Digging up the Ancestors

R.W. Johnson

  • Hugh Gaitskell by Brian Brivati
    Cohen, 492 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 1 86066 073 8

Political parties need a tradition, a line of descent – in a word, heroes. In this respect the Labour Party has always had some difficulty. The obvious candidate would have been the first man to lead Labour to power, but Ramsay MacDonald put himself beyond the pale: indeed, the psychological wound he left as ‘the lost leader’ was of more lasting significance than anything he achieved in power. Oswald Mosley, the most impressive of the Young Turks to contest MacDonald, lurched into even deeper disgrace, while Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury were simply not memorable. Clement Attlee, the leader for twenty years and the man who led Labour to the new Jerusalem of 1945, was, in the event, the most serviceable hero, but he was never beatified, let alone canonised. Not only did he lack charisma but, as a former army major educated at Haileybury, he was always something of an oddity within the Party, and despite many attempts to suggest the contrary, a dry stick. An old trade-union hack whom Attlee sacked from the Government pleaded his case with passion: ‘Why, Clem, for God’s sake why?’ ‘Not up to it,’ came the cheerful reply. Throughout his premiership Attlee read only the Times, partly for its cricket coverage but also, he said, because knowing its bitterly anti-Labour views in advance, he always found reading it ‘restful’. Attitudes of this sort did not sit well with a party which has always seen itself as a crusading organisation.

And after that? Harold Wilson was the most successful Labour leader, winning four elections, but the recent spate of admiring biographies cannot rescue him from ignominy. The whole point of Wilsonism, after all, was to box and fox through the burning minute. It is hardly surprising that the long-term verdict on him should be bad: he despised the very notion of the ‘long term’. Nobody tries to make a case for James Callaghan, Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock as candidates for the pantheon and some of the devotion to the late John Smith derives, no doubt, from a desperate endeavour to find a leader of note somewhere. Hence this book. ‘Hugh Gaitskell was the grandfather of Tony Blair’s revolution, the original Labour moderniser,’ the blurb begins. With Labour under Blair mobilising for a climactic campaign after 18 years of Tory rule, there is a need to invoke tradition, a legitimate line of descent, especially in view of Blair’s comprehensive abolition of most things that made Labour feel that it was Labour. Yet, on the very last page, Brivati tries to take evasive action: ‘Tony Blair’, he declares, ‘is no Hugh Gaitskell.’ It is a little late, with just one paragraph to go, to deny the evident rationale of his book.

And Brivati needs a rationale: Philip Williams’s monumental biography of Gaitskell is unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed. Not only was Williams the greatest political analyst of his time but he had access to the voluminous private papers which, since Gaitskell’s death more than thirty years ago, have remained closed to other researchers, Brivati included. He never quite overcomes this handicap, and often sounds more like a tour-guide than a familiar of the world he is writing about.

He points out in his own favour that Williams was an official biographer and a Gaitskellite and that he, Brivati, is not (he was born three years after Gaitskell’s death); nor is he bound by a self-denying ordinance, as Williams was, to refrain from discussing his subject’s private life. What that discussion entails is a possible homosexual involvement at Oxford, when Gaitskell was part of a gay circle around Maurice Bowra. All one can say about it is that if Gaitskell did have a gay side, it detracted not at all from his enjoyment of women. Brivati thinks that he and Dora Gaitskell may have had an arrangement which allowed for his probably quite numerous affairs, particularly his long relationship with Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann – certainly the Gaitskells often dined with one or both Flemings, making one wonder quite what the mutual understandings were.

Ann Fleming was a wealthy Tory – she had been married to Lord Rothermere – and while there is no suggestion that she influenced Gaitskell politically, the fact of the affair lent a certain danger to his life. Tony Crosland, for one, could see this (his flat was used by Gaitskell for trysts with Ann) and warned Gaitskell of the risks he was running. The Bevanites sniffed the air and knew or suspected the truth: here was a man locked in combat over the future of a working-class party who was born to privilege, who sought the company, within the Party, of fellow Wykehamists (Richard Crossman, Douglas Jay), other public school boys (Benn, Crosland) or public school wannabes like Roy Jenkins, and who, to top it all, was having an affair with an aristocratic Tory woman and loved nothing better than to dance the night away at the Gargoyle Club, the haunt of upper-class revellers and gays, including Burgess and Maclean. A charmer, a passionate jazz fan, a man of some vanity who enjoyed gossip, fun and jokes, Gaitskell seemed to have no trouble leading a life one might have thought he had forsworn by entering the Labour movement.

It will be interesting, one day, to read what Philip Williams had to say about all this – he was far too thorough to be unaware of the complexities of Gaitskell’s private life and wrote up his own account of it in an unpublished chapter. Apart from a wish not to upset the surviving members of the Gaitskell family, Williams took the view that his was a political biography and that the chapter could go unpublished without distorting the record. Today that view seems curiously old-fashioned. Now that Dora Gaitskell and Ann Fleming are dead (and Ian Fleming too, though he was such a misogynist and so massively adulterous that he hardly cared who anybody slept with), and the basic facts are known, it makes sense for an unexpurgated version of Williams’s biography to appear.

Tony Blair’s great weakness is that he has no experience of government, but merely a career in party politics behind him. Gaitskell’s problem was the opposite: he had known nothing but government and was catapulted into high office before he had built any proper base in his Party or learnt how to pull the Party along with him. He’d been a civil servant during the war and from there rose almost immediately to become a junior and then a full minister: by 1950 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. When his predecessor, Stafford Cripps, was ill in the summer of 1949, it was Gaitskell who decided on devaluation in the face of a run on the reserves. Attlee had turned to the few members of the Government with economic expertise, notably Evan Durbin, Harold Wilson and Gaitskell; Wilson had dithered, prevaricated and then tried to take the credit for Gaitskell’s decision. Not surprisingly, Gaitskell was suspicious of Wilson, whom he thought of in any case as ‘a second-rate economist’.

Gaitskell tended naturally to a Whitehall view of life, conscious, from a top-down perspective, of what needed to be done and ill-attuned to a bottom-up notion of what the Labour movement wanted or would wear. His 1951 Budget, with its sharp rise in defence spending to fight the Korean War and the linked imposition of charges on NHS teeth and spectacles, provoked the resignation of Bevan, John Freeman and Wilson and opened up the Bevanite rift which was to trouble Labour through the Fifties. Bevan, of course, had been spoiling for a fight for some time; fundamentally, he could not bear the fact that in the workers’ party a talented young Wykehamist could sail past a man like himself, of equal though less tutored talent, from the back streets of Tredegar. Gaitskell was right in thinking that some sort of cap had to be put on runaway welfare spending, but it’s very hard to understand how a Labour Chancellor, backed by a wafer-thin majority and the prospect of an early election, could affront Labour sensibilities by trimming back the NHS, the proudest achievement of the Attlee Administration, in order to deploy men and resources in a land war at the far end of Asia. The Whitehall view, concerned above all with the Special Relationship, saw this as inevitable, but once Britain had conceded Indian independence in 1947 there was no discernable logic in taking on even more onerous responsibilities in the Korean peninsula.

The Bevanites, too, had a problem. One contemporary remembers Wilson hissing to Bevan as he prepared his resignation speech: ‘It’s all too much about teeth and specs, Nye. You’ve got to broaden it out from teeth and specs.’ And so it was that the Bevanites attempted to mount a more general left-wing critique of the Labour establishment, by persuading the movement to take a much tougher line on public ownership, German re-armament and a host of other issues. The heart of the matter was Bevan’s jealousy of Gaitskell and his desire, by almost any means, to topple him, as became all too clear when Attlee stepped down in 1955. Blocking the way for both would-be successors was Attlee’s deputy, Herbert Morrison, a man utterly convinced of his own importance, a dreary old warhorse, long in need of putting out to grass. Gaitskell was fearful of offending Morrison by standing against him but Morrison, in his daft, over-confident way, was quite benign: ‘Of course, my boy, you go ahead if you want to, but you’ll be out on the first ballot.’ Bevan compromised himself by attempting an unholy alliance with Morrison and suggesting that he and Gaitskell both withdraw in Morrison’s favour – leaving Bevan to become deputy leader. The shabbiness of this attempted deal – Morrison was already 67 and clearly past it – was brutally revealed when Gaitskell won with an outright majority on the first ballot, Morrison trailing dismally in third place.

Bevanites like Wilson, Crossman and Barbara Castle were livid, for there could be little pretence but that power-mongering was at the root of Bevan’s politics. Although he made his peace with Gaitskell, a sort of Bevanism lived on in the Victory for Socialism and Tribune groups and in a broadly left-wing sensibility which increasingly found expression in CND. With it came the growth of a dangerous mythology. One can read both volumes of Michael Foot’s life of Bevan, for example, without at any point suspecting that Bevan had supported Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons. Similarly, generations of students swallowed Crossman’s assertion that the proof cabinet government had ceased to exist in this country was that the decision to make the atomic and then the hydrogen bomb had never gone before cabinet. In fact both had – and been unanimously nodded through. To admit this, however, would have been to admit that Bevan and Wilson had voted in favour of both bombs, which would never have done.

It is difficult now to comprehend the sheer ferocity of the Bevanite-Gaitskellite split: the two sides hated one another with a passion, for this – rather than the Tory-Labour divide – was the real fissure between middle-class and working-class politics. When he ventured among Bevanites, Gaitskell could be jostled, heckled and spat at. And while he was happy to socialise with the Ann Fleming set, he would refuse on principle to share a drink with Michael Foot, if he ran into him abroad. It was the stuff of party suicide: Attlee called the 1951 election – straight after an unpopular Budget, in winter and with four Parliamentary years to run – because it was thought that to do so would deaden the Bevanite revolt.

This civil war had its heroes and villains – and above all its myths. Besides the myth of Bevan the unilateralist there was the Foot-Castle variant on the old saw that ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’: to them, socialism was the sound of Nye Bevan’s incomparable oratory. They found their collective self-definition in his passionate, ironic, rolling Welsh periods just as Tories could listen to Churchill’s wartime speeches and know that his words were what they believed: indeed, what they worshipped. There are two big Gaitskellite myths. After Gaitskell had survived thumping Conference defeats, over Clause Four in 1959 and over unilateralism in 1960, only to triumph at the 1961 Conference, the lesson drawn by pundits – and later Labour leaders – was that a Labour leader could steer his own course unconstrained by the need to carry Conference with him, that true leadership meant treating the movement with a certain disregard. This was a complete misunderstanding. If Gaitskell had lost again in 1961 his leadership would have been broken on the wheel. And the basic reason he won was that the Party realised the Tories had been in power for a decade and if Labour was ever to win again, it had better rally behind the only leader it had. This is the card that Blair has played over and over again – and it is a mistake to think that this makes him a great party manager. The test for Blair will come after he has been in power for a year or two, when it is clear that he is unlikely to equal, let alone improve on, the Tories’ economic performance, and when the Party’s left wing reasserts itself, as it is bound to do. Those who believe that Blair has turned Labour into the SDP writ large are quite mistaken.

The SDP was itself the carrier of the second great Gaitskellite myth, that history took a wrong turn in 1959 when Clause Four was reaffirmed; that the reason Labour was not politically competitive after 1979 was that it had not gone through the deradicalisation which the German SPD had undergone at Bad Godesberg; that what it needed to discover was the social market economy; and that, had Gaitskell lived, he would have achieved all this. A good deal of the SDP’s rationale was based on this German analogy and, confusingly, the party’s initials deliberately echoed those of the SPD. There was, however, one glaring problem. The SDP was passionately pro-Europe while Gaitskell finally achieved dominance as Labour leader thanks to his passionate rejection of Europe (‘It means the end of a thousand years of history’). Unabashed, the SDP simply re-aligned the dead Gaitskell to its views: had he lived, it was claimed, he would have become a devoted European.

The SDP’s German myth didn’t really make sense. The SPD continued to lose elections for another 14 years after Bad Godesberg, while Labour, having re-affirmed Clause Four, went on to win four of the next five elections. The social market economy was the CDU invention of Ludwig Erhard and had nothing to do with the SPD – and in any case eluded definition. Nor has the SPD’s moderation made it a certain election-winner: it has been trounced by Kohl over and over again since 1982. Finally, to assume that Gaitskell would eventually have become a pro-European not only underestimates his old-fashioned views of British primacy but ignores the fact that changing his mind would have cost him his credibility.

What, finally, of the claim that Gaitskell, in the wake of the 1964 election, would have converted Labour to the ‘social market economy’, that the SDP split would never have happened and that we would have had Blairism thirty years before Blair? Not, when you think about it, terribly likely. Anti-racism was Gaitskell’s strongest political conviction and he refused all his life to vote for anything less than completely unrestricted immigration. In the heyday of Powellism, between 1964 and 1970, this would have been fatal. It is not even certain he would have won in 1964. He died, let us remember, in early 1963 – months before the Profumo scandal broke. Imagine the Tories, backs to the wall, facing a must-lose election, foundering in a sea of scandal. Can one believe that Gaitskell’s affair with Ann Fleming – widely known among the political élite – would not have surfaced, or been surfaced? Can one not imagine the delight of Fleet Street (and of Wilsonites like George Wigg) when the glorious realisation burst on them that Gaitskell’s philandering took place in the club once frequented by Burgess and Maclean? Wilson was a duller, lesser man than Gaitskell, but his dullness was a precious asset in 1963-64. There are many might-have-beens about Gaitskell – ‘the best prime minister we never had’ and so on – and these are rehearsed in Brivati’s book, which also tells us less about things as they really were than it does about the political mood at the apogee of Blairism. We are being invited to glory in nostalgia for a past that didn’t even happen.