The British politician Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963) was chancellor of the exchequer from 1950 to 1951. He was leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963.
Hugh Todd-Naylor Gaitskell was born in London on April 9, 1906, the son of Arthur Gaitskell, an Indian civil servant. He had a middle-class upbringing which included periods of time spent in Burma. He was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, where he received first class honors in "Modern Greats" (politics, philosophy, and economics) in 1927.
For the next ten years Gaitskell pursued a career in teaching. He lectured to Nottingham miners for a year (1927-1928) on behalf of the Workers' Educational Association, his first extended contact with working-class life. Then he taught economics and politics at University College, London, rising to the position of reader in political economy in 1938. In 1937 he married Dora Frost, with whom he had two daughters.
Gaitskell's interest in socialism was stimulated initially during his student days at Oxford, where he came under the influence of G. D. H. Cole, the socialist philosopher and historian. His first political act was to assist the workers in Oxford during the nine days' general strike of 1926. In 1935 he ran unsuccessfully as Labour Party candidate for a parliamentary seat at Chatham. He began to make speeches and to participate in party activities. He advocated collective security against fascism and took a moderate socialist line on economic questions, arguing in favor of social equality and against revolution.
During World War II Gaitskell joined the civil service on a temporary basis. He served in several important ministries and worked closely with the Labour politician Hugh Dalton. In the general election of 1945 he won the seat in Parliament for Leeds South, which he held for the remainder of his life. In the postwar government of Clement Attlee he was appointed to the positions of minister of fuel and power (1947-1950), minister of state for economic affairs (1950), and chancellor of the exchequer (1950-1951). As chancellor he introduced charges into the hitherto free National Health Service.
In 1951 the Conservative Party was returned to power, and Gaitskell never again held governmental office. Yet his political influence continued to grow, based as it was on a reputation for integrity and commitment to principle. In 1955, upon the resignation of Attlee, Gaitskell won the leadership of the Labour Party with a decisive victory over Herbert Morrison and Aneurin Bevan, a leader of the party's more radical wing.
Gaitskell steered the Labour Party in a moderate direction from 1955 until his death in 1963. He vigorously opposed the invasion of the Suez Canal by Britain, France, and Israel in 1956. He also tried to modify the party's commitment to the nationalization of industry, as embodied in clause four of its constitution. After losing the general election of October 1959 decisively to Harold Macmillan and the Conservatives, Gaitskell came under attack and the Labour Party began to divide into factions. At its annual conference at Scarborough a resolution was carried by the more radical faction led by Bevan endorsing unilateral nuclear disarmament. Gaitskell, a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, made the most famous speech of his career on this occasion, vowing to "fight and fight and fight again to save the Party we love." The following year, at Blackpool, the party reversed the disarmament resolution by an overwhelming majority and re-established Gaitskell's authority as leader. It also gave him support on the clause four issue. In 1962 he used this authority to affirm the party's opposition to joining the European Common Market on the terms then being offered.
While at the peak of his influence Gaitskell became ill with a viral infection and died suddenly on January 18, 1963. His reputation as a political leader remained high. As both a conciliator and a vigorous fighter for his beliefs, he led the Labour Party in a moderate direction. He invariably argued his case with intellectual distinction. It is generally conceded, even by his political opponents, that he would have been an effective, perhaps an outstanding, prime minister.
The best biography of Gaitskell is Philip M. Williams, Hugh Gaitskell: A Political Biography (1979, abridged and with new material, 1982). This should be read in conjunction with The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945-1956, edited by Philip M. Williams (1983). Hugh Gaitskell, 1906-1963, edited by W.T. Rodgers, contains interesting essays by people who knew him well at various times of his life. Carl Brand, The British Labour Party: A Short History (rev. ed., 1974) is a good introduction to the postwar history of the party. Two studies of the divisions within the Labour Party are Leslie Hunter, The Road to Brighton Pier (1959) and Stephen Haseler, The Gaitskellites: Revisionism in the Labour Party, 1951-64 (1969), the latter written from a pro-Gaitskell perspective. Biographies of Labour politicians which contain useful material about Gaitskell are Ben Pimlott, Hugh Dalton (1985); Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, 2 vols. (1962, 1973); and Kenneth Harris, Attlee (1982).
Elected to Parliament in 1945, Gaitskell was among the most impressive of Labour's new intake. Conspicuous success at the Ministry of Fuel and Power ensured rapid promotion and he became minister of state at the Treasury after the 1950 general election. The combined strain imposed by post-war reconstruction, the development of the welfare state, and the outbreak of the Korean War made this a difficult time to assume responsibility for the national finances. Yet Gaitskell was fortunate in the timing of his ministerial ascent. Many of the leading figures in the cabinet had been continuously in office for a decade. Some were now ageing, ill, or exhausted. Gaitskell, by contrast, seemed to be the coming man of Labour politics. When illness forced the resignation of Stafford Cripps in October 1950, the 44-year-old Gaitskell was an obvious successor as chancellor.
His only budget in 1951 proved to be controversial to a degree which its provisions scarcely justified. His decision to introduce limited Health Service charges prompted the resignations of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman. In Bevan's case thwarted ambition probably played its part. But the resignations gave notice that a right–left split would emerge once the constraints of office were removed. This happened after October 1951. But Gaitskell consolidated his power base when elected party treasurer in 1954, showing the strength of his following in the trade unions. Attlee finally retired from the leadership in December 1955 and, to the surprise of many, Gaitskell easily defeated Bevan and Herbert Morrison for the succession.
His first years as leader were relatively uneventful. He even succeeded in effecting a reconciliation with Bevan. Gaitskell performed effectively in Parliament over the Suez crisis and confirmed his hold over the party. With the Conservatives badly shaken by Suez, Labour approached the election of 1959 with confidence. If for no other reason, pundits believed that the ‘natural swing of the pendulum’ would bring them back to power.
The result—a third successive Conservative victory and a substantially increased majority—was a considerable personal blow. With analysts wondering whether Labour was now doomed to permanent opposition, Gaitskell determined to modernize the party to accommodate the aspirations of middle-class voters. To traditionalists, however, this threatened the removal of all socialist content from the party's ideology. Such opposition led to Gaitskell's defeat in 1960 over his attempt to remove clause 4 from the party's constitution. But he restored his authority a year later, resisting the left's attempts to commit Labour to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, having done much to re-establish Labour as a credible party of government—an achievement which benefited Harold Wilson in October 1964. Whether he would have proved as adroit a party leader in power as Wilson remains an open question. His association with the right seemed to preclude anything like Wilson's capacity to paper over the fundamental divisions in the Labour movement. By the time of his death, Gaitskell could count on a band of devoted followers determined to modernize the party. Many of these had been disappointed by his decision in 1962 to oppose British membership of the Common Market. Even so, the Gaitskellites ensured that Gaitskell's influence survived his death. It is possible to see in this movement some of the origins of the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s. Many still regard Gaitskell as the lost leader of the Labour Party.
Brivati, B. , Hugh Gaitskell (1996).