Bevan’s Boy

John Campbell

  • The Making of Neil Kinnock by Robert Harris
    Faber, 256 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13266 9
  • Neil Kinnock: The Path to Leadership by G.M.F. Drower
    Weidenfeld, 162 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 297 78467 6

For several years, until he became Labour leader and had to watch his entry more carefully, Neil Kinnock claimed in Who’s Who to be the author of an anthology of the writings and sayings of Aneurin Bevan entitled What Nye said: each year the supposed publication date was authoritatively amended, although the book has never appeared. When asked about it by G.M.F. Drower, Kinnock prevaricated:

It’s, er, in four cardboard boxes in the attic at the moment, having been moved there from the garage. Er, I just haven’t had time to finish it off. It’s been in existence like that since 1975. I’m not sure how, er, it got in. It started off in Who’s Who some time ago but, er, you know, frankly, to tell you the truth, it’s not the kind of thing I give much attention to.

Undoubtedly the repeated statement that he had already published (or sometimes that he was about to publish) the book was wishful thinking rather than deliberate deception on Kinnock’s part; but it is a comically transparent attempt to assume the mantle of Bevan, the more embarrassing for the fact that he has never had the application to get the book together (or even to get someone to do it for him). The closest he has got to it was to write a short introduction to a 1978 reissue of In Place of Fear. The story accords all too well with the widespread impression of Kinnock as a nice lightweight ill-equipped for the job into which his engaging personality and a large slice of luck have suddenly precipitated him. Experience alone can dispel that impression. In the meantime his eagerness to claim the Bevanite succession raises interesting questions both about Kinnock himself and about the nature of the Labour Party.

If to be a cult figure – an object of piety and a source of legitimising quotations – is to have influence, then Bevan’s influence in the Labour Party in the 24 years since his death has been far greater than it ever was in life. For thirty years he railed in vain against the leadership, first of MacDonald, Snowden and Jimmy Thomas, then of Attlee, Morrison, Bevin and the upstart Gaitskell, antagonising the union bosses and the PLP equally, the darling only of the constituencies. He was expelled from the party in 1939 and very nearly again in 1955, and by the time Attlee finally resigned in December 1955 there was no question, despite his long experience and great ability, of his being a serious candidate for the leadership. He was seen as a turbulent maverick, an angry Old Testament prophet from whom the more ambitious and modern-minded of his former supporters, like Wilson and Cross-man, were now anxious to distance themselves. It is a matter for argument whether by 1959 he was mellowing into a position of authority in the party: it took his death the following year to transform him into the maligned hero and inspiration of British socialism. From then on, an association with Bevan has been an asset to conjure with for an aspiring leader. Harold Wilson built his platform for the leadership in 1963 largely on a spurious leftism derived from his resignation with Bevan from the faltering Attlee Cabinet 12 years earlier, and he never ceased to milk his memory for flagrantly sentimental recollections. For the 1964 Election Michael Foot wrote a Bevanite hagiography of Wilson, which he quickly expunged from his own Who’s Who entry (the opposite of the Kinnock technique) when Wilson’s Government, despite the presence in high office of Crossman and Barbara Castle, proved a disappointment. (The pirating of Bevan’s phrase ‘In place of fear’ for Barbara Castle’s industrial relations White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’ was for many the last straw.) As Bevan’s biographer, Foot kept the faith alive, and eventually his twenty selfless years as High Priest were considered sufficient qualification for the leadership. Whether Bevan, if he could have been brought back to life, would have thought any better of Foot’s leadership than of Wilson’s must be doubted. The tangible political influence behind the genuflections is hard to detect. The cult might now be thought to be discredited. Yet here is Kinnock still apparently intent upon reviving it.

Has he really any claim to the mantle? On grounds of geography, if nothing else, it must be admitted that he has. He was, after all, born a constituent of Bevan’s, in Bevan’s home town, Tredegar; he was a small boy when Bevan was founding the National Health Service, was raised in one of the prefabricated bungalows built by Bevan when Minister of Housing; a teenager during the Bevanite wrangles of the Fifties, he was taken by his father to hear Bevan speak; he read In Place of Fear soon after it came out (and remembers the displays in shop windows). Bevan was the central, probably the only political figure in his not very political youth. It would be remarkable, after this upbringing, if he did not claim some legacy and in these respects he is thoroughly entitled to do so: it is the first great piece of luck on which his career has flourished. The second, as Robert Harris points out, was the date of his birth: Kinnock is just old enough to have imbibed at first hand from his parents, uncles and grandparents vivid memories of the hardship and degradation of Tredegar between the wars, but just young enough to have benefited from the post-war Welfare State and the Sixties expansion of higher education. (A typical product of that expansion, who was able to pick up qualifications casually and without exertion while concentrating his energies on rugby and the Students’ Union, he is far less well educated than his hero – and many other Welsh miners of that time – who had to rely on the painfully-acquired library of the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute.) He was brought up in the sort of upwardly-mobile Labour family which was determined that its sons should not have to follow their fathers and grandfathers down the pit and was able to ensure that they did not. (This is one reason for his lack of instinctive sympathy with Scargill.) His own easy passage out of the traditional working class makes it hard for him to echo Bevan without sounding false.

Of the qualities which made Bevan what he was, Kinnock shares only the gift of the gab; and here again Bevan’s was struggled for – he had to overcome a crippling stammer – while Kinnock’s fluency sounds too facile. The others – Bevan’s unassuageable anger, his intellect and his extravagance of personality – Kinnock seems to lack entirely, which may be why he is leader of the Labour Party while Bevan never was, since they are, severally and still more in combination, precisely the qualities the British Labour Party most distrusts. Bevan’s anger, originally against the capitalist system and those who ran it (‘vermin’), vented itself as easily against those in his own party who compromised with it: that was disloyalty. At the same time his homespun but insistent intellectualism, the unapologetic class-based Marxism that always lay beneath his belief that Parliament was the medium through which, in Britain, socialism could be achieved, his love of philosophy and big ideas for their own sake – these marked him, despite his impeccably proletarian origins, as an intellectual of a type more common on the Continent. Finally his extravagance of both personality and lifestyle, his inordinate charm, his frequent arrogance, his ebullience and his shameless taste for the good things in life and the company of those of whatever political persuasion (like Beaverbrook) who could provide them – this massive egotism and whiff of class betrayal alienated the solid beer-drinking trade unionists from whom he had sprung and whose support he needed if he was ever to attain the leadership. On none of these counts – certainly not the second or third – has Kinnock, in his rise to stardom, given many hostages to fortune. His rebelliousness has been carefully calculated; his lifestyle is studiously ordinary; and no one could call him an intellectual.

G.M.F. Drower’s biography is a serviceable but perfunctory and poorly-written ‘quickie’ with no clear view of its subject and little understanding of the politics of the Labour Party. Robert Harris’s is longer, fuller and excellently researched: among the sources he has been able to see and uses very well are the GMC minutes of the Bedwellty Constituency Labour Party; he is thoroughly at home in Labour’s civil war and is able to chart Kinnock’s skilful course through its stages with a clarity that gives more shape to his career than one had previously suspected. In the treacherous field of contemporary biography this is a very good book indeed. What is lacking in both books, however, is any discussion of Kinnock’s political ideas, which would seem to confirm that he does not have many. Such has been the state of the Labour Party since he has been active in it that there has been no time for thinking seriously about the problems of society: all the attention has been given to the internal battle. Kinnock has emerged on top of the pile by concentrating on this power struggle, at the expense of real politics, more exclusively than anyone else – with the result that the Labour Party now has its first leader since Ramsay MacDonald with no experience of government at all. He is also the first party leader to have made his career entirely in the world of television and opinion polls and intensive press analysis of the who and how of politics rather than the what and why. As a former president of the Students’ Union at Cardiff (where his wife Glenys was a full-time NUS official) Kinnock, like David Steel, whose beginnings in the Student Representative Council at Edinburgh were very similar, is a standard-bearer of the Sixties generation of student politicians. But NUS politics, different entirely from the debating-society politics of the Oxbridge Unions, is a training in infighting, not in argument. Kinnock was in fact a collar-and-tie precursor of the denim-clad ‘polyocracy’ whose takeover of the Labour Party he is now trying to contain.

His undistinguished degree (a bare pass, at the second attempt, in history and industrial relations) did not stop him getting a job with the WEA, organising classes and teaching economics to factory groups in East Glamorgan; though a poor student, he was evidently a born teacher. Four years of peripatetic lecturing gave him great verbal self-confidence and made him a lot of useful contacts. Just how he won the Bedwellty nomination in 1969 over the NUM candidate (and why he and Glenys chose to live in Bedwellty in the first place) is a matter of some dispute: once again, though, his successful coup was a clear anticipation of the sort of takeover of moribund parties by the young Left that has since become familiar. (It also bears some resemblance to the young Bevan’s capture of Ebbw Vale in 1929, of which the full story has yet to be told.) Once he had got the nomination, his election in 1970 was a formality.

He positioned himself naturally on the left of the party when the tide was flowing that way. At the special conference on the EEC in 1971 – part of the process by which Harold Wilson reversed the party’s 1967 commitment to entry – Kinnock distinguished himself with a rousing speech against joining on the sole ground that Heath was in favour. After a few early contributions, he largely ignored the House of Commons (his lack of experience there is only now a handicap): instead he concentrated on building a reputation in the party in the country, speaking in practically every constituency and conspicuously associating himself with every left-wing cause of the moment – CND, anti-apartheid, the Anti-Nazi League. Whether he did this in conscious preparation for the day when the leader would be elected by the constituencies and the unions as well as by the PLP, or simply because talking always to the faithful was more congenial, the effect was that by the end of the decade he was, for a young MP with no record of office, extraordinarily well-known throughout the party: he was elected to the NEC in 1978, ahead of Barbara Castle and displacing Ian Mikardo. He deliberately eschewed office, beyond serving with mutual embarrassment for a year as Michael Foot’s PPS in 1974, and when Callaghan offered him a job (under Hattersley!) he preferred to hold himself free to oppose the Government’s devolution schemes for Wales and Scotland. This was the one major policy rebellion of Kinnock’s career. Leading the ‘No’ campaign in Wales, he put at risk many important friendships, particularly in the unions; but his sense of public opinion was vindicated when the referendum in Wales went 4-1 against an assembly. The episode must be seen as a tribute to his political antennae rather than to his courage. So far as the argument is concerned, however, it places him firmly in the ‘big government’ not the decentralist school of socialism. This at least Bevan, an opponent of any sops to nationalism, would have approved.

Between 1974 and 1979 Kinnock associated himself shrewdly with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, even though the only one of its three main demands he really favoured was the wider franchise to elect the leader: reselection he accepted only reluctantly as a fait accompli, and in 1979 he marked his breach with the CLPD by voting decisively against taking control of the manifesto away from the leader. The suspicion of the Left that he had ridden their wave only to get himself to a position where he could afford to kick them in the teeth is, on the face of it, not unfounded. In 1979 he switched abruptly to the inside track, becoming education spokesman first under Callaghan, then under Foot, behind whose disastrous election as leader he was one of the moving spirits. It is hard to quell the suspicion that he knew his own prospects required a stopgap – if he actually thought that Foot was the best candidate his judgment was hopelessly at fault. Maybe he was just acting out of loyalty, but the most creditable explanation is that he thought that Foot, as an old left-winger, had a better chance than Healey or Shore of stopping the Left’s advance – something he now saw to be essential. In this bitter stand against his old associates he put himself at Foot’s right hand, conspicuously abstaining to deny Tony Benn the deputy leadership in 1981 and attacking the ‘strutting demagogy’ of Benn’s supporters. ‘If anybody lost him that deputy leadership election yesterday,’ he told Arthur Scargill on television, ‘it was you, by the attitudes you espouse and the people like you who espouse them. We’re not having them in the Labour Party, mate. We want to beat the Tories.’

It is apt that Kinnock should have got his reward in 1983 as a consequence of Benn’s losing his seat at the General Election. But to rehearse again these murky events in what Austin Mitchell (with remarkable fatalism for one who is still a Labour MP) has called ‘four years in the death of the Labour Party’ is only to emphasise how inward-looking his career has been. He won the Labour Party by careful years of image-building, followed by months of vote-trading, devoid of political prescription, as hollow and cynical a process as that by which Mondale and Hart vied to tie up their party’s nomination. Does he think that he can win the country in the same way? And does he have any serious idea of how he would tackle the problems he would face if he were to win? He is a quick learner: maybe he would muddle along no worse than anyone else. But it is worrying that he can have become leader while appearing to have no vision of the sort of society he would like to establish.

In this, of course, he reflects his party. That is the trouble. In the Fifties Bevan and Gaitskell represented seriously-argued alternative ideas of socialism, one of which, Croslandite ‘revisionism’, eventually prevailed – admittedly under a former Bevanite. Today it is a commonplace, even on what remains of the right of the party, that revisionism – social equalisation postulated on continuous growth – has been overtaken by events; Roy Hattersley calls for a new Crosland (but scarcely pretends to the mantle). But Bevanism failed to convince because it was already dated in the Fifties; and it is now even harder to update. Bevan’s ideas were founded on the Marxist (emphatically not Marxist-Leninist) belief that a united working class, by asserting its strength as the majority class, could take power: the result would be democratic socialism. This vision was intellectually coherent, persuasive, even alluring – but by the end of his life Bevan realised that the British working class had rejected the historic opportunity which he believed 1945 had given it. Kinnock’s problem is that he knows that he must appeal to a wider, more variegated, more middle-class electorate in a social climate even more hostile to collectivism than it was thirty years ago. In this task, Bevan is no help to him: he may still be an inspiration but he is not a model.