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Politics and the Don


By Steven R. Rivkin

The fifty-year-old beefy-faced leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition was talking quietly in the sitting room of the Dana-Palmer House shortly after noon yesterday, when his wife called down from upstairs, "The Associated Press service would like a comment on some dispatch from London." Hugh Gaitskell disappeared momentarily, but soon returned to end the conversation easily and with-out strain. Then, beaming, he mounted the stairs again, three at a time with momentary secret that the don-turned-politician could soon attain yet another personal triumph.

For Gaitskell, the road upward has been remarkably short. Seventeen years ago he left his academic post as head of the Department of Political Economy at University College, London, to enter civil service. Yet since he first won his Leeds constituency in the 1945 Labour sweep, Gaitskell has risen to a succession of high party posts, despite firm opposition from the Socialist left wing. A middle-class intellectual at the head of a party of workingmen, Gaitskell represents a new generation of Socialist leadership that is currently modifying some of the essential features of "the Cause."

This advance within the Labour party generated some bitterness among old-line Socialists, nonetheless, bitterness that was not fully resolved by Gaitskell's 2 to 1 victory over Aneurin Bevan last year for the parliamentary leadership. For Gaitskell--the university-trained son of a middle-class family--not only represents a background that can rankle a tobacco-chewing coal miner like Nye Bevan or a sidewalk hawker like Herbert Morrison, but his Socialist ideas diverge markedly in some respects from "orthodox" party doctrine. Yet Gaitskell's friends feel that his academic training has done him no harm, because he has been able to combine intelligence and ability with shrewd political skill to navigate his rise through the Party hierarchy.

One Harvard friend who has seen Gaitskell address public meetings of his Leeds constituents expected the former economics professor to have trouble communicating to his union following. "But to the contrary, he seemed to fit in perfectly," the friend observed, "looking and acting the part more of a traveling salesman than an Oxford don. Gaitskell is a very bright and shrewd man," he continued, "combining all the sharpness of a brilliant, well-trained civil servant with the light touch of a hearty beef-eating Englishman."

Gaitskell is equally adept at using this "light touch" in both banter with miners in a midland pub and in debate on the floor of Commons, where his parliamentary wit has been sharpened through long tenure in the front benches. In his first bud-get message as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1951, for example, he presented complex economic data underlying a major Socialist policy change with such vigor and clarity that the House discarded its normal reserve for such matters and rose to applaud as a unit. As a high minister in the Socialist government and as questionner for the opposition in the locust years since 1951, he has made constant use of his mastery of repartee in Parliament (as well as on the stage of Sanders).

This easy familiarity with people stands in sharp contrast to the strain of intellectual austerity that moves his political behavior. His ability to inspire affection and confidence among his worker following--whose unions today give him his strongest support--dates from his student days at Oxford where he first became interested in Socialism. Gaitskell joined the strikers while most of his classmates reacted to the great Strike of 1926 by volunteering to serve as transport workers and special constables. Later, during the Depression, he gave adult education courses to Nottinghampshire miners for the Worker's Education Association.

Hugh Gaitskell was born in London 50 years ago to the middle-class family of a British Civil Servant, out of a tradition identified more with Army service and Toryism than with class-consciousness. His older brother Arthur, an African expert, is today a Tory, and his sister married a Conservative M.P. Hugh attended the rigorous Dragon School at Oxford and went on to head his class at Winchester. At New College, Oxford, he took a first in "P.P.E."," Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

After a successful academic career at the University of London, Gaitskell entered the civil service in 1940 as a secretary to Hugh Dalton in the Ministry of Economic Welfare. After the war, he was elected to Parliament and, as one of a group of young Socialist intellectuals, rose to the secretaryship of the Ministry of Fuel and Power. There, and as Minister for Economic Affairs and later Chancellor of the Exchequer, he held key posts in the post-war Labor government beset by economic dislocation at home and in Europe.

A disciple of Clement Attlee, he was elected Leader of the Parliamenatry Labor party in December, 1955, on Earl Attlee's resignation. When Commons is in session he commutes to London from his Victorian house in Hampstead (he rents a five-room apartment upstairs), usually picking up a friend on the London outskirts. Red-faced and "looking as though he's been working too hard under artificial light," according to one of his friends, he has more or less given up dancing, which used to be one of his favorite relaxations. His recent writings have consisted primarily of party pamphlets, although he has begun a book on modern European socialism, which, he says, "I've had to put on the shelf for the time being."

Granted, Gaitskell has been able to "surmount" the initial political weaknesses of his personality and background, but many English observers feel that he continues to react to political situations as the academician that he is. "He seems to act with the sense of knowing best," one commentator remarked, "--a kind of vocation to set an incompetant world to rights." This drive to set the world at rights is perhaps implicit in his Socialist creed, but Gaitskell's interpretation of party cant bears the imprint of a man looking for an up-to-date, intellectually solid synthesis. his own words, defining what he sees as the evils of capitalism, illuminate the original approach of Hugh Gaitskell to socialism. "The three evils of the individualistic system," he once wrote, "are inequality of wealth, insecurity of employment, and inefficiency in the use of economic resources."

The first two shibboleths are doctrinaire battle cries, but the third is the aim of the economist whose new focus for socialism is to prevent waste in human and material resources and strengthen Britain's economic health. This almost bureaucratic concern for efficiency has occasionally severed Gaitskell from his party's traditional concern for expanding social services. His long battle with Bevan, for example, began when, as Chancellor, Gaitskell instituted small charges for spectacles and false teeth in Britain's free health services. Since then, some of his Socialist opponents have professed that they see little difference between the economic policies of Hugh Gaitskell and R.A. Butler, Eden's Tory heir apparent. Despite the anguished cries of these old-line Socialists, Gaitskell today expresses the dominant evolving philosophy of his party through what has been called their doctrinal dilemma--failures in parts of their nationalization program coupled with the achievement of some of their initial aims. Gaitskell continues to orient his thought around what he calls the Socialist ideals--social equality, equal opportunity, full employment, and industrial democracy--yet he is not, as one English reporter commented recently, either a romantic or a poet. "No sounds of gurgling milk or honey come to him as he marches through the wilderness. The promised land is a very prosaic place."

This bureaucratic socialist, who tonight will be giving his final Godkin lecture, may not succeed in his attempt to force the conservatives to "go to the country." But whether he reaches Downing Street now or a decade from now, his influence in shaping Britain's domestic and foreign policy can be of crucial importance in directing his nation toward an expanding role as a laboratory of democracy.

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