the centre-piece of the Scarborough Conference was, of course, the defence debate: everything before led up to and foreshadowed that. But it is useful to begin elsewhere. When Mr. Gaitskell chose his ground last year at Blackpool, the issue which he projected on to the Party—Clause 4 and public ownership—was not a simple question of the revision of the Constitution. He saw, in this text, an opportunity to redefine the nature and goals of the Party itself for a very long time to come. That battle is still on—and the clue to the coming controversies lies in the difference of tone between Mr. Gaitskell facing the “unilateralists, pacifists and fellow travellers” on Wednesday, and Mr. Gaitskell placating the anti-revisionists and fundamentalists on Thursday. He yielded to the “sentimental” attachment of the Party to the Constitution, in a moderate and apologetic speech on Clause 4, only because, in a well-argued and comprehensive but occasionally aggressive and abusive speech on defence, he had taken his stand elsewhere.
But we have not finished yet with Clause 4. For Mr. Gaitskell bowed out in favour of one of the vaguest and weakest restatements of public ownership to which the Party has ever been committed. His retreat, it is true, was evidence of the widespread debate about “affluent capitalism” which has developed in the months since Blackpool. The Party has begun to mark the contrasts between “private opulence and public squalor”, to learn the catechism of complaints which it must learn, if socialist theory is to deal with the realities of mid-century capitalism. Mr. Crossman made an important contribution to that debate—his Fabian pamphlet, Labour And The Affluent Society. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gunter (speaking on Morgan Phillips’s pamphlet, Labour in The Sixties) gave instances of the “double standards” between private consumption and community needs. All this represents an advance in the face of “revisionism”—rather than (as it seemed at one point last year) a retreat to theoretical positions taken during the last half-century. Nye Sevan’s phrase—“the language of socialism is the language of priorities”—is the one around which, in future months, Labour could re-organise its general case.
On the other hand, the connection between “getting the priorities right” and “extension of public ownership” has yet to be made. If we were to spend the next year clearing the cobwebs of Industry And Society and revisionism from our minds, setting out the programme of advance, relating the general case in each field to existing and visible points of discontent in the community (roads, housing, comprehensive planning, speculative building, the attack on welfare, health and public transport, the unplanned surge in the consumer goods sector, etc.), it would provide us with the most valuable preparation for the long haul to the next election. Alas, this is not to be so.
What kind of Party, then? In spite of the clarity of his exposition on defence, Mr. Gaitskell’s mind appears to move, not in terms of specific policies, but rather on a sliding scale from one set of defensive cluster of opinions to another. The “cluster” behind revisionism contains the image of a left-of-centre Party, inheriting the openness of Swedish social democracy and the blandness of post-war liberalism, founded on the mixed economy, and moving towards more equality of opportunity slowly through fiscal direction of the economy. The redefinition of the Party in terms of this “cluster” is, for the moment, in cold storage. Mr. Gaitskell expects that, if the Party can be refashioned around the defence issue, the mixed economy will emerge naturally in the process of shake-down.
The defence “cluster” is not a specific set of policies either. A year ago, Mr. Gaitskell brought the same cogency to bear in defence of the British deterrent. Now that that has been ditched, a certain measure of unilateralism has crept into the NEC statement, and has been tacitly accepted by the leadership. Whereas he set out to terrify press conferences before March with the spectre of Britain swinging free on the tail of American diplomacy because she didn’t have her own Bomb as a sheet-anchor, he has now fallen over backwards into a sheltering position without the slightest embarassment. So the specific case is not so important as the general position. The defence “cluster” is, of course, based upon an “ultimate” nuclear strategy—but only as a military expression of the community of interests which link the Western world—Western values, Western forms and institutions, inherited Western alliances and groupings. The arguments against the supremacy of these values provides the stuff for his unilateralist nightmare. And there is no question that, on this level, Mr. Gaitskell is in touch with deep currents of feeling which run through the British collective sub-conscious.