Labour’s Lost Leader

A.J. Ayer

If only Hugh Gaitskell had not died when he did. If only he had led the Labour Party into the General Election of 1964. He had at last succeeded in imposing his ascendency over the party – an ascendency repeatedly challenged in the eight years he had led it, all the time in opposition. Would he not have become Prime Minister with a larger majority? Would not his government have dealt more successfully with the economic troubles of the Sixties? Might he not have retained power in 1970, and so saved us from the disastrous years of the Heath government? Might we not consequently have been spared our present discontents?

These are questions that I often put to myself. If I answer them in the affirmative, it is less a political judgment than the consequence of my respect and affection for the man himself. I was only a personal friend of his and of his family, never a political associate, though the experiences of the Thirties had instilled into me an abiding loyalty to the Labour Party. I believed in him as a leader partly because of his personal qualities, the extraordinary strength of will which was his salient characteristic, his respect for reasoned argument, his courage in defending his beliefs, partly because his conception of the Labour Party agreed with my own, with its primary emphasis on social justice, and its avoidance of Marxist shibboleths. Not that we often discussed politics. I was attracted by his sociability, his zest for pleasure of many kinds, the breadth of his conversation, his passion for dancing, which I shared. He did not allow his political convictions to limit his choice of friends, being very different in this respect from his mentor G.D.H. Cole, who is said to have been unwilling even to ask a Conservative to dance. This lack of social puritanism aroused the suspicion and hostility of some of his political followers who were not admitted to his ‘Hampstead circle’. Already distrustful of his Wykehamist and New College background, they feared that he would develop into a second Ramsay MacDonald. In fact, he was remarkably free from snobbery either of the direct or of the inverted type. Mr Philip Williams, in the political biography which he has now published after many years of research, implies that Gaitskell was a good mixer. He cites evidence of Gaitskell’s abiding popularity in his own constituency, the ease with which he made himself at home in working-men’s clubs, his winning golden opinions from all sorts of people. From my own much more limited observation, I am inclined to think that this picture is overdrawn. Gaitskell could also give the impression that he did not suffer fools gladly, and of having a quick temper which he was not always able to control. Not surprisingly, he became more testy in the difficult period following his loss of the 1959 election and the challenge to his authority posed in 1960 by the advocates of nuclear disarmament. The only time that I can remember our quarrelling was when I made a favourable remark about Bertrand Russell. Russell’s admittedly intemperate views on the danger of nuclear warfare, and his readiness to attribute evil motives to those who disagreed with him on this issue, made it impossible for Hugh to recognise his greatness even as a philosopher.

Mr Williams’s book is not a work of hagiography – he tries to paint his hero warts and all and admits that he made tactical mistakes – but it is a labour of love, indeed rather too laborious. Together with the notes and index, the book runs to over a thousand pages. It has relatively little to say about Hugh Gaitskell’s private life, but it runs through every detail of his political career, from his adopting the cause of the strikers in the General Strike of 1926, while he was still an Oxford undergraduate, through his experiences as a WEA lecturer at Nottingham, his teaching economics at University College, London, his fighting an unsuccessful campaign at Chatham before his adoption by the safe Labour constituency of South Leeds, his becoming personal assistant to Hugh Dalton during the war at the Ministry of Economic Warfare, his success as a civil servant in his own right, his election to Parliament in 1945, his rapid rise in the Attlee Governments to being, first, Minister of Fuel and Power, and then Chancellor of the Exchequer at the age of 45, his 1951 budget, his complicated relations with Aneurin Bevan, his election to the leadership, down to the defeats and triumphs of his last years.

We are given accounts of his travels abroad, his dealings with the Americans, the Russians and with European socialists, his shifting relations with his colleagues, inside and outside the trade unions, the many memoranda that he wrote, his successive positions on major and minor issues of policy and principle. The research is very impressive. An enormous amount of reading has been done, a vast number of persons interviewed. The reader may sometimes find himself wishing for a little less detail, but the writing is lucid, and a clear picture emerges both of the man and of the problems that he faced at different times in his short but highly charged career.

On nearly all the issues Mr Williams takes Gaitskell’s side. On many grounds, Nye Bevan had the better claim to succeed Attlee in the leadership. He came from the working class, he was the more brilliant speaker, and the readier in debate, but, as Mr Williams shows, he had defects of temperament which made the more controlled Hugh Gaitskell the better choice. I think that Mr Williams is a little indulgent to Gaitskell over the question of the Common Market, to which Gaitskell’s opposition came to be more passionate, and infected with more of a hint of demagogy, than the issues justified. On the other hand, I agree with Mr Williams that Gaitskell was right to make a stand over the question of unilateralism. This is not to say that his opponents overrated the evils of nuclear warfare, but that was not really the point at issue. The question was whether we should remain in Nato, with the responsibilities which this implied, and I believe that Gaitskell was right in thinking that we should.

When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, he gave the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he never could quite believe that he had achieved the office: at least, that he never felt wholly secure in it. This would not have been true of Hugh Gaitskell. He would have felt at home in the Premiership, and I believe that he would have adorned it.