He had scarcely drawn his last breath, when the halo was stuck above his head. It was like some preposterous historical mistake. Who would have believed Hugh Gaitskell fit for such an exalted place in the national pantheon? Who, dredging through the speeches and few writings of this utterly uninventive mind or seeing the succession of political blunders he committed, would have thought he was to become the next hero of bourgeois England?
The technique is, of course, not new, or peculiar to this country. Ruling classes have always known that the canonization of defunct or retired leaders of the opposition is a good way to soften it up. But in this case there was clearly something special, some extra ingredient of passion and urgency, an immediate and unanimous cultlike behaviour which demands more specific explanation. What could such an apparently one-dimensional figure like Gaitskell have done to deserve adulation on this epidemic scale?
The answer will not be found in the present volume.footnote1 It is the latest product of the cult, though its editor has chosen to describe it as an ‘interim biography’ and, as such, resistant to serious critical consideration of its object. Under the guidance of the notorious Gaitskell man W. T. (‘Bill’) Rodgers, the various contributors from John Betjeman (‘He retained the influence of Winchester in his way of making words noticeably disyllabic: “cha-pel”; “li-ttle”’) to Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. (‘His pragmatic conception of socialism enlisted sympathetic interest in Washington’) have assembled to glorify, not to think.
What outline, if any, can be glimpsed through the clouds of incense? Hugh Gaitskell was always an unusually single-minded person. As Sir Maurice Bowra remembers, in youth ‘he lacked those inner conflicts which disturb so many young people’ (p. 20), so that he ‘developed naturally from boyhood to maturity in a singularly straight line’ (p. 30). This arrow-like progress had as its principal ingredients hard-boiled Englishness (pp. 61–63 : ‘English sausages, how much I missed them in Vienna!’) and a reverence for bourgeois economics (pp. 65–66). Traditionally, the Labour Right has always tended to treat economics as
The same line of progress embraced love of ruling-class traditions (‘The heavenly freedom of Oxford . . .’ p. 34) and contempt for Marxism (‘too mechanical . . . too inhuman’, p. 23, ‘the whole world of Marxist ideas was . . . remote from his real preoccupations’, p. 60). Like other latter-day Benthamites, he saw that many things required reform in modern Britain and was sure he knew how to go about reforming them practical fashion. The stunted English version of the great bourgeois Enlightenment, Utilitarianism, and its stunted adaptation to the circumstances and needs of the working class, Fabianism, fitted him like a glove. What could he become but a ‘standard-bearer . . . of the decent, right-minded traditional strain in British socialism, which is gradualist and not revolutionary, tolerant and not extreme, idealistic but not woolly’ (p. 161)?