Crossman and Social Democracy
- The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman edited by Janet Morgan
Hamish Hamilton/Cape, 1136 pp, £15.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 241 10440 8
The intellectual in politics has often been tortured by the dilemma of his role. Either he has attempted to turn himself into a real politician, adopting the posture of his new travelling companions as men of action and decision, and jettisoning his bookish lumber as ‘not wanted on voyage’. Alternatively, he has minced around like a political eunuch, uneasily conscious that something is missing, but anxious that people should not suspect that it is his integrity. The career of Richard Crossman refuted these stereotypes rather in the manner that Samuel Johnson, by stubbing his foot against a rock, claimed to refute Berkeley: what was lost as a formal exercise was pure gain as an object lesson. For Crossman remained incorrigibly attached to the habits and training of an academic milieu without ever forgetting that it was as an intellectual in politics that he had a peculiar usefulness.
Crossman’s diary was a natural extension of his role as he understood it. He had not only a political fascination with the pursuit of power but also an intellectual fascination with the analysis of the process in which he was involved. The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister which he kept from 1964 to 1970 have already established a unique status as a source on how Britain is actually governed, a century after Walter Bagehot’s classic celebration of the British constitution. The Backbench Diaries might well have borrowed a title from another famous diarist and been called My Apprenticeship. We see here the origins of Crossman’s subsequent enterprise. ‘I do happen to feel at the moment that I am capable of investigating well and writing well,’ he wrote in February 1959, ‘but on the other hand I must be in the Cabinet if I am going to write the book I want, which is not a repetition of Bagehot (Bagehot was never in Government) but something of my own, even more from inside ...’ Books by cabinet ministers are ten a penny, but not many of them had the bright idea of becoming cabinet ministers in order to write the book.
It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that these earlier diaries are in any sense of secondary interest. They too are ‘even more from inside’ than any rival account, and the subject here is of absorbing attention at present. This is a record of the inner workings of the Labour Party during the transition from the Attlee era to the Wilson years. The period covered saw the Bevanite revolt in the early 1950s, the subsequent emergence of a revisionist critique of socialism, and the efforts by Hugh Gaitskell to fight and fight again to save the party which many of his political heirs have now abandoned.
The first question is whether we can trust this text. The editor, Janet Morgan, with her experience of putting the later volumes of Diaries of a Cabinet Minister into shape, has adopted similar methods here. The original diaries run with some breaks from October 1951 to December 1963 – some three million words in all, reduced to under one million in the printed version. Crossman used to dictate the diary to his secretary at intervals of a week or so, and she typed a transcript which he seldom revised himself. The published text has evidently been well weeded by Dr Morgan, and it is gratifying rather than irritating to spot the rare errors which survive. For example, Crossman’s lament at the apparent end of the Bevanite activities in December 1952 – ‘A fellow’s occupation gone’ – might suggest that Desdemona was suspected of carrying on with another fellow. Again, it is a happy discovery that Harold Wilson should affirm ‘the need to revise some kind of puritanism in the Party’ – a kind of revisionism in fact deplored by Wilson who, Crossman went on to note, ‘was careful to remind me twice that he couldn’t tell the difference between hock and burgundy, though he is quite good at drinking either.’
Such mishearings are not at all disturbing since they supply internal testimony to the diary’s mode of composition. Crossman acquired a tape-recorder in October 1962, at a time when the diary had lapsed for nearly a year, and this helped him to resume his task from February 1963. Thereafter, the text has been reconstituted from the tapes. There is some change of style, generally not for the better. The last section of the Backbench Diaries is really an appendage or postscript, and the busy reader can rest assured that he will find the choicest material in the first thousand pages.
Historians have often made a good thing out of implying that the mystery of their craft is wrapped up in combing archives. But the telephone manifests a spectre of technological redundancy hardly less fearsome than that which has stalked the print room. ‘Political crisis seems to mean chatting on the telephone and doing nothing,’ Crossman records in 1955. This is the characteristic medium for urgent and informal communication, and letters are increasingly reserved for matters of deliberate record. Hence the indispensability of a diary one can rely on. It is obvious, of course, that the diarist is not immune from the effects of hindsight, ignorance, partiality, bias and self-justification in what he writes. In Crossman’s case, these distortions are not disabling.
He is singularly free from self-deception and his candour often punctures his own pretensions. For instance, the ‘pretty good speech’ he made in the Profumo debate was ignored by the newspapers, and he ruefully acknowledged that ‘it was a bit disconcerting’ and ‘a humbling experience’. He always wanted to learn, not to cover up. He had a good opinion of himself, of course. But his was not the smooth, imperturbable vanity consonant with concealment – so much as a rough, thrusting arrogance that made for exposure. Perhaps it helped that almost to the end of this period he saw himself as ‘first a political journalist and only secondarily a parliamentary politician’. He had none of the tactful, discreet, dissimulating ways of the political time-server. He could never resist blowing the gaff, and was happiest making the news, finding the news, telling the news. As he wrote on a trip to Germany in 1960, ‘if I work sixteen hours a day, over-eat, over-drink, over-talk, I feel better and better, mainly because I am away, on the job, doing things I really can do and causing a commotion.’
The chronic factionalism of Labour politics in the 1950s is usually seen as a simple clash between Left and Right – a view which was common at the time, not least because it flattered the self-image of many active participants. But, as Crossman’s account suggests, this is a simplistic view. The conflict was on three related levels: Bevanites versus Gait-skellites, Left versus Right, fundamentalists versus revisionists. Indeed, the conflation of these categories is precisely the reason for some prevalent misconceptions about what happened in this traumatic period and about the nature of the Labour Party which emerged from it. Crossman himself clearly recognised the historical starting-point for Labour’s immediate predicament. Speaking in 1955 – to Shirley Catlin’s Constituency Party, as it happens – he attempted ‘to give them a fairly objective picture of how the policy differences had arisen after the death of Ernie Bevin and Cripps and the completion of Labour’s mission in 1948’. With the building of the welfare state and the establishment of the basic nationalised industries, the Labour Party had fulfilled its agreed aims. Only the aims on which it could not agree remained. It had eliminated a huge area of consensus within the Party, as enshrined in the 1945 programme, by carrying out its election promises – a hazardous procedure which has prudently been avoided by all subsequent governments.
By 1951, Labour’s Old Guard was palpably on the way out. Attlee had been fortunate to have around him not only men that were fat, notably Bevin, but also men that were thin, notably Cripps, who likewise did not threaten his leadership, despite the mordant spectacle of Herbert Morrison’s hand twitching uneasily beneath his toga. But a struggle for the succession was bound to ensue, with Aneurin Bevan as the most compelling candidate from a younger generation. Crossman’s portrait of Bevan is graphic evidence both of his immense potential as a leader and of his fatal disqualification. Crossman had no suspicion of any lack of ambition, noting in January 1952: ‘I think Nye is almost exclusively concerned to be Leader of the Party rather than to formulate left-wing policy.’ There are a couple of references which suggest that Attlee himself had thought of Bevan as his successor. ‘Nye had the leadership on a plate,’ he told Crossman in March 1955. ‘I always wanted him to have it. But you know, he wants to be two things simultaneously, a rebel and an official leader, and you can’t be both.’
It was, however, not conscience so much as self-indulgence which made Bevan an impossible colleague, whether in a cabinet or a cabal. His whims made him unpredictable and his self-centredness made him unreliable when mundane norms of consistency, responsibility and loyalty were at stake. ‘What a past master Nye is at rationalising his own convenience,’ Crossman observed about an incident in which he revealed his support for Winston Churchill instead of Barbara Castle. Bevan felt an affinity with Churchill, and perhaps hoped for an analogous vindication in ignoring all the ordinary rules of political advancement. Crossman warned Bevan early in 1956 that he must play with the team if he was ever to have a chance of becoming Leader. ‘I’m not sure I really want to be under these conditions,’ he said. ‘I’m not a proletarian or an intellectual. I am an aristocrat, with a real distaste for that kind of politics.’ Crossman was depressed to find him still playing with the same notion – ‘it meant really nothing’ – in his years of eclipse: ‘The worst of Gaitskell is that he isn’t a patrician but a bourgeois.’ But by then it was just another rationalisation, a romantic gloss on his own failings. Crossman had in fact prophesied as much. Talking to Hugh Dalton just before Attlee’s eventual retirement, he naturally gave vent to his own feeling that Leaders and Deputy Leaders were ‘always pretty contemptible. Why shouldn’t Nye convince himself that he is too big a man for these jobs?’ Dalton, of course, heartily concurred: ‘Ernie Bevin, I and others weren’t going to be little Attlees. Why can’t Nye feel the same?’ Moreover, even when he had accepted a supporting role under Gaitskell’s leadership, Bevan continued to pain his admirers by his tergiversations. ‘He’s like a great big jelly, which has to be pulled back into shape about once every three months,’ Crossman wrote. ‘Not a very good look-out for a future Foreign Secretary.’
How far, then, did the Bevanite movement manifest a principled challenge by a coherent Left? The division in Parliament, Crossman claimed in July 1952, ‘was quite grotesquely obvious to anyone looking down from the Gallery. It really does look like two parties.’ Bevan himself had earlier been ready to consider an actual breach: ‘Yes, it would mean setting up a separate Socialist Party organisation. Yes, it would mean fights in every constituency.’ This was, however, second best to his declared strategy of 1951, which was ‘to capture the Constituency Parties and so put a squeeze on the Parliamentary Party. If Members knew that they would not be renominated because they were anti-Bevanite, things would move.’ This struck Crossman at the time as ‘impracticable and, if the mere idea of it gets out, insanely dangerous’. One reason for the impracticability of the strategy, of course, was Bevan’s own lack of Leninist rigour in implementing it. Crossman observed him in Coventry some two years later wreaking his magic in support of Maurice Edelman. ‘Since Nye has been telling us that we ought to get rid of anti-Bevanites and see that they are not adopted, I pointed this out to him afterwards. But he is a wonderful man. He really is too nice and generous to carry out the things he tells us to do.’
Under Attlee, the official line against the Bevanites was that no real division on policy existed and that personal animosities were the root of the trouble. Thus at a party meeting in October 1952 Attlee ‘repeated that there were no serious differences of policy and that attempts to talk about a Right and Left of the Party were misleading.’ A few weeks later, when Bevan returned to the Front Bench, Crossman was inclined to agree, marvelling at an abrupt reconciliation which ‘couldn’t have happened if there had been real fundamental issues of policy dividing the two sides.’ And he conceded now that ‘between Nye and Hugh Gaitskell there are really only differences of emphasis, temperament and will as regards domestic policy.’ Such amity did not prevent Crossman from subsequently reverting to a justification of the Bevanite challenge to Morrison in policy terms: ‘the policies Herbert stands for are so revolting to the constituencies that they will vote even for me.’ Nonetheless, he remained constantly aware of the large extent to which the names ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ covered not only ideological factionalism but atavistic tribalism within the Labour Party.
‘What a mysterious thing “the Left” is,’ he reflected in 1951. ‘Why is this person Left and that person Right? What binds the Group together?’ It included leaders like Bevan and Wilson with ‘virtually nothing in common’ and followers ‘who, as far as I can see, have no coherent political attitude’. Hence some of the confusion during the years that followed, with Right and Left conscientiously embattled in defence of their principles – though why, they could sometimes hardly say. ‘One of the things we object to most strongly is the blind loyalty of the Right,’ Crossman acknowledged, ‘but really the Left of the Party shows that kind of loyalty just as strongly. It only confirms my contention that in British politics loyalty to people and not ideas is universally regarded as the prime quality.’ He later added a temperamental dimension to this analysis: ‘The definition of the Left is a group of people who will never be happy unless they can convince themselves that they are about to be betrayed by their leaders.’ The other irony which did not escape him was the dissonance between the rhetoric of concern for the Party and the actual damage inflicted. He commented in 1954 that ‘what we think to be our efforts to save the soul of the Party are certainly helping it to disintegrate as fast as possible.’ It was much the same seven years later, with most of the inner Left group ‘only concerned to be anti-Gaitskell and openly saying that they are not prepared for unity if it strengthens him ...’
If the Bevanite and Gaitskellite positions cannot easily be collapsed into the Left-Right stereotype, neither can the division between fundamentalist and revisionist views of socialism. Morrison’s charge against the Bevanite Group was that ‘it creates the assumption that only some Members of Parliament are good Socialists,’ and he added, to loud applause from his own supporters: ‘I resent that.’ He was perfectly justified, according to his lights, in appealing to the 1945 programme, with its nationalisation measures, in which he had played so significant a part. Both he and his critics were agreed in taking this as the relevant test. In a rather curious way, the fundamentalists, seeing the essence of socialism as the substitution of public for private ownership of the means of production, had come to look with reverence upon the Morrisonian public corporation as the word made flesh. Hence the best socialists were those who demanded the longest shopping list for further nationalisation.
Now Crossman, despite his emotional investment in the Left, was one of those awkward people who could not seem to grasp that the salvation of the economy, not to mention the realisation of fraternity, lay in nationalising the sugar and cement industries. Indeed we find him writing in the summer of 1952: ‘We are drifting into the worst economic crisis since the war and nobody really pretends that nationalisation or denationalisation are any help whatsoever in such a situation.’ He was acutely aware that there were no simple answers here, least of all for the Left. After the 1955 General Election he wrote of the Labour Party as ‘ideologically disintegrated by the fact that Keynesian welfare capitalism is proving, for the time being, quite an adequate substitute for socialism.’ It is in some ways surprising that, after a further defeat for Labour in 1959, he should have taken a stand on the proposition that public ownership was necessary since capitalism was doomed, and that if he did not believe this to be so, he would prefer to reconstruct the Liberal Party as the real alternative to Toryism. In this, however, he was perhaps mainly concerned to provide some intellectual ballast on the left against the claims to recast party philosophy currently advanced by Crosland and other Gaitskellites.
Whereas the fundamentalists shared with the Morrisonian Old Right a view of what socialism was about (and disagreed over what to do next), Crossman agreed with the revisionists about the sort of problem that was facing Labour (and dissented from many of their remedies). One measure of the problem was lack of electoral appeal. ‘If you give people a bourgeois sense of security, the type of working-class Movement we had forty years ago will no longer appeal to them,’ he observed in 1953. ‘The younger people don’t feel the same significance in the slogans; on the other hand, the older people won’t give up the slogans or the organisation.’ A year later he recorded Victor Feather’s trade-unionist assessment of Butler’s economic policies, that ‘the decontrol suits trade unions pretty well, since we can revert to our old function.’ It was no surprise that Conservative freedom worked wonders for their working-class support, at least among the strong bargainers who could cash in on it. Labour’s constituency, by contrast, seemed by 1958 to be ‘growing squashier and squashier and less and less solid, so that one fine day a sudden landslide could take a whole section of it off us.’
Crossman can hardly be accused of harbouring inflated illusions about the capacity of the working class as bearers of an ethic of social redemption. Assured in Moscow that ‘workers are always interested in progress,’ he retorted: ‘Are they? Our workers in Coventry certainly are not. They are interested in getting the highest wage for the smallest amount of work.’ He was thus not unsympathetic to the sort of psephological analysis which underpinned revisionism: for instance, Gaitskell’s claim in 1958 that ‘working-class people are week by week becoming less working-class, less class-conscious and more allergic to such old appeals as trade-union solidarity or class loyalty.’ As Gaitskell put it a few months later, ‘the kind of emotions and behaviours which held the Party together in the past were all based on class. Yet, since the war, progress has all been such as to weaken these senses of class loyalty upon which the Labour Party is based.’ Crossman saw that the ‘selfish, egotistical Budget’ which the Tories introduced in the run-up to the 1959 Election was offensive in ignoring the plight of old-age pensioners, the unemployed, the sick and disabled – ‘the submerged fifth of the community, who are on the edge of destitution’. Labour’s traditional rhetoric as the party of the poor had subsumed trade-unionists as a special case of maldistribution and social injustice. But already it was apparent that their experience was pulling them in opposite directions as the old working class fragmented. Labour leaders were finding that the affluent workers were doing very nicely thank you, whereas the poor – marginal, underprivileged, inarticulate and forgotten – the poor they had always with them.
The Gaitskellite emphasis on reappraising Labour’s appeal spoke to this problem, and Crossman, as the least sectarian of Bevanites, was able to see this. His own contribution was a new approach to old-age pensions. Such efforts as Gaitskell’s Fabian pamphlet on nationalisation in 1956 were ‘making people think that the Labour Party is a party to be taken seriously, that it is thinking, that it is beginning to get a policy and that there can be such a thing as a second stage of socialism.’ It was also clear to him that in this endeavour ‘Gaitskell and his friends are playing the major role, since no one else has anything positive to propose.’ His own associates, Bevan and Wilson, had failed, as he saw it in 1953, to take the necessary initiatives. ‘The fact is that Nye and Harold are not interested in rethinking policy at all.’ In Crossman’s eyes, this contrast showed the glimmer of promise in Gaitskell’s leadership, and marked the fundamental reason for Bevan to throw his weight behind it.
Hence Crossman’s satisfaction after the 1957 Party Conference that ‘on two really critical issues – nationalisation and the H-Bomb – the two big leaders, Gaitskell and Bevan, have strengthened their position with the electorate at large by curbing the Party extremists and asserting their authority over them in defiance of their dogma. After all, the two most important emotions of the Labour Party are a doctrinaire faith in nationalisation, without knowing what it means, and a doctrinaire faith in pacifism, without facing its consequences.’ This was one of the high points of Crossman’s confidence in the leadership. Two years later, at the Blackpool Conference following Labour’s electoral defeat, he found himself once more opposed to Gaitskell’s tactics. Toying with revisionism was one thing: proposing to change Clause 4 of the Party’s Constitution, indelibly inscribed on the tablets of stone which Sidney Webb had brought down from Mount Sinai in 1918, was something quite different. Crossman’s tribal instincts and his loyalty to the Left made him anti-Gaitskell here. ‘But,’ piped up the intellectual, ‘of course it’s true that the anti’s, led by Michael Foot, are completely antediluvian.’
Crossman had by this time come to terms with the fact that, as he had noted in 1952, what the Labour Party ‘really can’t abide is thrashing out Socialist policy among themselves. It is this solidarity which keeps the Party invincible against splits and almost impregnable to clear thinking.’ Within the NEC he found ‘the MPs stertorous and somnolent with tiredness and the trade-unionists stertorous and somnolent as usual.’ In their hands reposed the business of policy formation and the challenge of rising to new issues. The Party Conference seemed hardly more promising, even in Crossman’s hour of triumph at Brighton in 1957 over national superannuation. He observed the Party’s ‘fear and suspicion of ideas and the intellectuals who produce them. Just as intellectuals are potential traitors, so the new ideas they put forward are always by nature assumed to be anti-socialist, until you can show that they are not.’
The great question which arises out of this analysis of the Labour Party is what sense we can make of Gaitskell’s leadership. It is a nagging question now, in view of current political developments. For did not Gaitskell’s leadership mark the high point of social democratic influence in the Party? Was not this the real meaning of revisionism? And had not this outlook been widely accepted in the Party by the time of Gaitskell’s death in 1963? Yet if the Party had indeed been converted to social democracy, its subsequent recidivism seems rather remarkable. So there is an inescapable historical question here too in assessing the nature of the Gaitskellite ascendancy. And it would surely be an intellectualist fallacy to account for it merely by reference to the ideas which Gaitskell espoused.
Gaitskell’s rise, after all, dated from the 1952 Morecambe Conference and his anti-Communist speech at Stalybridge which shortly followed. After this. Michael Foot has commented in his life of Bevan, Arthur Deakin, as leader of the T & GWU, ‘knew he had found his man.’ And Foot subsequently refers to ‘the Gaitskellites or the Deakinites, whichever they properly be designated.’ This points to an important truth. For Deakin was plainly no social democrat: he was the archetypal union boss with a big block vote for repartee. In short, the problem once more requires an understanding of Labour factionalism on different levels and some wariness in conflating them too readily.
Crossman’s own position and viewpoint also become more comprehensible in these terms. He was, as has been seen, in certain respects a revisionist manqué. He was also, with some twists and turns, a Gaitskellite manqué. To some extent, the difficulty here was purely personal as between two old Wykehamists: ‘if you were at school with somebody who seemed innocuous and insignificant throughout your school life and who since then has been an ascending backroom boy, it is difficult to believe in his greatness.’ But there was also a distinctive intellectual and temperamental gulf between them, which the 1956 Suez crisis helps illustrate. Crossman readily admitted that ‘I’m not the sort of moralist who can believe that an action such as Eden and Mollet planned would not be justified by complete success.’ One can see how unimpressed he would be, therefore, with Gaitskell’s response to congratulation on a heartfelt speech of denunciation: ‘And what’s so wonderful, Dick, is that we are morally in the right.’ Nor would this have come as any surprise to Crossman, who had perceptively recorded a year previously these precise objections to Gaitskell: ‘most serious of all, someone who takes a moralising and reactionary attitude, which is in my opinion almost instinctively wrong on every subject outside economies’. Crossman saw class, not conscience, as the key to radical politics: in this sense, he was clearly a socialist, not a social democrat.
If Crossman generally appreciated the intellectual attraction of a revisionist approach, and often acknowledged the political expediency of Gaitskellite leadership, he could nonetheless never for one moment see the point of the Labour Right. Yet undeniably it was the old Deakinite Right which called the shots. At the Morecambe Conference in 1952, Crossman remarked that ‘the Executive was scared of what the Conference might do and that Right and left were seeking to preserve unity and respectability but were terrified that some individual delegates from the floor would cause Arthur Deakin to blow off and then the whole thing would catch alight.’ It was a standard piece of Labour ritual in these years that, whenever Michael Foot attacked Deakin in Tribune, the TUC General Council should deliver a letter of protest during the next meeting of the NEC. ‘This has now become a ceremonial, rather like Black Rod entering the House of Commons from the House of Lords,’ Crossman observed. Hence Bevan’s standard speech ‘about the Labour Party being hopeless, dominated by four trade-union leaders, etc’. As George Brown, full of wine and faith in the T& G, claimed in 1955: ‘It’s our Party, not yours.’ Crossman had recently been apprised of the inwardness of this situation when receiving unwonted support from Fred Lee. ‘If the T & G think they’re going to dictate Parliamentary policy,’ Lee had expostulated, ‘it’s time the AEU told them to get out ...’
Crossman once asked Tom O’Brien, as Chairman of the TUC, why intellectuals of the Attlee generation were accepted by trade-union leaders, whereas the generation of Crossman and Foot was bitterly resented. The answer was brilliantly simple, and helps to explain also the changed regard in which Michael Foot is held today: ‘They’ve been in the Movement all their lives.’ Time the healer. Until the best part of all their lives had slipped away, however, the Bevanites remained the prime target of trade-union hostility. When it looked as though the elections to the constituency section of the NEC might come unstuck in 1956, Sam Watson of the Miners was undismayed. ‘If that happens,’ he said, ‘the trade unions will change the Constitution back, making all members of the Executive elected by the whole Conference.’
In view of the Bevanites’ power base in the constituency section, there was a rough logic in the situation. Roy Jenkins told Crossman in 1953 that ‘just because the Bevanites were so strong, Gaitskell was more and more forced to rely on forces such as Arthur Deakin, which made him further to the right than he would naturally be.’ Crossman reckoned that Gaitskell got half the constituency votes in the 1954 election for the Party Treasurership, but, by the same token, so must Bevan have done. With the whole Conference voting, these totals were dwarfed by the block votes of the big unions. In the early 1950s, this meant sewing up the vote for the right-wing leadership. The trade-union members of the NEC were accordingly reluctant to admit television into the Conference, and above all opposed to the televising of voting. ‘What they meant, of course,’ Crossman explained, ‘was the disclosure to the public that, though practically the whole Conference votes one way, by show of hands, the block vote, when it is taken, usually shows four million to two million. It was immensely funny listening to the trade-unionists showing their terror that anyone should see what really goes on.’ In that era it was the Labour Right which had a wholesome suspicion of the media. By the time the Left had inherited this, it had also, and perhaps not coincidentally, inherited the big block votes.
With such support Gaitskell was carried to the Treasurership – a crucial step towards the Leadership. We know from Philip Williams’s biography that he in turn was prepared to do the ‘dirty work’ of his Deakinite backers, notably in the exceedingly illiberal attempt to expel Bevan from the Party in 1955. Crossman warned Gaitskell at this time ‘that he seemed to be playing the role of merely being a stooge for big forces outside.’ This was a fear echoed later in the year by George Wigg, who apparently believed ‘that the moment Gaitskell obtains the leadership he will revert to type and become the stooge of the big trade unions.’ There were adequate grounds for such feelings on the left. In the days of its power, the Right had ruled with a rod of iron, hinted at in Morrison’s informal rebuke of 1952: ‘You know, Dick, we shan’t be able to tolerate much longer the sort of organised opposition that you’re running.’
Admittedly, the Left entered into this game with one eye on the attractions of martyrdom. By 1954, Crossman had the measure of Bevan on this score: ‘When Nye talks about renewed attempts to expel us from the Party, he means that we must do things which might get us expelled.’ Even so, the ferocity of the Right, with Gaitskell in the van, is an unappealing spectacle.
When Gaitskell assured him, at the time of the expulsion crisis, that there were ‘extraordinary parallels between Nye and Adolf Hitler,’ Crossman was reduced to pointing out Bevan’s commitment to parliamentary liberty. ‘Oh,’ Gaitskell said, ‘there are minor differences but what’s striking is the resemblance.’ Throughout this period, therefore, the Left perceived itself as a persecuted minority with the weight of the party apparatus poised to crush its legitimate dissent. In 1958, it was the proposal to establish a new propaganda network, Victory for Socialism, which provoked the immediate displeasure of the NEC. ‘At once all the trade-unionists there clicked back into the intolerance which had marked their behaviour throughout the whole Bevanite crisis.’
This amounts to a powerful case for saying that Gaitskell’s leadership, far from signalling the Party’s conversion to social democracy, was sustained by the same unedifying means which the Left has subsequently utilised. For when Gaitskell broached the real issue over Clause 4 in 1959, challenging the fundamentalist commitment on public ownership, the hollowness of his position was cruelly exposed. As Crossman saw it, Gaitskell perished by the rules on which he had formerly thrived. ‘Everybody knows that the trade unions are now bitterly against what they call the right-wing intellectuals,’ he noted at the end of 1959. Within the NEC in March 1960, the constituency members could for once safely leave the running to the trade-union representatives. ‘Very soon it was clear that not one single trade-unionist present was in favour of amending Clause 4.’ This ostensible conversion to socialism among such dogged slaves of precedent and convention is only remarkable, of course, if one cardinal fact is forgotten: that Clause 4 had always been in the rule book.
Gaitskell’s breach with his erstwhile allies could not fail to strike the Left as a just retribution. ‘Ironical to remember that Gaitskell got his leadership because he was shoved into it by the trade-union leaders,’ Crossman commented in May 1960, at a time when the Gaitskellites were denouncing their irresponsibility. Gaitskell found his social democratic prognosis brushed aside by the unions at this stage. We know from his biography that he confided that they now lacked ‘a really formidable figure, like Deakin, to give a lead on policy’. When he recovered his footing in 1960-1, the big unions rallied to his side over defence for quite different reasons: because of familiarity with the issue, loyalty to the leadership, anti-Communism, and a lot of business in smoke-filled rooms. Little wonder that Crossman should have found it hard to take Callaghan’s complaints over the initial defeat of the NEC’s defence statement in 1960: ‘that anyway it had been defeated by dubious methods, and that it was a scandal that unions had made up their minds before they arrived at Conference. All this from Jim, who has been living on such Conference methods for thirty years!’
Crossman remained finally a prisoner of the system and assumptions with which he was familiar. As Chairman of the Party in 1960, he took his stand on the principle of ‘upholding the authority of the Conference and accepting its decisions as instructions’, and broke with Gaitskell accordingly. As a political architect, he saw this as a rock on which to build, not-withstanding his efforts as a political geologist to make known its deep flaws. The Party Conference, he had concluded in 1956, was ‘wholly unrepresentative of public opinion’, and in this respect characteristic of the structure of the Party as a whole. ‘Altogether the whole internal situation of the Labour oligarchy could hardly be more decrepit,’ he reflected in 1959. Sitting on NEC committees was no way to dispel this image. There was not only ‘Len Williams, so deaf he doesn’t know what’s going on’, but also ‘George Brinham, with his hair coming out and smoothing his grey locks to conceal the baldness’, not to mention ‘the grey, ageing, tired, harassed and a little bewildered Jennie Lee’. Reading a life of Haldane in 1960, he confessed that ‘it gives me a shock to realise how interesting, constructive, useful political activity can be, in contrast to the way we have to spend our time in this disintegrating Labour Party.’
This volume of Crossman’s diaries concludes with the accession of Harold Wilson as Labour leader, in a mood of optimism and hope. ‘I ran into Michael Foot,’ Crossman noted in February 1963. ‘He, too, had this wonderful sense that the incredible has happened and that all kinds of things which had been impossible before Gaitskell’s illness are now possible again.’ The trouble with Gaitskell had been that ‘he was making the Party into the Gaitskell Party, forcing it to suppress its nature and straitjacketing it under his leadership.’ Crossman welcomed the fact that it was free to be itself again. ‘Maybe in certain ways it is a silly and a demagogic self, a sentimental self,’ he allowed, ‘but as a Party it’s a personality that we have had for a long time, a personality which Gaitskell disliked and manoeuvred for his own purposes,’ This is a value-laden appraisal, but in essentials I do not think that social democrats need dissent from it. What they will firmly reject, with the benefit of hindsight, is Crossman’s judgment, at the time of the Scarborough Conference in October 1963, that Wilson ‘had provided the revision of Socialism and its application to modern times which Gaitskell and Crosland had tried and completely failed to do. Harold had achieved it.’
The celebration of this achievement turned out to be premature, as the dispiriting history of the Labour Party in the last fifteen years serves to show. Those of us who wish to turn to this task again need to liberate ourselves from the past by understanding it better, and we can acknowledge a debt to Richard Crossman in this regard. There are two important respects in which the present political initiative can profitably differ from the Gaitskellite enterprise, which he chronicled with such insight.
First, the open adoption of the social democratic label in itself clears away a lot of misunderstanding and confusion. All those disputes about ‘socialism’! All those wrangles about who is a good socialist! Once we acknowledge that social democracy is a different kind of radical analysis of our problems, addressed to a different range of issues, with criteria different from the ownership of the means of production, the theoretical tangles of the Clause 4 debate can be put well behind us. Second, it is evident that no such initiative can be launched through or within the Labour Party. Getting free of the coils of its labyrinthine apparatus is itself a gain. The fact that social democrats have lived by the block vote is no reason to die by the block vote. Previous leaders of the Party should not be judged too severely for managing it in the only way it could be managed. Nothing in Crossman, apart from his ill-founded prognostications about Wilson, suggests that there was unexploited room for manoeuvre within the party structure. On the contrary, the built-in immobilism of the Labour movement is conveyed with deadening reiteration. The dashing of bright hopes was perhaps not so fortuitous as it often seemed at the time. If we can see now that the Labour Party cannot offer a way forward, this may help us to find one.