HUGH GAITSKELL by Brian Brivati, Richard Cohen pounds 25 Politics galor e: Hugh Gaitskell, the 'egotistical and self-seeking, tough and principled'; .leader, could have something to teach New Labour, and why Conservatives hate planners
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Is the leader of the Opposition another Clement Attlee or a new Harold Wilson - or a zomboid from outer space? The matter has become pressing, as Tony Blair prepares to boldly go where no Labour leader has gone before, in the last couple of decades at least, and enter an election with the strong expectation of winning it.

Blair's spinners would like to opt for Attlee, but they know it won't wash. Failing that, they go for a kindly Vulcan image - firm, just, logical, and impervious to human emotional spasms. Meanwhile, comparisons with Harold Wilson are rejected out of hand - despite the obvious parallel between Wilsonian "white heat" modernisation and New Labour.

What of the other possible model - Hugh Gaitskell? Gaitskell was brave, honourable, resisted the Left, tried to drop Clause Four, fought against unilateralism, and wondered about the union connection. Some of his disciples have recently expressed a sense of deja vu. Ought not Tony to be seen as a reincarnated Hugh?

Not if he can help it, seems to be the answer. It tells us a lot about the underlying mood of Labour today that the Gaitskell analogy is an unacceptable one. As Brian Brivati points out in this interesting study, Roger Liddle and Peter Mandelson, leading apostles of Blairism, delicately avoided mentioning the name in their recent doctrinal text.

A few years ago the reason would have been tribal: for all his virtues, Gaitskell was the essence of the bourgeois right-winger rank-and-file comrades regarded with distrust. Times have changed. Today, Brivati suggests, the new establishment does not wish to be thought "Gaitskellite" because the lost leader held views that look embarrassingly left-wing. "To compare Gaitskell and Blair," he argues, "is to associate Blair with a politics of ethical collectivism whose objective was greater equality." In short, Gaitskell was a socialist - and much closer, philosophically, to his arch- enemy and rival, Aneurin Bevan, than either were to the eclectic politics of his successor-but-five.

It is a novel argument, which helps to give point to this re-evaluation of Labour's most unusual leader. Yet the question remains: is a new study of a politician who never made it to No 10 needed, given that a very thorough one already exists?

In 1979, the late Philip Williams published an official life of Gaitskell that was the mother of all political biographies. It was a meticulous, thousand-page account, in which almost every sentence was sourced, sometimes several times over. Challenging such a monument of scholarship is therefore an act of courage in itself.

However, there are grounds for making the attempt. First, Gaitskell is so central to an understanding of post-war British politics that it is important to get him right. Second, Williams's great study is a flawed work, written in a 19th-century tradition. The author's account of Labour politics in the 1950s and early 1960s has no equal for detail and accuracy. However, his argument is one-sidedly Gaitskellite; he turns a blind eye to Gaitskell's sometimes unconventional private life; and the characterisation of a reputedly robust figure is thin. However much the author insists that Gaitskell was not the "desiccated calculating machine" of Bevanite legend, desiccated is how he comes across. Thus the attempt of a young historian, born after Gaitskell's death and unaffected by Gaitskellite fervour, to add flesh to dry bones is as welcome as it is timely. The result succeeds and fails in unexpected ways. Half the length of Williams's volume, Brivati's Gaitskell is more energetic in its intellectual analysis, and more adventurous. But the author has written it under his own set of constraints.

Instead of gaining access to more documentation, he has been able to see less: the Gaitskell papers have not been available to him, and although he has had access to other newly available state and private papers his range of interviewees is narrower than Williams's, partly because some of the best witnesses are now dead. Hence, most of difference between Brivati and Williams lies in the interpretation. There are some fascinating contrasts. In particular, Brivati sees more strategising and guile, and less snow-white principle, than did his predecessor.

As Brivati reminds us, the future Labour leader's early career was nearly as unremarkable as Attlee's: both came from a highly convention-bound stratum of the professional middle-class. Where Gaitskell differed from his predecessor was that his middle-class education - the Dragon School, Winchester and New College - took him down an intellectual and aesthetic path. At Oxford, according to Brivati, Gaitskell moved "in a fast, fashionable and predominantly homosexual set". Yet he appeared to be worthy rather than exceptional. Like Blair, Gaitskell "was not born into the Labour Party but he chose it" - and a mystery still surrounds his conversion to socialism. An undergraduate project on Chartism encouraged him to take up WEA teaching, but becoming a Labour politician seems largely to have been a career choice at an early age.

Brivati reckons that Gaitskell's most important pre-war mentors were the puritanically serious Evan Durbin, later an MP, who died tragically in a drowning accident in 1948; and Hugh Dalton, patron of bright and personable left-wing young men. According to the author, Gaitskell did not emerge from the shadow of the booming Etonian socialist - "the defining political relationship of Gaitskell's life" - until the mid-1950s. As important as any individual, however, was Gaitskell's attachment to a group of New Fabians who set out in the 1930s to apply the new Keynesian economic thought to the woolly socialism of the Ramsay MacDonald era.

After an unsuccessful contest in 1935, he was adopted as candidate for South Leeds, a seat he won ten years later and held for the rest of his life. Gaitskell had a good war in Whitehall, assisting Dalton at the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and later at the Board of Trade - an experience, close to a highly political minister, that gave him first-hand knowledge of the permanent civil service, and of the scope and pitfalls of political leadership. Entering parliament at the age of 34, he quickly established himself in the Attlee government as a technocratic young minister who owed his place in the fast stream not to political credentials but (like his colleague and rival Harold Wilson) to his possession of rare and precious skills.

At this stage, Gaitskell was a typical evangelist of the age of austerity. While Douglas Jay declared that the gentleman in Whitehall was usually right, Dalton told smokers to save on imports by puffing their cigarettes right down to the butt, and Wilson deplored "New Look" dress because of the waste of cloth, Gaitskell - as Minister of Fuel and Power - instructed the public not to take baths, on the grounds that too much washing was a selfish indulgence. "Personally I've never had a great many baths myself," he confessed almost incredibly, declaring in the authentic tones of 1940s Big Brother socialism: "I can assure those who are in the habit of having a great many baths that it does not make a great deal of difference to your health if you have less. And as for your appearance most of that is underneath and nobody sees it."

Despite a rapid ascent, he was not an imposing public figure: in style unexciting, in appearance an early middle-aged Little Lord Fauntleroy, with his wavy hair and prim upper lip. It was the 1949 devaluation crisis, from which he emerged with greatest credit among the younger ministers, that transformed his fortunes, catapulting him to the Chancellorship of the Exchequer when Stafford Cripps retired, and enabling him to overtake not just the green-eyed Harold Wilson but the older, even more outraged Aneurin Bevan.

Brivati provides an excellent summary of the 1951 teeth-and-glasses row, when Gaitskell provoked Bevan beyond endurance over the proposal to breach the principle of a free service by imposing health charges. To Bevan, it was an unforgivable blasphemy committed by an unacceptable interloper: Gaitskell, he stormed, "represented nothing, unless it was the civil service- cum-middle class." His anger was genuine and so, Brivati thinks, was Gaitskell's cool rationality. The author makes a persuasive case that, by resigning, Bevan played straight into Gaitskell's hands - and that Gaitskell knew it. Where Williams saw Gaitskell's resistance as a matter of principle, Brivati sees a gleam of shrewd long-termism: though the crisis led to an election defeat, it also made Gaitskell a political star. But for the 1951 row, the author believes, he could never have become Labour leader. Because of it, he became the politician best placed to succeed Attlee if the party's mood was to skip a generation.

Brivati is convinced that Gaitskell's overwhelming victory over Bevan and Herbert Morrison in the 1955 leadership contest was no accident: after the 1951 Labour defeat, he maintains, Gaitskell's house in Frognal Gardens, Hampstead, "became the centre for a long and successful campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party". It was a campaign that permanently shifted the image of what a major leader should be like; he was the youngest major party leader of the century by a decade.

The choice marked a new departure in another way as well: Gaitskell was the first Labour leader to be chosen since the position emerged in the 1920s who was unmistakably identified with a faction. In this respect, it was a disaster. There were lulls. Mainly, however, Gaitskell's eight- year leadership was marked by a deep tension between the Bevanite and Gaitskellite wings of the party for which the party leader, who made no attempt to compromise, must certainly bear much of the responsibility.

Yet it is also true that Gaitskell developed a standing far beyond his own clique and even beyond the Labour Party. The other side of obduracy was conviction. The first and most impressive demonstration of this was over Suez in 1956, an escapade which at the time commanded the overwhelming support of public opinion. Brivati provides an interesting account of the joint Bevan-Gaitskell stand against Eden over the Anglo-French attack. Tony Benn, a young Gaitskell associate, wrote in his diary that the Leader's home "at that moment was one of the centres of the world".

It was a moment of unity. Usually, however, Gaitskell and Bevan were at each other's throats, or planning the next stranglehold. Much has been written in explanation - that it was personal, temperamental, chemical. There were also policies. Gaitskell's new biographer makes the interesting case that, despite the fierceness of the passions aroused on both sides, the assumptions were often identical. For example, although Gaitskell differed bitterly from Bevan over foreign policy and defence, the apparent gulf between Gaitskellite Atlanticism and Bevanite "Third Force" neutralism masked an unacknowledged agreement that Britain's continued position of world leadership should be taken for granted. Even the dispute over nationalisation was largely hair-splitting: Gaitskell was not against public ownership per se. "Nationalisation is a vital means," he declared on one occasion, "but it is only one" - by which socialist ideals should be achieved.

What were those ideals? That was and remains the nub. Freedom, certainly, was one of them. However, the biggest difference between Labour and the Tories in the Fifties and Sixties - and, in Brivati's opinion, what distinguishes Bevan and Gaitskell alike from New Labour - was a Durbin-and-Dalton derived commitment to equality: not just equality of opportunity, but a greater degree of equality of income, wealth and access to public goods and services. This was the faith Gaitskell adopted in his youth, Brivati suggests, and he remained true to it.

The author sees the 1959 election as the leader's apogee. The gains of a brilliantly fought campaign were apparently thrown away by an unwise pledge not to raise tax. Yet, curiously, Gaitskell emerged with his standing enhanced. In place of the calculating machine was a momentary charisma: after the poll, even Crossman wrote of "the godhead emerging from the man". It was an opportunity for healing: instead, the leader saw it as a chance to press home his advantage. Withdrawing into his coterie of "Hampstead Set" supporters, he gave revisionism its head, and the party was soon plunged into a civil war that threatened Labour with an anti- nuclear winter.

Yet it was a switchback ride: unlike in the 1980s, when Labour's divisions came close to annihilating the party altogether, the setback proved short- lived and (once again) adversity served to strengthen, not weaken, the leader. Gaitskell's survival - and above all his 1960 Scarborough "fight, fight and fight again" speech for which he is best remembered - seemed to set him on a road to No 10 (and, possibly, to a new internecine war with his own supporters over British entry into the Common Market, which he appeared to oppose).

His popularity in the country, and his party, was never greater than at the time of his unexpected death in January 1963. Brivati rightly rejects the rumour that he was murdered. Nevertheless, it was as if Wilson had been caught with a smoking gun: much of the Labour Party felt bereaved and cheated throughout the era that followed.

Such is the saga, varied in detail but not in essence in this new account, which succeeds better than its predecessor in showing how and why virtues in the eyes of supporters were seen as besetting weaknesses in the eyes of detractors. Less of a Gaitskellite partisan, the author succeeds in painting a more substantial portrait.

He is less successful with the private life, territory which Williams skated over. We might have hoped, not entirely pruriently, for more investigation. Brivati is not coy on the topic and maintains (in effect) that his hero was a serial adulterer who began an affair with his future wife, Dora, when she was married to somebody else, before cuckolding the creator of James Bond. He speaks of "meetings in Crosland's flat". Yet questions remain unanswered.

When, how often, and who knew about it? That a politician should have taken such risks, in a pre-permissive age, with his own career and with the reputation of his party is relevant in itself. Brivati tells us several times that Gaitskell just wanted to have "fun". He does not adequately discuss the light this sheds on the rest of his subject's character. Nor does he go into the apparent emotional ambivalence Gaitskell shared with his mentor, Hugh Dalton, and his friend and disciple, Tony Crosland, and which characterised the close friendships between the three of them.

A trunk full of letters between Gaitskell and Ann Fleming allegedly exists, which nobody has ever been allowed to see. So there may be a story yet to tell. Meanwhile, Brivati's study shows Gaitskell as egotistical and self-seeking, as well as tough and principled: in other words, a contradictory, believable and - warts and all - attractive human being.

Ben Pimlott's new book, 'The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II' will be published on 14 October by HarperCollins, price pounds 20