The original Labour moderniser
Hugh Gaitskell was the original Labour party moderniser. Sadly, he is rarely credited as such. In fact, he is rarely credited at all. For an entity that has often viewed itself as a crusading, near-religious, movement, the party has deified other party greats – none more so than Aneurin Bevan, the founding father of the National Health Service. Too tempestuous to be party leader, but too talented to be ignored, Bevan has all but ensured his place in the annals of British political history. A charismatic figure, an intellectual and a spellbinding speaker, Bevan was – and still is – a natural figurehead for the left. It is ironic, therefore, that his primary political opponent, Gaitskell, who ultimately emerged victorious from their struggle, occupies far less space in political discourse, and much less warmth among the very people he strove for in his leadership of the Labour party between 1955 and 1963.
Labour during this era was characterised by the internecine warfare between the fundamentalists of the Bevanite left and the revisionists of the Gaitskellite right. Gaitskell and Bevan were often at each other’s throats, or planning the next stranglehold. This bitter struggle was almost unprecedented in Labour party history in its level of personal animosity. Bevan, at least initially, truly despised Gaitskell, and Gaitskell in turn disliked Bevan’s style of politics. At times the actual cause of contention was lost in the midst of the desire to win the struggle for the direction of the Labour party. But by 1957 it was clear Gaitskell had won.
During his leadership Gaitskell rigorously attempted to make the aims and values achievable aims in the society that existed, and not as some sections of the party wished society to be. It took multiple electoral humiliations during the 1950s, 1983, 1987 and 1992 to convince many within the party that Gaitskell’s vision was right. The devices used by Neil Kinnock to retreat from the disastrous Michael Foot-led 1983 election manifesto were Gaitskellite to the core. When Kinnock succumbed he passed the rose to another former Gaitskellite, John Smith.
An oft-used perceived smear of Gaitskell is that he was simply Blair before his time. But history is not quite as neat as that. Thatcherism had forced the Labour party to publicly admit what many had covertly acknowledged since the postwar era: namely, that any Labour government would have to manage capitalism.
Bevanites have tended to be vastly overestimated, at the time and since, because of their symbolic value of resisting change and their journalistic expertise. The Labour left was in no position to offer a challenge to Gaitskell’s revisionist case, their intellectual poverty being apparent by the early 1950s, which allowed revisionism a near-monopoly in the field of detailed policymaking. The resistance from Bevan can often be described as a combination of sheer petulance and ideological hostility, though by the late 1950s Bevan had forsaken the personal and ideological animosity that he had long directed towards his rival.
Altogether, Bevan, Bevanism and the Bevanites seem much more important, well organised and Machiavellian to the Labour party than history allows. Gaitskell defeated both the man and his ideals and would go on to forge the revisionist project that shaped the postwar Labour party. His influence truly has spanned and crossed into the new millennium. Although his sole general election campaign was a humiliation, he had crushed Bevan as a rival leadership candidate in 1955 and, in 1960, when challenged for re-election after the loss in the general election a year prior, he defeated the future Labour prime minister Harold Wilson with nearly 70 per cent of the vote.
It is impossible to forecast what would have happened if Gaitskell had lived to become prime minister, though there is no doubt that he was a humble, principled man inspired by a genuine passion for social justice. One hopes that one day he too will be rightly credited, and take his place next to his old foe on the list of Labour greats.
'Neo-Gaitskellism', clause IV, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith, Keynesianism, Labour, Labour history, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Nye Bevan