Gaitskell was the greatest moderniser
Labour before Tony Blair. Gaitskell
led British Labour in Opposition from
1955 until his sudden death from illness
in January 1963.
The 40th anniversary of Hugh Gaitskell's
death passed with little attention in
Australia. The enormous influence of American
culture here means that even though our
system of government and our political
parties are much closer to the British
than American model, a figure like Gaitskell
has largely slipped from public memory
while American politicians of equivalent
stature, such as Adlai
Stevenson or Bobby
Kennedy, remain familiar names.
This is a shame, because contemporary
Australian politicians have much more
to learn from the challenges that Hugh
Gaitskell met as British Labour leader
than from American presidential politics.
Indeed his task of updating Labour's
economic policy, articulating a distinctively
Labour foreign and defence policy, and
uniting a fractious political movement,
is in many ways the task of Labour - and
Labor - leadership today.
Gaitskell's political personality was
very much that of his profession as a
trained economist and former university
lecturer. He spent much of his public
career, from the 1930s until his death,
trying to educate the British Labour Party.
He saw the urgency of updating the Party's
economic policies to reflect the rapidly
changing British economy. In short, changing
problems demand changing solutions; what
matters is what works.
So through the Depression and slow recovery
of the 1930s, at a time when public ownership
was almost the only economic goal of the
British Labour Party, Gaitskell arranged
private seminars with like-minded private
economists from the City
of London to improve the economic
literacy of Labour's politicians, advisers
and activists. The seminars were known
as the XYZ Club. It says something about
the labour politics of the time that the
secrecy involved was almost as much for
the protection of the Labour members as
the business economists.
As late as the early 1960s, Gaitskell
was still updating. He emphasised the
importance of consumer affairs, responded
to the growth of suburbs and New Towns,
and charted new policies to adapt to the
improved living standards of the working
class - the so-called kitchen-sink revolution.
As Chancellor in Clement Attlee's post-war
Government, Gaitskell was responsible
for the difficult decision to charge for
dentures and eye-glasses in the National
Health Service over the objections of
the Labour Left, notably Aneurin Bevan
and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Attlee's cabinet was split, and Gaitskell
denounced as a "desiccated calculating
machine" by Bevan. Yet the difficult
decision surely preserved the NHS from
what would otherwise have been fiscal
collapse during Britain's post-war currency
After Attlee was defeated despite a swing
to his Government (as much by the electoral
system as the Conservative Party) Gaitskell
took over the Labour leadership in 1955.
Early in his leadership, and against
the advice of more cautious supporters,
Gaitskell seized the moment and led arguably
the first popular anti-war movement in
Britain in opposition to the Conservative
Government's adventure of Suez - under
the banner "Law Not War". Tony
Blair has much to learn from this approach.
Gaitskell was no pacifist. He had seen
democracy fail in central Europe in the
face of militarism in the 1930s and would
fiercely resist unilateral disarmament
as against the interests of Britain and
peace. And his deep patriotism saw him
reject entry into the European Economic
Community at a time when the Conservative
government had put all its eggs in that
Yet he never accepted the Tory argument
that Labour had to choose between love
of country and the rule of international
law. Gaitskell saw that Britain's security
lay in a secure international order, not
in unilateral action by great powers -
and was prepared to argue his case.
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