Coalition Phobia

Brian Harrison

  • Labour People, Leaders and Lieutenants: Hardie to Kinnock by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Oxford, 370 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 19 822929 1
  • J. Ramsay MacDonald by Austen Morgan
    Manchester, 276 pp, £19.50, June 1987, ISBN 0 7190 2168 5
  • Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical by Patricia Romero
    Yale, 334 pp, £17.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03691 4
  • Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst by Barbara Castle
    Penguin, 159 pp, £3.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 14 008761 3

If there is a third successive Conservative election victory this summer, Labour will plunge once more into debating its own history. Not reluctantly, because as Kenneth Morgan points out, the Party ‘has been captivated, even obsessed, by its history’; even more than the Conservatives it is, he says, ‘a prisoner of its past’. Yet the debate will probably be more painful than in the recent past, because it will need to be more searching and less sectarian. In important ways, Morgan’s book of biographies will fertilise the debate. Its clear style promises the first essential: plenty of readers. Most of its 27 biographies originated as book reviews and – in the tradition set by A.J.P. Taylor – they reappear without footnotes or full scholarly apparatus, though with a substantial ‘Select Bibliography’. The newcomer gets double value from a book of this kind, for it combines surveying the abundant recently-published material on 20th-century British labour history with the integrating perspective of a sympathetic and very knowledgeable historian. Morgan’s biographies do not aim at any deep analysis of personality; nor are they as preoccupied with the organisational and structural constraints on the individual as the blurb leads one to expect. They aim rather to set each subject briefly into context, and then straightforwardly to narrate the essentials of his career. The individual’s contribution to the Labour movement is specified; assets and drawbacks are carefully juxtaposed; and at the end a balance is struck which aims at fairmindedness and usually attains it.

The book’s second major merit is its range. There are few historians who could now operate with such ease all the way from Keir Hardie to Neil Kinnock. Morgan combines historical knowledge with a lively interest in current politics; he shows no coy academic inhibition about linking up the two, for he knows how amply each can enrich the other. Take, for instance, his excellent chapter on ‘Joe Gormley, Arthur Scargill and the Miners’. If all historians during the miners’ strike of 1984-5 had shown such balance, knowledge of context and willingness to face unpalatable truths, their profession might have done more to reduce the dreadful suffering that stemmed, on that occasion, from inept trade-union leadership. Instead of engaging in romantic nostalgia over lost (and unrecoverable, perhaps even undesirable) ideals of proletarian community, Morgan rightly tells us that the miners ‘should forget their history and wipe away memories of past glories, triumphs and defeats’.

Morgan’s range is typological as well as chronological. In what he describes as ‘a highly personal selection’ of biographies, he does not flinch from analysing those who reached the top – MacDonald, Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson. But he has just as much to say about those dedicated but less well-known people who did so much to build up the Labour Party’s machine: Henderson, Morrison, Dalton and Rita Hinden. And in the figure of Morgan Phillips this third major strength of the book overlaps with its fourth (predictable from the historian of modern Wales): its emphasis on the Party’s Welsh component (Mabon, Noah Ablett, James Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan). Morgan also has a sharp eye for important or significant but neglected figures. How right he is, for example, to see the career of the political scientist Harold Laski as one of ‘intense and enduring human interest as a tale of a man of transcendent intellectual integrity who strove to reconcile socialist planning with a liberal and pluralist view of democracy’.

Still more interesting is Morgan’s chapter on ‘The Planners’ (is it a coincidence that the book’s two best chapters – this one and the chapter on the miners – are not biographical in emphasis at all?). The Second World War is often credited with generating the post-war Butskellite consensus, but Morgan argues here that the war’s role was to provide an opening for people who had developed their consensual ideas much earlier: for young socialist economists like Durbin, Gaitskell, Meade and Jay. Because of their group discussions Labour in 1945 ‘was intellectually prepared for the economic realities of power in a way inconceivable at any earlier time in its history’.

If Morgan provides ample ingredients for Labour’s self-examination, how far does he guide the Party towards reassessment? His political tastes limit what he can offer. He writes about people drawn from ‘the British political tradition in which I generally feel most comfortable’, and in several asides he intones what has now become almost an orthodoxy in academic circles: a loathing of Thatcherism. He speaks of ‘the psychosis of pessimism, and the cynicism of the marketplace’; he refers (rather oddly, in the decade of North Sea oil, the ‘Big Bang’, the Channel tunnel and secure membership of the Common Market) to ‘the introspective, defeatist Britain of the mid-Eighties’; and he feels the need to be kept cheerful ‘in a disillusioning world’.

He does not tell us his precise location on the left, but reading between the lines it looks as though he is the sort of Labour supporter who places a very high premium on party loyalty. Securely placed midway between his Party’s Right and Left, he prefers those who know the Party through and through – Henderson, Morrison, Callaghan, Foot; less congenial are those who are in some respect outsiders – Gaitskell and the Webbs, for example. Mild disapproval awaits those who in some sense betray the Party, whether (like Roy Jenkins) by leaving it, or (like the Militant Tendency, Tony Benn, Moss Evans or Arthur Scargill) by embarrassing it. ‘My criticisms,’ says Morgan, ‘are criticisms from within.’

This standpoint causes Morgan to understate the impact already made on his party by forces outside it. Thatcherism has of course transformed the Conservative Party, whose image and direction now more accurately reflect its real basis of support and more effectively promote its long-term aims. But Thatcherism has also (on the precedents set by the repudiation of Home Rule in 1886, the ‘Coupon Election’ of 1918 and the formation of the National Government in 1931) shifted the location of the centre ground in British politics, aided by splits on the left. During the General Election of 1983, Mrs Thatcher predicted that a Conservative landslide victory could ‘lead to a change in the Labour party from within’, and noted that Gaitskell had been ‘trying to bring about such a change’. She told the Party Conference later in the year that the Conservatives had ‘created the new common ground’, and that ‘the other parties are tiptoeing onto it.’

A third Conservative victory will tempt the other parties into tiptoeing still further, and in this situation Labour will need to rediscover at least three significant aspects of its past. There is first the centrality to the Party’s past successes of hard and honest thinking. Morgan is surely quite wrong to claim that in the mid-Eighties Labour ‘still has the ideological tide behind it’: since 1974 some intellectuals have been seduced into Conservatism by the Centre for Policy Studies, and since 1981 they have been defecting in droves from Labour to the SDP. Yet only hard thinking can tackle the task so often urged by Crosland: the new analysis of socialism that will do for a later generation what his Future of Socialism did for the Party in the Fifties. So Labour will need to rediscover the resourcefulness shown by Morrison, Dalton and Henderson when they strengthened Labour’s hold on intellectuals between the wars. Morgan’s suggestion that Ken Livingstone could ‘provide an updated, modern version of Morrison’s civic idea’ is surely a joke.

Morgan clarifies both the need here, and the remedy. Time and again he exposes the weakness of the Party’s leaders (Hardie, MacDonald, Attlee, Morrison, Foot) in economics. Yet the chapter on ‘The Planners’ offers the remedy, for there the Party makes effective use of opposition in the pursuit of power – a strategy that Kinnock has found congenial. Morgan’s analysis of Cripps and Morrison makes it clear that, like Kinnock, he sees the Labour Party as a party of government, and values the personal qualities that make for governmental success. Unfortunately he does not tell us more about the practical side: about how Jay, Durbin and the others came together, how they held together, and how they gained influence.

New ideas will not be enough. Labour will also need historians to help in the search for a better image. This is not just a matter of red roses: the Party will need to rethink what (if anything) it means by socialism, and reach a more balanced view about how central it has been within its traditions. This may well entail re-assessing Gaitskell’s attack on Clause 4 after the Party’s defeat in 1959. Morgan dismisses this initiative as ‘a victory for abstract logic over common sense’ on the ground that ‘Labour did not intend, and never had intended, to nationalise the whole of the economy, or even the bulk of it.’ Yet Gaitskell’s initiative may come to seem a far-sighted bid for three most desirable things: an honest clarity in the Party’s programme, a party image more attractive and more compatible with what Labour does when it wins power, and thus a way to curb the dangerous cynicism of disillusioned supporters who discover when Labour is in power that they have been led to expect too much.

Knowing Wilsonian nods and winks about Gaitskell’s ignorance of the Party are beside the point: indeed, it was arguably an asset in Gaitskell to view the Party (as Morgan puts it) ‘somewhat from the outside’. Dalton cannot be seen as ‘shrewd’ when he complains in his diary that Gaitskell ‘thought too little about the Party and too much about the electorate in general’: subsequent electoral trends reveal the falsity of the dichotomy. If Labour in 1983 had thought more about what Morgan dismisses as ‘the consensual, soggy centrism that is often claimed to reflect the native political genius’, the election might have gone less disastrously. The priority now, even more than in 1959, is to broaden out beyond the narrow world of Labour, and learn from other parties on questions of policy and structure. It seems strange today that Foot’s unquestionably profound understanding of the Party should so recently have given him the edge over Healey for the Party’s leadership, for during the early Eighties Gaitskell’s worst fears of rivals on the left were becoming a reality. Far from contributing to ‘making Labour newly credible’ by neutralising the Party’s ‘hard left’, as Morgan claims, Foot’s leadership – at the Wembley conference, for instance, or during the Tatchell affair – made it clear that leadership entails rather more than understanding the Party’s ‘nuances’.

Labour in the late Eighties will need historians to assist in a third rediscovery: coalition. For decades Labour’s sectarianism has presented the Conservative Party with a priceless asset: its ability to absorb recruits from other parties without splitting or shedding supporters of its own. Yet in its earliest years, Labour had no such phobia of coalitions, and between the wars Morrison and Henderson were energetic at recruiting in new areas. After a third election defeat, Labour will need to recover its coalitionist roots and evangelical methods. For it will then no longer be enough merely to brush secessionists aside as traitors: Labour will need to be rather more inquisitive about why they left, and do something to tempt them back.

Here again, Morgan gives the Party less help than might be expected from so distinguished a student of Liberalism, for he still regards Lloyd George’s offer of a Lib-Lab coalition in 1914 as a ‘trap’, and he sees Henderson as ‘imperishably identified with the proud independence of the Labour movement’ when he leaves Lloyd George’s coalition in 1917. Yet a MacDonald in a Lib-Lab Cabinet could have reinforced the Left in the face of its enemy, and could have prolonged that long-standing Lib-Lab alliance between brains and numbers which had kept Conservatives on the defensive for so long. As for Henderson in 1917, the outcome was to bifurcate the Left into competing machines, thus presenting Stanley Baldwin with his long career in government. After 1918 the Liberals’ intellectual vitality persisted for a generation: but it did not benefit Labour. Nor could Labour on its own ever win for the Left the mass support that Liberals had once enjoyed (and are now recovering) in rural areas and in the South and West of England.

There is, however, a second relevant 20th-century split on the left. Labour’s historians will also need to approach the holy of holies: Labour’s decision to break with MacDonald in 1931. Morgan sees Henderson in 1931 as achieving ‘near immortality by leading those who resisted cuts in unemployment benefit in August 1931’, when he ‘insisted on following the dictates of the TUC rather than the international bankers’. Yet only thirty pages later he describes the ‘bankers’ ramp’ idea as a ‘legend’, and refers to ‘the sheer emptiness of Labour’s economic thinking’ in the run-up to the crisis that produced the coalition. Henderson’s resignation did nothing to avert the cuts: is MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government rightly described, then, as a ‘fatal miscalculation’? Morgan explains this decision largely in personal terms: as the predictable outcome of MacDonald’s long-held consensual view of social evolution, accelerated by the widening gulf between MacDonald and his class. Others may come to see it as the culmination of MacDonald’s lifelong crusade to draw organised labour towards the heart of the governmental process, as the dénouement of his courageous and lifelong campaign to get the Party to transcend mere sectionalism, and as the crowning moment in his personal progress from workhouse to Westminster.

This brings us to Austen Morgan’s new biography of Ramsay MacDonald, more sympathetic to its subject than a biography written ‘out of an intellectual commitment to Marxism’ leads one to expect. While disclaiming originality, Austen Morgan makes a real effort to understand MacDonald, and is only occasionally crude or unsubtle in his judgments. He rightly repudiates any idea that MacDonald plotted to form the National Government long in advance, nor does he wish to unload on MacDonald all the blame for a failure that rests properly with his party: he rightly points out that if MacDonald had fallen under a bus just before the 1931 crisis, ‘he would be remembered as one of the great leaders of the party’, for between 1900 and 1931 MacDonald above all people built up Labour into Britain’s leading party of the left.

Despite these virtues, however, Austen Morgan diverges less from the standard biography (published in 1977 by David Marquand, now of the Social Democratic Party) than his Marxian perspectives might lead one to expect; he does not even put the case of MacDonald’s critics when he decided on a strategy of respectability on taking office in 1924. What he has done is to compile a well-documented, rather unanalytic chronology in 251 pages, avoiding character-study and concentrating on political context. MacDonald’s private world ‘is explored’, says Morgan, ‘only insofar as this may inform the political narrative’. There is little here to fertilise Labour’s current internal debate, but the book does at least rescue those who want the basic facts of MacDonald’s career and lack the time for Marquand’s 795 substantial pages.

To turn from Morgan’s broad perspectives to the narrownesses of Sylvia Pankhurst is a transition few present-day Labour activists will care to make, for she only ever operated on the Labour Party’s fringes. Yet this biography, too, can assist in Labour’s self-scrutiny. Although it lacks a proper bibliography, it is fully documented, and better indexed than the two Morgan books. Romero illuminates the sheer difficulty of the task facing Labour’s leaders when confronted by idealists and enthusiasts on the left for whom, as Sylvia Pankhurst wrote in 1935, ‘any protest is better than none.’ The biography points up the continuing need in British society for the taming and reconciling role that Parliament and the parties perform within a two-party simple-majority electoral system.

A biography of Pankhurst has long been needed, for she was perhaps the bravest of all the suffragettes; Romero does not emphasise enough the extraordinary courage lying behind her hunger, thirst and sleep-strikes. Furthermore, her subsequent evolution (through Communism and anti-Fascism to the championing of Haile Selassie) was at least as interesting as the latterday chauvinism and Conservatism of her mother Emmeline, and far more interesting than the revivalist zeal of her elder sister Christabel. Sylvia wrote a great deal about herself, but Romero rightly stresses the need to interpret her writings in the light of her biography.

Romero is an energetic and resourceful biographer, pursuing her quarry through correspondence with Rumanians, interviews with Ethiopians, archival work in the Public Record Office and in Amsterdam. Nor has the research been easy, for one archive has forbidden her to quote extensively from its holdings, some Communists and some Pankhursts have refused to talk, and one owner of documents has talked to her about their contents without being prepared to reveal them. These hindrances have not prevented Romero from shedding new light on Sylvia’s affair with Keir Hardie, on her relations with Silvio Corio (father of her son Richard) and on her Ethiopian career.

Yet to bring out the full significance of Sylvia’s suffragist career, a thorough knowledge of political context is required: this Romero does not possess. There are numerous errors of detail. To give only a few examples, Bevin is Foreign Secretary in 1943, the prominent suffragist Charlotte Despard is re-christened Janet, a women’s property franchise is enacted in 1911. More seriously, on the Edwardian political context of women’s suffrage Romero is weak and even sometimes unintelligible: she is therefore unable to bring out Sylvia’s advance over her mother and sister in suffragist tactics. For they made only a partial strategic advance over Mid-Victorian suffragists; while stressing the need for a government suffrage measure, they nonetheless continued to plump for the deceptive simplicity of the feminist demand for removing the sex discrimination from existing or any future franchise. In practice, this led them into blocking the one route to women’s suffrage that was politically practicable in a Parliament which since the 1860s had gradually become dominated by party: adult or (as Sylvia later called it) ‘human’ suffrage – that is, the enfranchisement of all adults in virtue of their humanity rather than because qualified by sex, property-ownership or status. Adult suffrage was the most democratic policy, the strategy favoured by organised labour, and therefore the obvious course for a Liberal Party that in 1914 was still bidding for continued leadership of the British Left.

As a suffragette of long standing, Sylvia reached this view only slowly; she was pressed into the democratic campaign of both sexes for adult suffrage by the working-class opinion she encountered in 1913-14 after moving to the East End to promote women’s suffrage. Romero rightly condemns her for subsequently exaggerating her role in getting votes for women: Asquith promised her deputation in 1914 nothing more than he had promised Parliament four years earlier – that if women’s suffrage had to come, its enactment must be ‘thorough-going and democratic’. Sylvia’s importance here lies not in what she achieved, but in discerning the direction whence victory might come, and in consolidating that perception in her important historical treatise, The Suffragette Movement (1931). There she mounts a formidable critique of the suffragettes for their ineffective stunts and conspiratorial (as distinct from mass and open) militancy, and for retaining a strategy which forced women’s suffrage into a quite unnecessary confrontation with the party system. Nor is this strategic insight the only virtue of Sylvia’s book. With its rich biographical information on the Pankhurst family it fully lives up to its subtitle, ‘An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals’. To write so substantial a book amid poverty, ill-health and all the distractions of single-parenthood was an achievement indeed – an achievement which Romero curiously underrates. Barbara Castle is more perceptive here, describing the book as ‘massive, detailed, vivid and highly subjective’, and as bristling ‘with facts, personal emotions and shrewd political analysis’.

This raises the question of whether good biography can ever emerge from an unsympathetic biographer. Discussing this theme, G.M. Trevelyan said he ‘would never undertake to write against my own bias’. Perhaps he was right, for whereas Kenneth Morgan’s portraits gain from the fact that he likes their subjects, Romero finds Sylvia ‘self-centred, opinionated, immature, obsessive, highly-strung, and single-minded in whatever cause she made her own’. Few will disagree. Sylvia was an impossible colleague – always finding some self-righteous or logical reason for refusing to work with others, and endangering more than one cause (including women’s suffrage in 1916-17, though Romero neglects the point) with her recurrent rejection of compromise.

Kenneth Morgan emphasises Keir Hardie’s commitment to constitutionalism, and since its earliest days Labour, like the Liberals before it, has aimed to channel into Parliament resentments that might otherwise take more violent directions. Yet with Sylvia, Labour failed. She spurned the chance of Parliamentary seats, and at the Labour Party’s time of crucial need in the Twenties spurned Parliamentarism altogether. In her inter-war utopia, ‘party politics, with their interminable debates in Parliament, dominated by unrealities in which the truth seldom appears, and contested elections with all their vulgar claptrap, will be forgotten.’ She never risked exposing her ideals to Parliament’s stringent test: that of continuous contact with those who did not share them. In her Communist phase in the early Twenties she rejected Lenin’s strategy of collaborating with the Labour Party for fear that Labour would corrupt the Communists: Lenin aimed to corrupt in the reverse direction. Parliament was for her ‘past reform and must disappear’; her ideals must be preserved in their purity.

One way out of Romero’s biographical dilemma would have been to show how Sylvia’s counter-productive methods emerged inevitably (and therefore excusably) from a personality twisted by frustrated longing for her mother’s affection, by jealousy of her spoiled sister Christabel, and by yearning to find a replacement for the beloved father who had died when she was so young. Sylvia was capable of writing very movingly, especially about her childhood; her energy and courage command admiration; and somehow she had charm enough throughout her life to elicit remarkable tolerance and self-sacrifice from her friends. But Romero is unsuited to so closely psychological an approach; her forays towards it result in some notably crude judgments. ‘Middle-class women generally knew little about sexual satisfaction until after World War One,’ she confidently declares; and Sylvia’s failure to take up the cause of the unemployed in the Thirties was ‘due to her desire to become more middle-class because of her son, not because she was weary of the poor’.

Barbara Castle’s aims are very different: hers is a comparative study, much shorter than Romero’s, without footnotes or index, and making no claim to originality, though she has used some manuscript sources. It was a good idea to write a book about two sisters whose careers and personalities contrast so markedly, for Christabel was more attractive than Sylvia, less morose, and acute on matters of short-term political tactics. Castle realises that there is potential here for a penetrating juxtaposition of characters. During the First World War, she writes, ‘the two sisters were working out the destiny dictated by their characters with almost the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.’ Yet she neglects her opportunity, allocating two-thirds of the book to the years between 1903 and 1914, and gives us a rather conventional narrative of Christabel’s and Sylvia’s role in the suffrage movement.

Like so many of her predecessors, she is too preoccupied with militancy, too dismissive of the non-militant suffragists, too ready to endorse Sylvia’s own claims for her influence on Asquith in 1914. She also fails to see how London’s East End drew Sylvia towards adult suffragism, and (like the suffragettes themselves) too readily interprets Asquith’s resistance to equalising the property francise in terms of stratagems and ‘ploys’ – as though he had no wider purpose in view. On the other hand, she does at least recognise that Christabel, in resisting adult suffrage, ‘had got herself into the anomalous position of actively opposing the widening of the vote’, and she knows that ‘Liberals and Labour MPs alike were more concerned with the condition of the people than with the grievances of a million comfortably-off women.’

Nor is this the only respect in which Castle improves upon Romero: she makes better use of Sylvia’s autobiographical writings in bringing the Pankhurst household to life, and gives more attention to Sylvia’s courageous prison record. And perhaps Castle’s emancipation from footnotes may be felt to go with her closer preoccupation with personality and her more attractive prose – reminiscent on occasion of the forthright vigour we came to associate with Castle the politician.

If Conservatives are less respectful towards their leaders and readier to discard them, perhaps this is partly because they take success for granted. More important, Conservatives are more single-minded in pursuing success for their party in the future. Yet Morgan’s chapter on ‘The Planners’ shows how, at one great moment in its history, Labour nerved itself to challenge the Conservatives on their own governmental ground, and triumphed.