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

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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?

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