Confessions of a Neo-Gaitskellite

When I was asked why I used the term ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ to describe myself in my Twitter profile, I had to stop and think. The origins of the term as I used it aren’t too hard to recount. My good friend – and fellow Progress member – Matthew Forrest was the first to use it in an offhand way, as a replacement for ‘Blairite’. I became curious when he said it: why not, after all, just use ‘Blairite’ if the meaning were the same?

The truth, though, is that Matt was actually alluding to a crucial point which is often missed in the incessant debate over the legacy of Labour’s only two-and-a-half-term prime minister. Critics of the modernising wing of the Labour party like to repeat again and again that ‘Blairism’ has no place within the Labour party’s tradition. It is, we are told, an alien force imported in by some smooth-talking PR men; it may have helped win electoral success but it did so by being grafted over the history of the Labour movement, rather than emerging from it. And the eloquence of ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ (okay, I grant you that ‘eloquent’ may not be what most people think when they see it) is that it demonstrates, subtly but clearly, that this argument is just wrong.

Hugh Gaitskell’s tenure as Labour party leader is frequently overlooked, in large part because he lost to a Conservative government presiding over an economic boom in 1959 and sadly died before he would have a chance to fight the far more winnable election of 1964. In it, however, he sowed many of the seeds that would take root in the 1990s. He attempted to bring the Labour party to the centre-ground, fighting off efforts to subscribe to electorally suicidal nuclear disarmament and recognising that some charges in the NHS were necessary to ensure its entrenchment and survival. In the 1959 election, he even tried to commit the party to no new tax rises, although this was undermined by Labour’s spending commitments. Most famously, he attempted to amend Clause IV decades before the party would finally be ready for this step. For this, he was accused by contemporaries of selling out Labour’s tradition and betraying its origins.

A Labour leader determined to move the party to the centre, whose aims included modernising the young NHS to ensure it survived, abandoning Clause IV and trying to leave behind the image of ‘tax and spend’ – and who was thus accused of being a traitor and outside the Labour tradition? Well, quite.

History is not quite so neat, of course. It would be a disservice to the man to pretend that Gaitskell would slot neatly into New Labour. Obviously there were differences, most notably in attitudes to Europe. This is not exactly a surprise given that Gaitskell was to die over 30 years before Tony Blair assumed the role he had once held. However, there is little doubt that, intellectually and spiritually, Blair was the heir to Gaitskell.

So in summary, why ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’ rather than ‘Blairite’ or ‘moderniser’? Partly to avoid the same old tired arguments, sure, but mostly because ‘Neo-Gaitskellite’, however unwieldy, is a good way of reminding both ourselves and our opponents that ‘Blairism’, ‘Modernisation’, ‘New Labour’ and all the rest have as rich and as proud a history within the Labour movement as their fellow traditions, despite what the critics say.

That’s okay, though: misguided and hyperbolic criticisms of Gaitskellism and its successors as being ‘outside the Labour tradition’ have a rich history too.

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Also in the Neo-Gaitskellism series …

Reintroducing Gaitskell by David Butler

Continuing the Gaitskellite tradition by Matthew Forrest

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Kevin Feeney is a student, a Labour party member and self-confessed Neo-Gaitskellite. He tweets @LabourKevin

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Comments: 6...

  1. On August 16, 2012 at 10:18 am David Talbot responded with... #

    As a self-confessed ‘Gaitskellite geek’ I’m very much enjoying this series on Progress.

    Gaitskell’s revisionism was arguably thirty years ahead of its time. The attempted revision of Clause IV has clear echoes of the rise of New Labour in the mid 1990s and the Labour leader that more than any other been compared to Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair. In some respects Blair can be seen as Gaitskell writ large. Blair was prepared in his formative years to push the boundaries of revisionism against all that was formerly sacred in the Labour party. New Labour can be seen to have therefore almost accomplished the final stage of the revisionist movement to that the likes of Gaitskell, Hugh Dalton, Douglas Jay and Crosland became devoted to in the 1950s. But where the comparisons cease is that New Labour sacrificed Gaitskell’s memory in terms that equality, the defining Gaitskellite revisionist notion, as it was not a formal aim of New Labour in government.

    It is also important to highlight that Gaitskell’s basic ideological commitments were distinctly different to that of Tony Blair’s and that the often timid Wykehamist would not have reformed Labour as far or as fast as Blair did.

    I’ve often thought that he has been unfairly downgraded in the pages of Labour history. I’m so glad that I came across his work whilst at second year of university (and indeed made him the subject of my dissertation in third year) because his politics so closely overlaps mine. Perhaps that means I’m a 1950s throwback or, more probably, Gaitskell really was decades ahead of his time.

    Good article Kevin.

  2. On August 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm Milan Milanovic responded with... #

    Did Gaitskellism lose us an election – I think not? The toxic legacy of Blairism will, if unaddressed, leave us to lose more elections in the future, not least because it demotivated a whole generation of activists.

  3. On August 16, 2012 at 5:47 pm Alan Stanton responded with... #

    How closely this matches our own experience as small group of New Labour activists. Over the years we’ve met from time to time to reread and discuss the essays we wrote for our seminars on various aspects of the history of the postwar Party.
      We’ve had our heated arguments, of course. Passionately arguing whether Tony Blair inherited the mantle of the Butskellites or of Neo Gaitslerism. There was sharp debate as well. One member of our group, who wrote her MSc on Barbara Castle, also played the euphonium. She arranged passages of the Crossman Diaries to music which we sang first to old Beatles favourites and later to Blur’s greatest hits. Heady, happy days.
      These discussions have always been conducted in a fraternal spirit. Holding forth fulsomely about the glorious traditions of the past, without this becoming baggage to hold us back on our journey going forward and upward through the ranks of the Party.

  4. On August 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm representingthemambo responded with... #

    It is certainly fair to say that Blair and Blairism were nothing new in ‘the Labour tradition’.
    The issue is that like Hugh Gaitskell, he and his ideas were completely wrong.

    • On August 17, 2012 at 11:52 am John Reid responded with... #

      giuatlkell ideas were wrong the 1951 budget and the post war consencus were in place for 30 years and the Bennite view of the laobur party put us out of pwer for 18 years, But I’m glad it was a case that it was the Trots who werwe wrong when the public rejected them,it was the publics opinion that was wrong,

  5. On August 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm Thomas cartwright responded with... #

    Suicidal nuclear disarmament`? Well, can Kevin remind us just what good the so-called British independent deterrent ever was? Precisely whom has it deterred – and whom is it deterring right now? Saddam Hussein his “WMDs”? Come to think of it, perhaps neoBevinIsm (“if there’s going to be an atom bomb, it’s got to have the jolly old Union Jack on it” – very Blairite, no?)… or indeed neo BevAnism (unilateral nuclear disarmament – you call that a policy – I call it an emotional spasm – you would be sending a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber”… or indeed neoRamsayMacDonaldism… the Labour leader who won the biggest general election ever – in 1931…..
    As for ‘saving the NHS’ the massive budget of £4,700 million (charges for false teeth and spectacles) was designed to fund largely the intervention in the ongoing Korean civil war to protect the fascist Quisling Syngman Rhee at the cost of enormous Korean civilian casualties, largely to help the US desire to “re” conquer China. Well, yes very Bialrite indeed…..
    But enough of that – how is Gaitskell’s stalwart defence of the British sausage against the Brussels threat as an example of Blairite commitment to the crazed Euro-dream of polltical union regardless of economic costs…..weellllllllll????? nooooooo?! yes, good for u, ‘Ugh as Ernie Bevin put it….!

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