Opposition at a Time of Crisis: Lessons and Warnings from Hugh Gaitskell

Hal Hooberman writes a profile on Hugh Gaitskell and discusses the lessons that can be learnt from his career. 

Neil Kinnock likened being Leader of the Opposition to purgatory, the adding of an unprecedented global crisis into the mix must only emphasise this. Sir Keir Starmer has been thrown in at the deep end, not unlike one of his lesser-known predecessors, Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party between 1955-1963, who was tasked with holding the government to account during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Incomparable in their substance, and consequences, the Suez Crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic do, however, underline the sensitivities of leading Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition at a time of a national, and international, crisis. Lessons, and warnings, stem from Gaitskell’s navigation of this tricky time, providing a framework for those of his successors who are lumbered with similar challenges.

Firstly, Gaitskell understood the sensitive nature of the tightrope that he was duty-bound to walk, trying to hold the government to account without appearing unpatriotic. Too often, at times of crisis, this has tripped up Labour leaders; it is meat and drink for the baying Conservatives and hostile press. Consistently, Gaitskell urged the party against falling the wrong side of this line, warning his Shadow Cabinet of the threat of being “framed as unpatriotic and irresponsible” and urging the 1956 party conference to, in author Phillip Williams’ words, ‘not play the Tory game by sounding unpatriotic’. This was underlined by Dick Crossman, a leading figure on the party’s left, noting that Gaitskell understood the “danger of getting ourselves tagged” as an “anti-British party”. This unglamorous path is not particularly well-tread by Labour leaders, Gaitskell reminds us of its virtue.  

Gaitskell set out to cooperate with the government. This, however, was not unconditional. Early offerings of conciliatory cooperation were epitomised by Gaitskell’s active engagement with the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, as he noted the lack of “disagreement on the military precautions” whilst also going out of his way to refrain from posing potentially damaging questions, fearing “that it might embarrass” him. Such cordiality was, however, not reciprocated. Not knowing that the cabinet had already agreed on the deployment of force, Gaitskell went on to feel ‘personally betrayed’ as the Prime Minister ‘self-insulated from any unwelcome advice’, eerily akin to Number 10’s current occupant. This startling deceit, contravening Gaitskell’s outlandishly cooperative manner, was epitomised by the mere 15 minutes notice that Eden gave Gaitskell of the Anglo-French ultimatum to Egypt. Gaitskell’s cooperative approach set an example that can not be overlooked, nor be unconditional. 

In scrutinising the government, Gaitskell was nimble and dynamic, reacting aptly to events as opposed to clumsily uttering the same attack lines. His position was an evolving one, having ‘at first approved of Eden’s military precautions’ before ‘he soon became alarmed at their scale’, his approach ‘therefore changed with the situation’, according to Williams. Moving from measured, forensic criticism of the government, urging the necessity of upholding the Charter of the United Nations, Gaitskell was forced to call for “a change in the leadership of the government” as the only means to “save our reputation”. Regardless of the substance of Gaitskell’s approach, he displayed a certain flexibility and nimbleness in reacting to unfolding events, a virtue that sharpened his scrutinising of the government.

Crucially, Gaitskell understood that he was the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, not just the Labour Party. Seeking to speak for the country, Gaitskell allied himself with all those opposing the government’s aggressive course, citing, in a BBC broadcast in response to the Prime Minister, that “men and women of all walks of life, of all parties, of all faiths, have expressed their deep concern”, affirming that “this is not a Labour Party matter” but one that “touches the whole nation”. Gaitskell appealed directly to opposition MPs, pledging to “support a new Prime Minister in halting the invasion of Egypt”, unequivocally substantiating his claim that “our purpose too, in this matter, rises above party”. Praise for Gaitskell went far beyond his own party, testament to his statesmanlike approach, as military commander Stephen King-Hall praised him for fulfilling his duty “to speak and struggle for a cause greater than any political party issue”. Gaitskell understood that being the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition comes with certain responsibilities, of which serving the country, not just one’s own, ranks highly.

Gaitskell’s influence was inhibited by parliamentary arithmetic, a consequence of electoral defeat, but crucially, he knew his limits. Any parliamentary blow had to stem from an ‘unholy alliance’ with dissenting government backbenchers, forcing moderation. According to Williams, ‘Gaitskell knew that the diehards who loathed him would never upset their own government to bring him to power’; he would not kid himself. Acknowledging such realities, Gaitskell moulded his strategy accordingly. In an attempt to defeat the government in the aftermath, in May 1957, Gaitskell ensured the party ‘carefully worded their motion to avoid alienating’ potential Tory rebels. This realism was, and remains, central to keeping a government’s feet to the fire. 

Ultimately, Gaitskell’s lessons are underpinned by a stark warning. In the crisis’ aftermath, his popularity, the most important measure of any opposition leader, diminished as those judging Gaitskell as a ‘bad leader’ nearly doubled. His phased move away from measured cooperation was painted as rabid, extremist, and unpatriotic. Reiterating that, unfortunately, in politics what matters is perceived, not objective, reality. This acts, unequivocally, as a warning to Starmer. Heeding these lessons up to now has been to great effect, the dangers lie in diverging from them. The Labour Party has always faced an uphill task, the leader should always seek to steer clear of gifting opponents ‘open-goals’ by pandering to time-long stereotypes of Labour’s lack of patriotism, insularity, and extremism. Gaitskell’s leadership during the Suez Crisis reminds us of this, both in his preceding caution and the ultimate dent that his popularity took, Starmer must learn from both of these to continues his ascent.

Hal Hooberman is an undergraduate, Young Fabian and member of Somerton and Frome CLP.

He tweets at @halhooberman


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