Underrated: Hugh Gaitskell

The Eurosceptic Labour leader who died young but deserved to be Prime Minister

EU Europe Politics UK Politics Underrated
Hugh Gaitskell: Labour's true lost leader (illustration by Michael Daley)

Since 1945, only four Labour leaders have failed to make it to Number Ten. One, John Smith, died before it was clear whether he had what it takes. Two of them asked for it. The waffling Neil Kinnock is quite simply impossible to underrate. Except for his astonishing ability to make a lucrative career out of failure by rising through the ranks of (non-elected) public service, from the European Commission to the House of Lords, he has achieved zilch. Michael Foot also asked for it. But, in contrast, his was a more formidable failure. Author, editor, brilliant parliamentarian, anti-appeaser of both Hitler and Galtieri, Foot was ultimately defeated by his own posturing self-conceit. But he rightly still generates a degree of respect and affection.

In contrast, Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s true lost leader, a man of massive stature and courage, was not defeated by his own weaknesses. Premature and unpredictable death defeated him on January 18, 1963, aged 56, just as his towering abilities were finally being recognised. He died of lupus erythematosus, a rare and at the time mysterious wasting disease which attacked suddenly and destroyed his immune system in days. The shock was so great that serious pubic figures actually speculated that he had been poisoned by the KGB.

He left an “ism”: Gaitskellism, the revisionist movement which saved Labour (at least for a while) from the neutralists, the bomb-banners, the Clause IV nationalisers and their Trotskyist outriders. He rendered post-Attlee Labour electable and was the godfather of the SDP and New Labour. He and his Hampstead Set—Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, Douglas Jay and the rest—inspired a younger generation of Labour activists. I should know: I was one of them. We loved the man.

So why is Gaitskell not merely underrated but virtually airbrushed from political history? It is all down to one speech, delivered in Brighton in October 1962. It was paradoxically the high spot of his career. Eloquent, impassioned, sincere, it reunited his party after the bitter ideological battles of the previous decade. It was also astonishingly prescient and still relevant today.

And here’s the rub. The speech ripped into the European Economic Community (as it then was). Gaitskell committed Labour to opposing Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ill-fated application to join the Club of Europe. Civilised, cultured, cosmopolitan moderates—especially highly educated, urbane, public school types like Gaitskell—were not meant to come out as vulgar backward-looking Little Englanders. That sort of stuff was for nutters, fruitcakes and nasty proletarian types. Shades of today?

It was unforgiveable. That is why Gaitskell did not warn his closest friends and allies in advance. I was studying at Cornell when he delivered his bombshell. Some time later Tony Crosland visited me on a trip to the US. Drink was consumed and we ended sitting in my study, Tony in tears as he talked of his great friend’s “act of betrayal”.

So what did the man so foolishly described by Nye Bevan as “a desiccated calculating machine” say in what all the commentators agreed was an utterly stunning 105-minute address? His approach was intensely emotional and deeply patriotic. Joining the EEC “does mean the end of Britain as an independent European State”, he warned. “It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’, but my goodness it is a decision which demands a little care and thought.”

He warned against the creeping federalism inherent in majority voting, which would inevitably embrace more and more areas. He warned that it would put an end to an independent British foreign policy and the right to implement our own economic policies. He talked (rightly) of the damage our accession would do to our Commonwealth partners. It was obvious to the delegates that he felt this country’s natural home was as the head of the Commonwealth and closely allied to the US.

Then came another pleasingly populist outburst from that quintessential Wykehamist. The EEC idea that governments (today he might have said Brussels bureaucrats) know best and should take crucial decisions was “an odious piece of of hypocritical, supercilious, arrogant rubbish”. The people should have the final say. It was an argument—and choice of words—which Nigel Farage or Norman Tebbit would have been proud of.

The historian Brian Brivati wrote a fine biography of Gaitskell. He accepts that the speech “as a political performance, was his finest hour”, though he dismisses the contents as “an almost entirely antediluvian vision, based on the shakiest grasp of economic and political reality”.

Brivati was, in my view, right about the “performance” and wrong, wrong, wrong about the content. The Brighton speech stands up amazingly well after more than 50 years. Read it for yourself if and when you get to vote in David Cameron’s promised referendum. And mourn our lost Prime Minister.