It’s now exactly fifty years since Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, died of a mysterious illness.
The Labour Party tends to revere those leading lights that have been prematurely taken away from it. Since their respective deaths in 1963 and 1994, both Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith have now almost achieved sainthood. But, fifty years on, what is Gaitskell’s long-term legacy?
Probably Gaitskell’s most important contribution is ‘Butskellism’, a term coined in The Economist in 1956 by merging his name with that of Rab Butler, a leading Conservative. Gaitskell and Butler served as successive Chancellors of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, and both shared similar views on a ‘mixed economy’, a strong welfare state, and maintaining full employment. That post-war consensus would last, more or less until 1979 when Mrs Thatcher came to power.
Throughout his life, Gaitskell remained a committed social democrat. He led an ardent group of followers inside the Labour Party – people like Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – who eventually formed the breakaway SDP in 1981. In 1994, Tony Blair would take up many of the views of Gaitskell’s acolytes in a sort of ‘SDP Mark II’.
Indeed, Gaitskell shared with Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock a certain way of running the Labour Party: all three leaders tended to express their love for it by grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. Such a strident style of leadership is in marked contrast to a host of other Labour leaders – including Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Michael Foot and John Smith – who balanced competing forces, seeking compromise.
Gaitskell was a conviction politician, always prepared to fight for his political beliefs. His brave stand against Anthony Eden’s military intervention in Suez in 1956 because it lacked the support of the United Nations, marked him out early on as a man of principle.
Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell provoked two great debates – over nuclear disarmament and European integration – both of which showed that he was prepared to take a stand on the key issues of the day, even at the expense of making enemies from within his own party.
‘There are some of us’, he told delegates at the 1960 Labour Conference in Scarborough ‘who will fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love.’ Gaitskell had the courage to make the pro-nuclear case at the height of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s influence. He lost the vote in 1960, but demonstrated true grit by reversing the decision the following year. Despite the Party’s ‘wobble’ over defence under Michael Foot in the early 1980s, the likelihood of the present Labour frontbench unilaterally renouncing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is far-fetched. Labour MPs eventually became fed up of being on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument, and Gaitskell showed them the way.
However, Gaitskell parted company with many of his social democratic followers on the issue of Europe. He was wedded to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, famously telling the 1962 Labour Party Conference in Brighton that European integration would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’. Today, Labour is much more pro-European in outlook, although Ed Miliband’s advisers are trying to wrestle with the problem that the British people are far less keen on the European project than party activists. As Miliband contemplates whether or not to come out in favour of a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, perhaps the modern day Labour Party would do well to heed Gaitskell’s words of warning.
Unfortunately, Gaitskell’s legacy was also as a loser. At the 1959 general election, Labour fought a highly professionalized campaign. Gaitskell appeared on television with Tony Benn and Woodrow Wyatt, pioneering the use of party political broadcasts. But, rather like Neil Kinnock, who also fought a media-based campaign in the 1987 general election, Gaitskell went down to a shattering landslide defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. Although he remained as Labour leader, his standing never fully recovered.
Probably the cruellest aspect of Gaitskell’s death in January 1963 is that it paved the way for Harold Wilson – a more ruthless, calculating and ultimately more successful politician – to assume the Labour leadership. Famously, Wilson went on to win four out of the five general elections he fought. Tragically, John Smith’s death in 1994 also paved the way for another more charismatic Labour leader to emerge, Tony Blair becoming the most successful Labour leader in history, winning three successive elections.
Both Gaitskell and Smith’s deaths therefore raise intriguing political ‘what ifs’. Political pundits are left endlessly to speculate whether, had Gaitskell lived, he would have beaten Macmillan in 1964, and had Smith lived, whether he would have defeated John Major in 1997.
The veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, a notable survivor from the Gaitskell era, divides politicians into signposts, who show the way, and weathercocks who are buffeted by events. Whether we agree with Gaitskell’s views or not, he was definitely a signpost. Fifty years on from his death, perhaps his lasting legacy is to encourage other politicians to lead from the front.
Mark Stuart is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has written a number of political biographies, including John Smith: a Life.