Gaitskell, the most impressive leader the Labour Party has ever had, and Tony Crosland, one of its two or three most important theorists.

Yet none of this justifies a meticulous biography of more than seven hundred pages. Though Pimlott cannot bring himself to admit it, the truth is that, in talent and personality, Dalton never quite belonged to the front rank of politics. To be sure, he was a robust and formidable party warhorse – a kind of William Harcourt or Roy Hattersley, say – with enormous energy, considerable administrative drive and a powerful debating style. But he captured no imaginations, lifted no horizons and inspired no disciples. He left worthy memorials – the National Parks, for instance, and the spread of light industry to the depressed North – but he did not change the political or intellectual landscape.

As Keynes implied when he nicknamed him ‘Daddy’, there was something faintly ludicrous about his gnawing hunger for advancement, his insatiable appetite for intrigue, and his odd mixture of self-importance and self-doubt. He was a fusser, a buttonholer, a clasper of shoulders, a pacer of lobbies, at least metaphorically a listener at keyholes, endlessly obsessed by the narcissistic gossip and jockeying for position of the Westminster stock-exchange of reputations. As a minister he was also, and less forgivably, an appalling – in James Meade’s phrase, a ‘paranoid’ – bully, shouting at civil servants who could not answer back, insulting senior officials in the presence of their juniors, and displaying an astonishing incapacity to understand the ethic of public service or the requirements of team management.

Sometimes, he got his come-uppance. The best of Pimlott’s rich store of anecdotes concerns Dalton’s stormy relationship with Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, his Director General when he was Minister of Economic Warfare.

Dalton, it was alleged, had issued a peremptory order for Leith-Ross to attend on him instantly. When a Private Secretary explained that Sir Frederick was not available, the Minister merely repeated the command. Tracking down the Director General to the lavatory, the embarrassed Secretary passed a note under the door. ‘Tell him,’ came the reply, ‘that I can only deal with one shit at a time.’

Other anecdotes show Dalton in a more endearing, though still rather ridiculous light. A favourite one, of which there were several versions, describes his technique for building support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Roy Jenkins’s version is probably the neatest:

Once, as we were entering the Chamber, Hugh called cheerfully to a working-class member: ‘Hello, Fred!’ Turning to me, he said: ‘You know, Roy, you’ll never get on in politics until you learn to call that chap Fred.’ I pointed out gently that in fact the man’s name was Bert.

As all this implies, he makes a fascinating psychological study. Beneath the bluster and showmanship, Dalton was an unusually tormented member of a species more than usually prone to torment. At first sight, he seemed the ruling-class renegade par excellence: Old Etonian; Kingsman; son of a canon of Windsor who had once been tutor to the future George V. But he was not quite as ruling-class as he looked and sounded. He belonged to the clerisy, not to the baronage: to the exam-passing classes, rather than to the order-giving ones. To use Harold Macmillan’s classification, he was a ‘gownsman’, not a ‘swordsman’. Unfortunately, he did not pass his exams well enough to be a really confident gownsman. He was an Oppidan at Eton, not a Colleger; a closed exhibitioner at King’s, not a scholar. Though he got a good Second, it was, after all, a Second. He never made ‘Pop’, and was not elected to the Apostles. In the ‘homoerotic’ culture of pre-1914 Cambridge, he was, again, an also-ran. He was obviously in love with Rupert Brooke. As obviously, Rupert Brooke soon found him a tiresome bore. His marriage seems to have been a disaster, and his emotional life a desert. His daughter – bundled off to a residential home at the age of four and, on Pimlott’s evidence, shamefully neglected by both parents – died in early childhood.

Though Pimlott does not put it quite like this, the strong implication of his book is that, for Dalton, socialism was a kind of revenge. Like the 17th-century puritans who hated the bear-baiters more than they loved the bears, he hated the ruling class more than he loved the ruled. In his case, the tired Tory jibe that egalitarianism is about levelling down rather than about levelling up contained a distinct element of truth. ‘Dalton’s most vulgar insults were reserved for Tories,’ Pimlott writes:

De Freitas saw him as the ‘first of the upper-class renegades’, who liked nothing better than the shocked faces of those who kept the old social code. He took pleasure in being a bounder and a cad, the kind of chap you itched to duck in the school pond or blackball from the club. Once, dining at the House, he interrupted his own monologue to boom in the direction of a Tory MP: ‘What’s that suburbanite looking at me for!’ The MP looked unhappy. ‘Come on, let’s show him how we in the Labour Party behave!’ Dalton started to shovel peas into his mouth with a knife.

All this adds to the gaiety of nations, but it hardly bears the weight of a major historical study. Dalton the man, even Dalton the opposition politician and wartime minister, would deserve, at most, an extended essay. The justification for Pimlott’s seven hundred pages lies in Dalton’s position as a member of the ‘Big Five’ – the inner circle of key ministers who dominated the Attlee Government in its initially exuberant but subsequently hag-ridden first two years. To be sure, he was personally, and in some ways politically, the fifth of the five. Bevin and Cripps, the first two, were men of genius – ruthlessly egocentric, no doubt, and sometimes catastrophically wrong, but towering above their colleagues in force and will. Dalton was not remotely in their class. Attlee and Morrison, the second two, were not in their class either. Both, however, outgunned Dalton – not in intellectual ability, but in resilience, in political nous and, on a deeper level, in inner toughness and self-confidence.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1945 to 1947, however, Dalton’s ministerial position was pivotal – more so, in some ways, than he seemed to realise himself. During the war, at any rate in its later stages, the Treasury did not count for much. So long as the Americans footed the bill for Britain’s over-extended war machine, the constraint that mattered was manpower, not money. Bevin’s Ministry of Labour was then the key economic department, not the Treasury. Peace changed all that. For the 1945 Government, as for all subsequent Labour Governments, the central, overriding, by the end almost all-encompassing issue was how to squeeze a quart out of a pint pot – how to marry the humane and generous aspirations of the party of the bottom dog with the cold realities of inadequate resources, excessive commitments and the pressures of an economic system run by top dogs. The key figure in squaring that circle was bound to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the abiding significance of Dalton’s political career lies in the way he responded to its challenge.

Judged by results – and results are as good a test for cabinet ministers as they are for the rest of us – he did not respond very skilfully. The circle was not squared. Aspirations and resources did not marry. The convertibility clauses of the American loan agreement, accepted with so many heart-searchings in 1945, had to be suspended in August 1947, only a month after they had come into force. The continuing drain of gold and dollars was halted only by a deflationary autumn budget two and a half months later. The 1945 Government, in short, followed essentially the same cycle – though on a higher level, so to speak – as those followed by its successors of 1964 and 1974. An ebullient upswing, when new hope seemed momentarily to triumph over old experience, was suddenly cut short by a crisis, when the constraints of the external world drew in. Then came a long downswing of austerity, wage restraint and public expenditure cuts, accompanied by pangs of guilt and cries of betrayal. Dalton presided over the key economic department during the upswing, and took no action to avert the crisis before it broke. It may or may not have been his fault. The fact remains that, after two years in the Treasury, the basic assumptions underlying his management of the economy were in ruins. His unnecessary resignation after a trivial breach of Budget secrecy merely set the seal on what was clearly an agonising moral and psychological defeat.

Pimlott enters a vigorous plea for the defence, which sometimes reads like ‘not guilty’, but which really amounts to ‘guilty with extenuating circumstances’. Unfortunately, the one weakness in an otherwise splendid book is that his argument in this crucial section is a bit muddled, and I may therefore have misunderstood it. The essence seems to be that the 1947 crisis could have been avoided only by greater austerity at an earlier stage, and that greater austerity at an earlier stage would have imperilled the Government’s all-important social policies. ‘Arguably,’ Pimlott writes, ‘ “self-denial” on a scale necessary to avert a crisis would have meant postponing Labour’s social programme sine die.’ And he adds, in a later passage: ‘A social revolution was undertaken between 1945 and 1947. Such a revolution required, not only courage and determination, but an element of blind faith.’ Dalton, he implies, had more blind faith than the rest of the inner circle. But for this, but for his refusal to sacrifice Labour’s welfare objectives to the requirements of the external balance, the achievements for which the 1945 Government has gone down in history might never have happened.

It is a clever defence, but it is also a specious one. Blind faith is not the ally of radicalism. It is its most insidious and destructive enemy. Radicalism, radicalism in government at any rate, is about choice. Again and again in the history of the British Left, blind faith has provided excuses for postponing or avoiding choice. The incoming 1964 Government, faced with a choice between devaluation and deflation, preferred faith, and ended by having to devalue as well as deflate. The 1974 Government, faced with a choice between unemployment and an incomes policy, put its faith in the social contract, and ended with no social contract, no incomes policy and an unemployment rate twice what it had been when it came into power. The 1945 Government was incomparably more successful than these, of course, but if it had been a little less blind in its first two years, it might have been more successful still. It was, after all, the 1947 crisis which revived the credibility and restored the morale of the Conservative opposition, and began the long process of Labour self-questioning and self-doubt which ended in the Bevanite split in 1951. If it had been avoided, even at the cost of slower progress in the first two years, the Left might have kept the political initiative, and the whole history of post-war Britain might have been different.

Half-hidden by the doctrine of blind faith, however, a much better defence can be detected between the lines. The social services were not the sole contributors to the quart which Attlee and his colleagues were trying to squeeze out of their pint pot. Another – and, with hindsight, a much less respectable contributor – was the Government’s unflinching determination to maintain Britain’s role as a world power. As Pimlott points out, the real function of the American loan was to buy time. The Government undoubtedly spent part of the time it bought on the social revolution of 1945 to 1947. It spent another part on a doomed attempt to cling to a great-power status which had gone for ever. Its critics were right in thinking that it was piling excessive burdens on a shattered economy. They were wrong in thinking that the burdens were solely the fruit of soft-hearted socialist egalitarianism. Robust, old-fashioned patriotism and a high-minded sense of responsibility to the rest of mankind were at least as much to blame. Here Dalton ranks with what must, from the vantage-point of forty years later, be cast as the angels. Pimlott makes it clear that he fought for cuts in overseas commitments and military expenditure, and endorses Dalton’s own judgment that it was the ‘mulish resistance’ of the Foreign Office and the defence departments which stopped him from having his way. He also concedes, however, that Dalton’s inability to make his will prevail on what was, after all, the central issue facing the Government and Party was the symptom of a fatal political weakness. High politics is a rough game; there are no prizes for honourable defeat. Dalton’s defeats were honourable enough. They were defeats all the same.

In the end, moreover, defeat on military expenditure and blindness towards the economic implications of the Welfare State went together. In retrospect, the really striking feature of the Attlee Government is that – for all the talk of sacrifice, austerity, the export drive and the dollar gap – no one grasped the full significance of the wartime revolution in the balance of world economic power. No one saw that, materially though hardly morally, Britain belonged with the vanquished, not with the victors: that she had escaped defeat and occupation, not through her own merits, still less through her own strength, but through her good fortune in being allied to the two super-powers which were now busily dividing the world between them: and that her industrial base was as weak as, in some important respects weaker than, that of devastated Central Europe. By the same token, no one realised that the social revolution she needed was not the benign and kindly revolution of consumption foreshadowed in a decade and a half of Fabian summer schools, but a much harsher, almost Jacobin revolution of production, designed to smash the structures and root out the habits which had already produced more than half a century of relative economic decline. Excessive welfare commitments at home and excessive military commitments abroad were different sides of the same coin. Both were symptoms of, and at the same time contributors to, the inability or unwillingness of a proud old country to see how far it had come down in the world. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dalton was in a better position to see this than any other Minister. He failed to do so. In that, he was a child of his time – no less, but also no more.

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