Hugh Gaitskell without the dancing?

Tony Blair owes much to Labour's first moderniser. Would that he owed more
Click to follow
The night after he was appointed Labour Chancellor in 1950, Hugh Gaitskell, in New York on a ministerial visit, celebrated by going to a Greenwich Village jazz club and dancing until 4.30 in the morning. How times change. It is difficult to imagine Tony Blair, or for that matter any modern British politician, with the possible exception of Kenneth Clarke (for the jazz rather than the dancing), doing anything much like that in their mid-forties.

Gaitskell's lifelong passion for dancing in night-clubs, like his unconventional streak and his affair with the socialite Ann Fleming, wife of the creator of James Bond, is a reminder that there were sharp differences, as well as similarities between Gaitskell and Blair. It is curious, as Brian Brivati points out at the end of his dazzling new biography of Gaitskell, that he isn't even mentioned in the blueprint written by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle for the first term of a Labour government. After all, it was Gaitskell and his legacy that kept alive the possibility of Labour's eventual emergence as a party of the modern social democratic left. Could it be that in the only election Gaitskell fought, he, too, promised not to raise taxes and went on to suffer a severe defeat? Or could it be that Mandelson has subconsciously never forgiven Gaitskell for wresting the leadership away from his grandfather Herbert Morrison after Attlee stood down in December 1955? After all, was Gaitskell not the first moderniser? Didn't he stun friends and enemies alike by trying to replace Clause IV of the party constitution? Wasn't he also a public-school and Oxford-educated son of a Tory who nevertheless had a close and formative relationship with his Northern working class constituency? Did he not draw some of the same sharp lessons from the 1959 election defeat that Blair did from that of 1992? Is there not an overwhelming sense that Tony Blair has picked up where Gaitskell was forced - by his death at only 57 - to leave off? And does the endorsement of Tony Blair by Roy Jenkins, social democrat and living disciple of Gaitskell, not mark the final completion of a circle?

Well, yes and no. History is not quite as neat as that, as Brivati knows. Indeed, it's one of his strengths that unlike his predecessor Philip Williams, who nevertheless also wrote a fine book about Gaitskell a generation ago, he is young enough to be uninfected by the internal party struggles over the bomb and Clause IV in the 1960s. He wasn't even born when some of us, in a shamefully poisonous parody of a civil rights anthem, used to sing on Aldermaston marches: "Gaitskell is our leader/He must be removed/Just like the scum that's floating on the water/He must be re-moved."And he isn't misty-eyed enough about either of the two leaders to assume that if Gaitskell had lived to be elected prime minister in 1964 - which he surely would have been - he would have simply been proto-Blair. Both those views - the abuse he received from the infantile left after standing up to unilateralism in his spine-tingling "Fight, fight and fight again" speech at Scarborough in 1960 and the idea that he was Blair before his time - ignore something important about Gaitskell: not how right-wing, but how left-wing he was. On this analysis, Mandelson's omission has nothing to do with grandfilial piety, everything to do the fact that Gaitskell was a collectivist, a Keynesian believer in economic planning rather than markets, and committed above all to the seemingly un-Blair-like concept of Equality. Which is one reason why some unreconstructed Gaitskellites - such as Roy Hattersley - get so cross with Blair.

As it happens. Blair did use the E-word in a recent article in the Independent on Sunday in July, saying that he wanted to see more of it. But, broadly, this analysis must be right. How could it be otherwise? The post-war consensus was still firmly in place. The industrial and social changes - including the manufacturing shake-out which laid waste Labour's unionised heartlands, were not even predictable, let alone visible. Gaitskell led the party in times shaped by the Attlee government; Blair leads it in one equally shaped by Margaret Thatcher's. To do so he has had to roll back much more of Labour's history than merely that of the Seventies and Eighties.

So part of the difference is to do with the times and not the men. It's futile to play time travel with political history; but Gaitskell might have looked more like Blair had he lived to be Prime Minister. It's true that he was a Euro-sceptic - indeed, it was his opposition to the terms of the Macmillan EEC application which reunited him with many of his old enemies on the left of the party. But he would surely not have let his own followers undermine Barbara Castle's heroic attempt to reform the unions in 1968-9.

But there were also differences which were to do with personality and not environment. Gaitskell's politics were humanist and libertarian where Blair's are Christian and more socially conservative. Gaitskell shocked his mother by marrying the divorced Dora Frost and was as consistent a liberal on divorce as he was an opponent of immigration controls.

And there's one other trait, one of the most attractive, which has not, at least not yet, emerged in Blair and that was Gaitskell's electrifying passion. Blair is one of those maddeningly rational politicians of a kind which Gaitskell kept saying he was but wasn't. It may be that this is appropriate to the minimalist and politically unemotional present day. But you cannot help mourning the romantic streak in Gaitskell's make-up - and wishing you could see occasional flashes of it once again.

Comments