Lord Morrison of Lambeth. An Autobiography:

Odhams Press Ltd. 336 pp. 30s.

labour leaders do not write good Memoirs, and Herbert Morrison’s Autobiography is no exception to the rule. The story is told engagingly enough, and the personality which emerges from it is a great deal more agreeable than that of many of Morrison’s contemporaries, but as a contribution to history in general and to Labour history in particular, his book is virtually worthless, with the possible exception of the chapters on the London Labour Party, which Morrison led in the thirties; and as personal account of politics-as-lived, it is scarcely better. Why then bother? Because Labourism needs to be better understood, and because Morrison’s story, for all its deficiencies (in some ways because of them) affords some help to that better understanding.

The rapid decline of his political fortunes in the fifties should not obscure the important role Morrison played in shaping the Labour Party’s approach to some crucial questions, most notably to the question of nationalisation. As Minister of Transport in the second MacDonald Government (one would not guess from this book that its author was a great devotee of MacDonald until the formation of the “National” Government in August 1931), Morrison had much to do with the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board, and was also the leading advocate in the Labour Party of managerial public ownership, to be run on the sole criterion of business efficiency, and with no nonsense about experiments with any form of industrial democracy. At the time, as he notes, this view of public ownership met with fairly stiff opposition from trade unionists who “were not quite ready for the modern and more British attitude of democratically putting the public interest first”. Indeed, at the 1932 Labour Party Conference Morrison’s view of the “public interest” was actually rejected. By 1945, however, it was that view which had come to prevail and which determined the character of the nationalisation measures of the following years. Unlike many of his critics on the Left, Morrison knew what he wanted. Unfortunately, what he wanted, and what we got, was a kind of nationalisation more acceptable to Convervatives than to socialists.

In 1948, it was Morrison who, as deputy Prime Minister, was the most articulate advocate of “consolidation”. “You must expect the new programme”, he told the delegates to the Labour Party Conference of that year, “to be of a somewhat different character and a somewhat different tempo from the last.” So it was; and neither has the Labour Party ever recovered from it. It was also Morrison who, at Atlee’s request, drew up a “compromise” plan for the steel industry whose adoption (which was prevented by the opposition in the Cabinet of Bevan and two other ministers) would have meant, in effect, the abandonment of steel nationalisation.

Yet, it is also Herbert Morrison, the apostle of consolidation after 1951 as well as before, who now feels that “we have run away from ourselves rather too much already”, and who opposed the adoption of Industry and Society in 1957. It would be quite wrong to attribute this to hypocrisy, or to spite against his successful rival for the leadership of the Labour Party. There really is a difference of outlook between men like Morrison, the products of an earlier Labour generation, and Gaitskellite revisionists. However great the former’s propensity to compromise in practice, they are genuinely loath to see abandoned, finally and explicitly, the socialist facet of Labourism; for all practical purposes, and notwithstanding the rhetoric, this is what revisionism is about. In this sense, Morrison excellently reflects the ambiguities of Labourism, its radicalism and its timidity, its distant vision of a socialist society and its craving for the regard and approval of Britain’s traditional rulers.

It is in the realm of foreign affairs that these ambiguities have been least marked, in that they have not been allowed to affect the Labour leaders’essentially Conservative view of the “national interest”. Morrison inherited the Foreign Office from Bevin in 1950; and the anti-war socialist of World War I, faced with the nationalisation of the Persian oilfields, quite naturally thought that “there was much to be said in favour of sharp and forceful action”. And so, it would appear, there was at Suez. This presumably is what is meant by Morrison’s exhortation to the Labour Party to “be British”.