Tony Blair never acknowledged the influence of his most like-minded predecessor, who died 50 years ago this week
The end of the Chatterley ban, the Beatles’ first LP and JFK’s murder: 1963 was a busy year. That leaves 2013 rich in anniversaries. Yet one of the first – Friday’s semicentenary of Hugh Gaitskell’s death – will likely pass you by.
A chancellor, long-time Labour leader and – had illness not snatched him away 20 months before the election that Harold Wilson eventually won – a shoo-in for No 10, Gaitskell might have expected to loom larger in Britain’s collective memory. The fact he doesn’t tells us more about his party than the man who led it from 1955 to 1963. Having grown from the bottom up, Labour rarely makes heroes of those at its top. It always finds a reason not to put its leaders on pedestals: MacDonald was deemed too treacherous, Attlee too boring and Wilson too tricksy. Blair and Brown both remain too divisive to earn a red halo, and all history suggests that Ed Miliband will offend some wing or other as he moves closer to power. You have to go back to Hardie to find a hero hailed by the whole Labour tribe. And the original keeper of the cloth cap represents the very antithesis of the bourgeois socialising and elite politicking associated with Gaitskell.
So a Wykehamist who cavorted with the wealthy Tory wife of James Bond’s creator, Amy Fleming, was never going to be loved by his whole party. To his own faction, however, Gaitskell was a hero indeed. Young men such as Roy Jenkins saw this liberally minded bon viveur as the man to bury Labour’s association with ration books and hair-shirted sacrifice. But his lowly place in the posthumous pantheon owes more to those in his party who disagreed, and rallied instead to the great working-class rival who branded him “a desiccated calculating machine”. Where Aneurin Bevan had created the NHS, Gaitskell introduced the first NHS charges to fund an American-led fight in distant Korea. Gaitskell may have had the upper hand more often during the party’s 1950s civil war, but there was only going to be one winner in the Labour history stakes.
A generation later the left split again, and the role surviving Gaitskellites played in founding the SDP helps explain why Mr Blair never acknowledged the influence of his most like-minded predecessor. Changing times defy attempts to trace a consistent influence on policy – if the council house sales proposed in Labour’s 1959 manifesto now seem very much of a piece with New Labour, Gaitskell’s Euroscepticism points the other way. But the real continuities are found in the style of politics. In ditching clause IV (which Gaitskell tried and failed to do), burying the last vestiges of unilateralism, and – above all – in making a virtue of his willingness to “fight, fight and fight again” against the left, Blair followed the playbook of the lost leader, who laid down New Labour’s oldest roots.