It's time to revive the memory of Hugh Gaitskell, the best Labour PM Britain never had

There were paradoxes in the life of Gaitskell, yet the man himself was much less complex than his place in Labour's folk memory

Share

If ever there was a serendipitous moment to rethink the legacy of Labour’s lost leader, it’s now. True, there were paradoxes in the life of Hugh Gaitskell, who died 50 years ago this month, tragically too early to lead the party to the election victory he had triumphantly made possible. A principled man who had an extramarital affair with the Tory society hostess Ann Fleming, wife of the philandering creator of James Bond. A man condemned by his greatest Labour rival Nye Bevan as a “desiccated calculating machine”, but whose courageous attacks over Suez ensured Anthony Eden’s fall, and whose passionate promise to “fight and fight and fight again” after losing the vote on unilateral disarmament at the 1960 Labour conference still makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. (And who, appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer while on a ministerial visit to New York in 1950, celebrated by dancing in a Greenwich Village jazz club till 4.30am.)

Yet Gaitskell himself was much less complex than his place in Labour’s folk memory. Nothing better illustrates the problematic legacy of the man who might have been Labour’s greatest prime minister than Tony Blair’s career-long reluctance even to mention him. At first sight, this is all the odder given the frequent comparisons made between the two men after 1994. Gaitskell was the first “moderniser”. Gaitskell, too, was a public school-educated Oxford graduate who chose the Labour Party rather than was born into it. And Blair pulled off what Gaitskell had tried and failed to do: the scrapping of the commitment to public ownership in Clause IV of the party’s constitution.

In the year-zero New Labour script Blair wrote when he became leader, of course, references to the party’s history were taboo. But that he should not even include Gaitskell among the past Labour figures he mentions in his memoir after leaving office is telling. Because of his decade-long battles with the left of the party after he provoked Bevan’s resignation by imposing prescription charges on spectacles and false teeth in the 1951 budget, Gaitskell was still a dangerously divisive figure for a Labour politician to invoke a generation later. While it would have been different if Gaitskell had lived and Wilson (who had himself resigned with Bevan in 1951) had not become prime minister, this negative image was still potent as late as 1994, when Peter Mandelson warned Gordon Brown that running against Blair for the leadership would mean depicting him as “Hugh Gaitskell or worse”. Yet, by the time Blair left office, there was an opposite reason for being wary of the comparison, namely Gaitskell’s core social democratic beliefs. The issue was no longer how right-wing he was but how left-wing by modern standards. Gaitskell was a liberal, against immigration controls, in favour of divorce law reform. But he was also a collectivist, a Keynesian, a believer in economic planning and passionate in pursuit of the un-Blairite concept of social and economic equality. Which is one reason why those originally galvanised by Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership such as Roy Hattersley became increasingly irritated with Blair.

In his Gaitskell biography, written when Blair was on the threshold of power, Brian Brivati had written: “Essentially Tony Blair is playing catch-up to a revolution in political economy instigated from the right ... the market mechanism is seen as the ‘ economic truth’ of the 1990s ... the shadow of the Attlee governments fell over Gaitskell’s years as leader... The contemporary Labour Party operates in the shadow of the Thatcher revolution ... the Labour Party has abandoned equality as an objective ...” The question is whether Brivati would write such words as confidently today, whether, post-crash, the market mechanism is still as much of an “economic truth” as it was, whether Gaitskell is still as irrelevant to contemporary politics as he seemed then, and whether it is time for a reappraisal by a leader like Ed Miliband who has seen the axioms of neo-liberalism more closely questioned than at any time in the past 30 years.

Nothing better illustrates the problematic legacy of the man who might have been Labour's greatest prime minister than Tony Blair's career-long reluctance even to mention him.

No one longs to disinter the full armoury of 1940s economic planning. But Miliband’s avowed desire for “responsible capitalism”, and “state-catalysed” funding for manufacturing, does imply a level of government intervention deeply unfashionable during the Thatcher-Blair years. If Miliband is serious, Gaitskell is a more meaningful model than Disraeli, whose “one nation” theme was borrowed by Tony Blair for a Labour manifesto as long ago as 1997. Gaitskell is certainly an ideal human shield against taunts that “ Red Ed” is seeking to revive the long-dormant “old left” Labour beast; no one could have been fiercer in his battles with the left in the 1950s. On Aldermaston marches in the very early 1960s, we used to sing in a gruesome parody of the old civil rights anthem: “ Gaitskell is our leader/he must be removed/just like the scum that’s floating on the water.”

Yet Gaitskell’s heirs such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams often came to find themselves to the liberal left of Blair. Some of those appalled at Labour’s early 1980s anti-Americanism became equally so at what they saw as Blair’s compliance with a neocon-led war in Iraq. Indeed it’s hard to imagine John Smith, Labour’s other PM who never was, and a Gaitskellite, taking Britain into the war.

This is not to gloss over the two unknowable counter-factuals that still haunt the Gaitskell legacy. His famous “thousand years of history” speech against the terms which Harold Macmillan negotiated in his bid for European entry bitterly disappointed Gaitskell’s closest pro-European supporters such as William Rodgers. And as a deeply Atlanticist backer of rearmament in the shadow of the Korean war, would Gaitskell have kept Britain out of the Vietnam war as Harold Wilson did?

Lord Rodgers told me this week that once in office, Gaitskell, who insisted his attitude was “pragmatic”, might eventually have withdrawn his opposition to European entry. And on Vietnam, Lord Rodgers pointed out that the circumstances of Korea, at the height of the Cold War, were different. Moreover, Gaitskell’s links were with the Kennedys and he would not have been so natural a partner for Lyndon Johnson.

If Ed Miliband were to pay homage to Gaitskell, he would certainly strike a chord. After all, Lord (David) Owen, one of the founders of the SDP, who joined Labour as a young man because of Gaitskell’s passion over Suez, has already spoken warmly about the present Labour leader. In an unnoticed passage of his party conference speech in September, Ed Balls did the once unthinkable and cited prescription charges as an example of the “tough decisions” made by the Attlee government. Could that just be an omen that 2013 will be the year Gaitskell is finally rehabilitated in Labour memories?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?