Hugh Gaitskell

British politician (1906-1963)

Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (9 April 190618 January 1963) was a British politician and leader of the Labour Party from 1955 until his death.

Gaitskell in 1961


Chancellor of the ExchequerEdit

  • Between the wars, the heavy unemployment in Great Britain and keenly competitive conditions abroad were factors which had to be taken into account in wage negotiations. Employers were afraid that higher wages, by adding to their costs, would make it more difficult for them to sell their goods, especially in export markets. If this happened unemployment would increase and workers' representatives had to bear this in mind also. The larger the number of unemployed, also, the more difficult it was to maintain full workers' solidarity, i.e. an employer could resist a strike, and make cuts in wages more easily the more workers were out of work. Thus in the last resort it was the existence of heavy unemployment, at home and abroad, which allowed employers to resist wage claims and discouraged workers from pressing them too far.
    • Memorandum, 'Wages and Prices and Full Employment' (1 December 1950), quoted in Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities: 1945–1950 (1996), p. 350
  • Conditions have greatly changed in Great Britain since the end of the war owing to the existence of full employment. Negotiations about wages between the two sides of industry now take place in entirely different circumstances. There is no reserve of labour to compete for jobs. ... If wages rise faster than productivity the increases in cost can usually be passed on in increased selling prices. There is thus in the economic system very much less check on the upward movement of money wages. ... [I]f wages at home rise unchecked, it is more likely in general that exports will gradually cease to be competitive and there will be balance of payments difficulties. These can be met, in the end, by devaluation. A succession of devaluations completely undermines confidence in any currency. ... It is clear that a very difficult problem faces a country such as ours, which wishes to maintain full employment and yet to avoid the undoubted evils of rising prices and balance of payments difficulties abroad.
    • Memorandum, 'Wages and Prices and Full Employment' (1 December 1950), quoted in Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities: 1945–1950 (1996), pp. 350–352
  • In recent years, hours of work have been reduced, holidays have been increased, the age of entry into employment has gone up, and above all, our general health and expectation of life as a people have markedly improved. It is a natural corollary of these changes that we should work longer and retire later.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (10 April 1951) introducing the 1951 budget

Leader of the Labour PartyEdit

  • We cannot forget that Colonel Nasser has repeatedly boasted of his intention to create an Arab empire from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. The French Prime Minister, M. Mollet, the other day quoted a speech of Colonel Nasser's and rightly said that it could remind us only of one thing—of the speeches of Hitler before the war.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (2 August 1956) after Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal
  • The fact is that this episode must be recognised as part of the struggle for the mastery of the Middle East. That is something which I do not feel that we can ignore. One may ask, "Why does it involve the rest of the Middle East?" It is because of the prestige issues which are involved here. ... [P]restige has quite considerable effects. If Colonel Nasser's prestige is put up sufficiently and ours is put down sufficiently, the effects of that in that part of the world will be that our friends desert us because they think we are lost, and go over to Egypt.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (2 August 1956) after Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal
  • I have no doubt myself that the reason why Colonel Nasser acted in the way that he did, aggressively, brusquely, suddenly, was precisely because he wanted to raise his prestige in the rest of the Middle East. ... He wanted to challenge the West and to win. He wanted to assert his strength. He wanted to make a big impression. Quiet negotiation, discussion around a table about nationalising the Company would not produce this effect. It is all very familiar. It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (2 August 1956) after Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal
  • All I can say is that in taking this decision the Government, in the view of Her Majesty's Opposition, have committed an act of disastrous folly whose tragic consequences we shall regret for years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, all of us will regret it, because it will have done irreparable harm to the prestige and reputation of our country.
  • I don't believe the present Prime Minister can carry out this policy. His policy this last week has been disastrous and he is utterly, utterly discredited in the world. Only one thing now can save the reputation and honour of our country. Parliament must repudiate the Government's policy. The Prime Minister must resign.
    • Broadcast on the Suez Crisis (4 November 1956), quoted in The Times (5 November 1956), p. 4
  • You can be assured of this. There will be no increase in the standard or other rates of income tax under the Labour Government so long as normal peacetime conditions continue.
    • Speech in Newcastle during the general election campaign (28 September 1959), quoted in The Times (29 September 1959), p. 10
  • For my part, I hold that the central idea of British Socialism is the brotherhood of man. It is this rather than public ownership which surely inspires all our aims in foreign, colonial, social, and economic policies alike. It is this which inspires our protests about Suez and Hola and Cyprus. It is this which is the common link between our hatred of racial discrimination, our opposition to sabre rattling jingoism, our support for a world order and for aid from richer to poorer countries, our belief in social justice and a classless society, our hopes of building a community based on something better than acquisitiveness and rivalry, our respect for the freedom of the individual.
    • Speech to the London group of the Ruskin Fellowship (22 February 1960), quoted in The Times (23 February 1960), p. 12
  • We may lose the vote today, and the result may deal this party a grave blow. It may not be possible to prevent it, but there are some of us, I think many of us, who will not accept that this blow need be mortal: who will not believe that such an end is inevitable. There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love. We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness.
    • Speech at the Labour Party conference (5 October 1960) in opposition to a motion endorsing unilateral nuclear disarmament.
  • [D]oes [the Prime Minister] realise that it is precisely because of our admirable record in converting a former colonial empire into a free Commonwealth that we ought to welcome and support anti-colonial resolutions in the United Nations, and that to fail to do so inevitably gives the impression that we still support colonialist régimes?
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 January 1961)
  • Let us not forget that our object here is to try ultimately to bring about full democracy in Northern Rhodesia. We know that that will take a little time. We know that it must involve an acceptance by the white minority themselves of an African State which will be under the control of the African people. We believe that the white minority have an important part to play there, but they must accept the fact that we must get over this hump or past this watershed—whatever the metaphor may be—and that with the pace of events moving as it is in Africa, the time has long since gone when white supremacy can possibly be a viable policy.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (22 February 1961)
  • It can hardly be denied—can it?—that the theory and practice of apartheid—the advocacy of a permanent division of men according to the colour of their skin, and involving, in practice, different rights, opportunities and status—is a continuous affront to the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (16 March 1961)
  • [T]he common ideals of racial equality, political freedom, extending the right of self-government to the rest of the Commonwealth, non-aggression in international affairs, economic co-operation, and aid between nations. These ideals may be imperfectly realised in many instances, but, nevertheless, they, and they alone, give the Commonwealth its real justification today, just as the extraordinary variety in terms of geography, race and religion of the Commonwealth provides a wonderful opportunity to advance these ideals in a practical form in the world as a whole.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (22 March 1961)
  • [W]e cannot draw a line between freedom in one place and freedom in another. Freedom, like peace, is indivisible. If we believe in freedom in Hungary, and in East Germany, then we must believe in it in Angola and in Rhodesia. Detention without trial is just as bad whether in Ghana or Hungary or Rhodesia.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 October 1961)
  • It is, in my opinion, an utter and complete myth that there is the slightest danger or prospect of millions and millions of brown and black people coming to this country. Anyone who is trying to put that across is only trying to frighten people into believing that. ... We do not believe that the Bill is justified by the facts. We think that probably it will not work at all. But at the same time we think that it will do irreparable harm to the Commonwealth. ... It is a plain anti-Commonwealth measure in theory and it is a plain anti-colour measure in practice.
  • It has been said that the test of a civilised country is how it treats its Jews. I would extend that and say that the test of a civilised country is how it behaves to all its citizens of different race, religion and colour. By that test this Bill fails, and that is fundamentally why we deplore it. Of course, there are some people who will be glad. I have no doubt that there will be some Fascists who will claim this as the first victory they have ever won. ... I beg the Government now, at this last minute, to drop this miserable, shameful, shabby Bill. Let them think, consult and inquire before they deal another deadly blow at the Commonwealth.
  • I don't believe in faith. I believe in reason and you have not shown me any.
    • Remarks to Jean Monnet (4 April 1962), who was trying to persuade him of the benefits of the EEC, quoted in Philip Williams, Hugh Gaitskell (1979), p. 708
  • Of course after the conference a desperate attempt was made by Mr. Bonham-Carter to show that of course they weren't committed to federation at all. Well I prefer to go by what Mr. Grimond says; I think he's more important. And when he was asked about this question there was no doubt about his answer; it was on television. And the question was [laughter] I see what you mean, I see what you mean. Yes was the question: "But the mood of your conference today was that Europe should be a federal state. Now if we had to choose between a federal Europe and the Commonwealth, this would have to be a choice wouldn't it? You couldn't have the two." And Mr. Grimond replied in these brilliantly clear sentences: "You could have a Commonwealth linked, though not of course a direct political link, you could have a Commonwealth link of other sorts. But of course a federal Europe I think is a very important point. Now the real thing is that if you are going to have a democratic Europe, if you are going to control the running of Europe democratically, you've got to move towards some form of federalism and if anyone says different to that they're really misleading the public." That's one in the eye for Mr. Bonham-Carter. [laughter] Now we must be clear about this, it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent nation-state. I make no apology for repeating it, the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: "All right let it end." But, my goodness, it's a decision that needs a little care and thought. [clapping] And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth; how can one really seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe, which is what federation means, it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations; it is sheer nonsense.
    • Speech at the Labour Party Conference (2 October 1962) against the Liberal Party's policy of British membership of the European Communities, quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1962, page 159
    • See the video clip here

Quotes about GaitskellEdit

  • Butskellism’...was, of course, a term compounded by The Economist out of Gaitskell's name and mine. ... [E]ach of us would, I think, have repudiated its underlying assumption that, though sitting on opposite sides of the House, we were really very much of a muchness. I admired him as a man of great humanity and sticking power, and was to regard his untimely death in 1963 as a real loss to the Labour party, to the country and to the tone of public life. But I shared neither his convictions, which were unquenchably Socialist, nor his temperament, which allowed emotion to run away with him rather too often, nor his training which was that of an academic economist. Both of us, it is true, spoke the language of Keynesianism. But we spoke it with different accents and with a differing emphasis.
    • Rab Butler, The Art of the Possible (1971), p. 160
  • Whether he was a sufficiently radical leader for a left-wing party is another question. But he was a leader. You had complete confidence in him. You trusted him. You knew absolutely where you were with him, and of how many other politicians in Britain at the moment could you say the same? Most of the others are dwarfs and pygmies beside him ... My last thought of this man is of his huge vitality, because he was immensely vital, he was as strong as an ox, he was as gay as a child, and it simply seems to me wrong that now he should be dead.
    • Anthony Crosland, television tribute to Gaitskell (18 January 1963), quoted in Susan Crosland, Tony Crosland (1982), p. 113
  • Hugh's policy on the nuclear deterrent was clear. He said the independent nuclear deterrent was absolute nonsense. We could neither afford it nor was it necessary to make it ourselves.
    • Dora Gaitskell, speech in Hendon (12 October 1964), quoted in The Times (13 October 1964), p. 17
  • I was worried by a streak of intolerance in Gaitskell's nature; he tended to believe that no one could disagree with him unless they were either knaves or fools. Rejecting Dean Rusk's advice, he would insist on arguing to a conclusion rather than to a decision. ... Gaitskell took my views on foreign policy seriously. I think I helped to form his position on Suez, the Common Market, Russia, and the atomic bomb. Most of his Godkin lecture on disengagement was written by me. If he had become Prime Minister I would probably have become his Foreign Secretary, after Harold Wilson had held the job for a year or two; and he told close friends that he thought I would be the best person to succeed him as Party leader. Nevertheless, I have always doubted whether the fierce puritanism of his intellectual convictions would have enabled him to run a Labour Government for long, without imposing intolerable strains on so anarchic a Labour movement.
  • His humanism, his respect for other people's enjoyment of life, his civilized egalitarianism, made him deeply suspicious of those who preferred slogans to power. ... [H]is attitude on this [the EEC] or on anything else was never one of uncomprehending insularity. It was India, not Little Englandism, which fought in his breast with European social democracy. ... He saw the world, and particularly the Western community, as interdependent; and he saw the great responsibility on this fortunate segment to try to ameliorate the grinding poverty of the poor two-thirds. His devotion to racial equality was absolute.
    • Roy Jenkins, speech in the Middle Temple Hall at a meeting to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Gaitskell's death (15 January 1973), quoted in The Times (16 January 1973), p. 2
  • He would not have been a perfect Prime Minister. He was stubborn, rash, and could in a paradoxical way become too emotionally committed to an over-rational position which, once he had thought it rigorously through, he believed must be the final answer. He was only a moderately good judge of people. Yet when these faults are put in the scales and weighed against his qualities they shrivel away. He had purpose and direction, courage and humanity. He was a man for raising the sights of politics. He clashed on great issues. He avoided the petty bitterness of personal jealously. He could raise banners which men were proud to follow, but he never perverted his own leadership ability: it was infused by sense and humour, and by a desire to change the world, not for his own satisfaction, but so that people might more enjoy living in it. ... He was that very rare phenomenon, a great politician who was also an unusually agreeable man.
    • Roy Jenkins, 'Gaitskell: how he fought and fought and fought again', The Times (20 January 1973), p. 14
  • I soon came to regard Hugh an outstanding man. His fight against the unilateralists made a deep impression on me. The whole stand against CND within the Labour Party with his famous 'Fight, and fight again' speech made me think: 'This man has principles'.
    • David Owen, Personally Speaking to Kenneth Harris (1987), p. 23
  • One of the greatest if more intangible achievements of the late Mr. Hugh Gaitskell was to raise the whole level of political discourse in Britain.
  • Political integrity was the most precious quality which Hugh Gaitskell brought to the service of the Labour movement. ... In particular it endowed him with the courage to master the crisis which came to him in October, 1960, when the party conference rejected the official policy on defence and declared for the unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons. His resolve "to fight and fight and fight again", to rescue the movement from what he deemed to be perilous courses awoke sharp conflict within it, offering a serious challenge to his leadership. He emerged from the struggle with his authority unassailably established within a party to which he had restored cohesion and confidence. The drift to disintegration was halted. His skill and patience were rewarded by the steady reversal of the unilateralist trend... The climax came at the 1961 party conference. The earlier decision was overturned by almost a ten-fold majority, a victorious testimony to the transformation which Gaitskell had wrought. In the process he had immensely enhanced his reputation and had made a powerful impact on the public consciousness as a man possessing the authentic attributes of leadership—resolute will, robust courage, resilient spirit and wise judgment.
    • 'Mr. Hugh Gaitskell', The Times (19 January 1963), p. 12
  • Hugh Gaitskell was that rare creature, a passionate intellectual. Rationality was his creed. His limited patience was strained almost beyond endurance by the the stolid prejudices of the trades union leaders he depended upon, and the colourful sophistries of his left-wing critics. Born in India of Civil Service parents, he was as much a liberal as a socialist. He cherished liberty, detested racism, and believed in the redistribution of income and wealth to achieve social justice. He was never attracted to the European Community, for as a political entity it threatened to eclipse the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth embodied Gaitskell's deepest convictions, including internationalism and interracialism, and it had developed out of Britain's imperial history with which his family had had close connections.
  • Nye called Hugh “a desiccated calculating machine”, thinking him cold and unemotional. It was a serous misjudgement, which proved Nye's undoing. Hugh was passionate in the cause of reason. He loved the Labour Party and wanted to make it something like the German Social Democratic Party was then: free of ideological bitterness and hatred, strong for prosperity and justice and equality, the determined but moderate natural party of government which Harold Wilson foolishly thought he had achieved while actually destroying it.

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