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)?
Gaitskell’s outstanding honesty, the candour and straightforwardness on which nearly all the essayists remark, must be seen in relation to the wizened rationalism of this tradition. Such characteristics only have the value of the ends they serve. If the latter appear to one defective and inadequate, then a pugnacious pursuit of them will seem an aberration, ridiculous and dangerous in proportion to its single-mindedness. So will the strong emotion Gaitskell applied to his beliefs, another feature heavily insisted on by the majority of contributors. Presumably Aneurin Bevan was really thinking of the peculiar, dehydrated meanness of Labour right wing ideology when he passed the celebrated remark about Gaitskell’s being a ‘dessicated calculating-machine’. The system, rather than the inner man, was inhuman. If so, it was an unfortunate remark—expressing in its way that emotionalism and tendency to think in personal terms, that left wing weakness which has always been the counterpoint and condition of Fabian dominance—but a remark that sunk deep. Otherwise one finds it hard to explain the amount of space consecrated to Gaitskell’s humanity, to the simple fact that he had feelings, even quite strong feelings, could enjoy life, had a sense of humour, and so on and so forth. Not traits one would normally hesitate to believein, even in an enemy. It is as if the votaries had to persuade us their idol really was three-dimensional, in spite of all the appearances. Oddly enough, they largely fail to do so. One must presume they are right. But in all this volume of hosannahs, why is it that no single word or reported gesture or action of the man himself emerges with its own force to strike the reader’s imagination, to move him to a spontaneous recognition of human worth? Why is it an incidental reference to the obscure, forgotten bohemian of the ’twenties and ’thirties, Amyas Ross (pp. 40–41) should create a more vivid impression in Margaret Cole’s essay than the other fifteen pages devoted to the hero?
One attribute seems to be distinctly understressed in the portrait. Proper piety has prevented the acolytes from disclosing the hardness which flowed from Gaitskell’s single-minded devotion to his few ideas. George Brown, who should know, has criticized them for the omission in his review of the book in The Spectator (January 24th). The reasons for Gaitskell’s rise to power in the Labour Party are described by Roy Jenkins, in his somewhat dull contribution. ‘The majority of the big trade union leaders’, he points out, ‘had decided that Gaitskell, despite his utterly dissimilar background from their own, was a man with whom they could work, and that Bevan was not. The decision came at a most important stage in his career’ (p. 121). He thus became the chosen vehicle for the continuation of the alliance between Fabian intellectualism and trade union bureaucracy, the alliance which has constituted the core of the Labour Party. But he was to prosecute the alliance in an unduly narrow-minded fashion, ignoring those qualities of equivocation and tactful ambiguity also needed in a leader of the Labour Party because of the other forces it contains, above all the socialist Left which plays such a vital rôle among the constituency rank-and-file, and because of the minimal positive ideology required to hold the lot together. Gaitskell’s brand of tough dogmatism threatened to cut through these vital bonds. His empiricism was a little too blinkered and fanatical, even for the Labour Party. Speaking of the Clause 4 controversy, Jenkins sadly admits: ‘Without doubt, he and those of us who were close to him made serious tactical mistakes . . .’ (p. 126).