The Gaitskell I Knew
By GEORGE BROWN, MP
IN my personal calendar 1963 is entered as the Melancholy Year. Apart from other claims to the title, it opened with the death of Hugh Gaitskell and closed with the murder of John Kennedy.
These two men—more dissimilar than is usually thought—had nevertheless much in com- mon. They had both stirred up great conflicts and animosities in their homelands. But both had made a tremendous impact on the thought and the imagination of the outside world.
And, in both cases, at the moment of death it was their potential greatness and not any massive record of past achievement which impressed.
How history would have recorded the answer to what must now remain a question mark over
each of them will long be a fascinating subject for discussion—although some of us with the supreme pleasure of knowledge of them both must be permitted to declare our lack of doubt about it.
But in one respect certainly Hugh' Gaitskell had a greater equipment than the late President.
And it was in an area of vital importance. Yet it is seldom seriously considered in his case. He was much more completely a politician. He never felt the least need to apologise for the fact and never hid his deep understanding that politics is a matter of power.
He could never have said, as the President once did to me and with feeling, after a phone call from a senior Senator, never realised the power that place bad until after I had left it.'
But neither could he have talked, as Aneurin Bevan is reported to have done, of moving from one forum to another in search of the source of power only to find that, like the horizon, it was always one stage farther on.
Gaitskell always saw most clearly the issues he was dealing with at any one time in political terms. And this formed an essential part of his decisions and his actions. Whether the complex relationship between objective judgment and political requirement was always exactly balanced is, of course, a matter of opinion and point of view.
He and I differed—I am giving away no secrets—at a certain point in the bitter battle
inside the Labour Party over unilateralism and neutralism. There came a time when I felt the real issue was won and a document could be written satisfactory to us, yet in terms which some at least of those most prominent in the conflict against us could also sign. This would have avoided the carry-over of bitter divisions into other fields—or so it seemed to me.
I expected and prepared myself to meet Hugh's objections to ending the fight with the 'edges blurred.' Equally his suspicion that 'if X is willing to sign that, there must be something wrong.'
I was, however, totally unprepared when he abruptly ended the argument about the merits and, walking up and down the room in his characteristic way, quietly and coldly gave me a personal tutorial on politics and the significance of power. He ended it with a comparison. The clash between himself and Bevan at the time of the 1951 Budget was about something much more vital than the issues involved, he told me. 'It was a battle between us for power—he knew it and sc did I. And so is this.'
* Hucu GArrsis'ELL 1906-1963. Edited by W. T. Rodgers, MP. (Thames and Hudson, 25s.) Whether I was right or wrong is not for debat- ing here. But the incident showed me not only his oft-recalled virtues of clarity, logical thought, and absolute honesty: but also his much less often remarked political strength to the point even of ruthlessness.
This was later to be shoWn again, though in a somewhat different vein, in his handling of the Common Market debate within the party. He was then to be able to accept some unorthodox allies precisely because the previous battle bad been so decisively won in these terms.
It is a weakness of the collection of essays in this book* by some of his friends from different periods of his life that this vital side of him does not emerge. It is quite extraordinary how each of them, no matter what period of his life they are commenting on, highlights the same qualities and the same virtues. These were his qualities and he had them in greater measure than any other man I have met in public life. But there is a whole dimension missing. And without it it is impossible to have a real appre- ciation either of the effect he had in such a short time on the Labour Party or of the stature from which he would have faced future tasks as a really great Prime Minister.
There are, too, some other notable omissions in the picture which is conveyed by these essays. Although several of the contributors make passing reference to it, no one brings out the truly tremendous part played by Dora Gaitskell in her husband's life and development. A part played not only by being the most protective and
dedicated wife of a public figure I have ever seen, but also as a quite remarkably and un- usually intelligent and civilised woman with very clear and determined views of her own.
It was impossible to work as closely with him as I did for a couple of years without knowing full well the powerful influence she had. It is an essential part of any full picture of him.
It is perhaps too soon for the full story of how this unusual and, on the face of it, quite unlikely man ever got the chance to be the strongest leader the Labour Party has yet had. The short pieces in this volume by two of his closest and most loved trade union friends—Tom Williamson and Sam Watson--understandably enough shed little light on it. It is a fascinating story largely interwoven with two other tough but highly dissimilar characters, Arthur Deakin and Hugh Dalton.
For these reasons it is a tremendous en- couragement to know that Roy Jenkins is to undertake before too long the authoritative story. His own much too short contribution to this book still manages to convey his sure feel for the nature and the size of the canvas to be filled.
Meanwhile, this 'Interim Biography,' as Bill Rodgers calls it in his introduction, will warm the hearts of the Isizion of those who are proud to be known as autskell's friends. The charm, the gaiety, the clarity of expression and thought, the total honesty and the undeviating personal loyalty can all be savoured again through the varied episodes of his life, And the chapters by John Betjeman, Maurice Bowra and Michael Postan are joys to read in themselves.
For those who did not know him as we did, this little book should whet the appetite for the full story, to which I for one look forward with great anticipation.