Hugh Gaitskell, the youngest of the three children of Arthur Gaitskell (1870–1915), and his wife, Adelaide Gaitskell, was born on 9th April 1906. His father worked for the Indian Civil Service, and his mother was the daughter of George Jamieson, who had been consul-general in Shanghai.
Gaitskell was educated at Dragon School (1912–19), Winchester School (1919–24), and New College (1924–7). While at the University of Oxford he came under the influence of G. D. H. Cole. Gaitskell became a socialist during the 1926 General Strike and joined the Labour Party.
After graduating with a first in philosophy, politics, and economics in 1927, he spent a year as a Workers' Educational Association tutor in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. The WEA published a booklet on Chartism that he had written at university. According to his biographer, Brian Brivati: " It was a formative experience for him, both personally and politically. Personally, he lived briefly with a local woman and enjoyed his first mature relationship. Politically, he developed a less romantic view of the working class and learned much more about the practical aspects of socialism."
In 1928 he was appointed to a lectureship in political economy at University College. Gaitskell remained active in politics and in 1931 he joined with G. D. H. Cole in forming the New Fabian Research Bureau. The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies. It also attempted to promote the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes within the Labour Party. One of their converts was Hugh Dalton.
Gaitskell was adopted as prospective Labour Party candidate for Chatham in autumn 1932, but was defeated by John Beresford, the Conservative Party candidate, when he stood there in the 1935 General Election.
On 9th April 1937 Gaitskell married Dora Frost, the daughter of Leon Creditor and the divorced wife of David Frost, a lecturer in physiology. They established a home at 18 Frognal Gardens, Hampstead, London. Her biographer, William Rodgers, has argued: "Dora Gaitskell settled easily into domestic life. Her first child by this marriage, a daughter, Julia, was born in 1939, and a second, Cressida, in 1942. She proved an affectionate and caring mother, creating a family life of a fairly traditional kind. She was confident in her husband's love and ultimate loyalty and, in turn, became a devoted wife, a tigress in defending him from his political enemies, and committed and affectionate towards his friends."
In 1938 was promoted to the post of head of department and the following year he published Money and Everyday Life (1939). Gaitskell was a strong opponent of appeasement and on the outbreak of the Second World War he was recruited into Whitehall, working for Hugh Dalton as a temporary civil servant in the Ministry of Economic Warfare from May 1940, and from February 1942 at the Board of Trade. At the 1945 General Election he was elected to represent South Leeds.
Clement Attlee considered Gaitskell as one of the most talented new members of the House of Commons and he was appointed parliamentary secretary to Emanuel Shinwell at the Ministry of Fuel and Power in May 1946. Gaitskell's main task was to help the passage of the Coal Nationalization Bill through Parliament. Brian Brivati has argued: "Gaitskell's first major task as a politician was to create and then deal with the shortcomings of nationalized industries. He believed in nationalization on grounds of efficiency, economies of scale, and rationalization of production, and considered it to be morally right. He also recognized its limitations. Although in public he defended the structure of the nationalized industries to the hilt, he was privately somewhat ambiguous about how the public corporation had been devised. The problem was that Gaitskell, like the rest of the Labour government, put far too much faith in the nationalization programme. The result could hardly be presented as the socialization of industry or indeed as having anything very much to do with socialism. Management structures and the exercise of authority in the workplace were largely unaltered. At best the change of ownership produced an enhancement of the unions' status. Gaitskell's hope for the industries was that the relationship between workers and employers would be transformed. That aspiration was never realized."
In October 1947 Gaitskell replaced Emanuel Shinwell as minister of fuel and power. This was a difficult time to hold the post and was heavily criticised for removing the basic petrol ration for private motorists. However, his supporters have argued that during this period he did some important work encouraging the building of oil refineries and the development of a petrochemical industry in Britain. Henry (Chips) Channon was a Conservative Party member who was impressed by Gaitskell: "Gaitskell has a Wykehamistical voice and manner and a 13th century face. He began in a moderate fashion, and at once put the House in a receptive mood by his clear enunciation and courteous manner; he was lucid, clear and coherent and there was a commendable absence of Daltonian sneers or bleak Crippsian platitudes. A breath of fresh air."
Clement Attlee promoted Gaitskell to minister for economic affairs in February 1950. When Richard Stafford Cripps resigned nine months later, Gaitskell was appointed to succeed him as chancellor of the exchequer. Herbert Morrison approved of the appointment: "I regarded him at that time as a man of considerable ability and with a praiseworthy desire to act in a sane and responsible manner." Aneurin Bevan disagreed and sent a letter commenting: "I feel bound to tell you that for my part I think the appointment of Gaitskell to be a great mistake. I should have thought myself that it was essential to find out whether the holder of this great office would commend himself to the main elements and currents of opinion in the Party. After all, the policies which he will have to propound and carry out are bound to have the most profound and important repercussions throughout the movement."
One of his first tasks was to balance the budget. The National Insurance Act created the structure of the Welfare State and after the passing of the National Health Service Act in 1948, people in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. Michael Foot, the author of Aneurin Bevan (1973): "On the afternoon of 10th April he (Hugh Gaitskell) presented his Budget, including the proposal to save £13 million - £30 million in a full year-by imposing charges on spectacles and on dentures supplied under the Health Service. And glancing over his shoulder at the benches behind him he had seemed to underline his resolve: having made up his mind, he said, a Chancellor 'should stick to it and not be moved by pressure of any kind, however insidious or well-intentioned'. Bevan did not take his accustomed seat on the Treasury bench, but listened to this part of the speech from behind the Speaker's chair, with Jennie Bevan by his side. A muffled cry of 'shame' from her was the only hostile demonstration Gaitskell received that afternoon." The following day, three members of the government, Harold Wilson, Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman resigned.
Harold Wilson argued that Gaitskell took this action as part of a battle he was having with Aneurin Bevan: "He was certainly ambitious, and had close links with the right-wing trade unions. It was not long before that ambition took the form of a determination to outmanoeuvre, indeed humiliate, Aneurin Bevan. Hugh, for his part, despised what he regarded as emotional oratory, and if he could defeat Nye in open conflict, he would be in a strong position to oust Morrison as the heir apparent to Clement Attlee. At the same time he would ensure that post-war socialism would take a less dogmatic form, totally anti-communist but unemotional."
Some political experts believed that Gaitskell's budget was a major factor in the defeat of the government in the 1951 General Election. His biographer, Brian Brivati, disagrees: "No other political crisis in Gaitskell's career better illustrated how far his greatest strength - political courage and confidence - could turn into his singular weakness, stubbornness. His budget of 1951 did not lose the Labour government the election, but it did little or nothing to help the government win. There have been election-winning budgets, but Gaitskell was not in the business of delivering a reflation package. When he presented the outline of his proposals to Attlee, the prime minister's response was that there were not going to be very many votes in it. Gaitskell replied that he could not expect votes in a rearmament year. However, with the benefit of hindsight it is too easy to see the Labour administration as one that was running out of steam: a successful budget, a unified party, and careful timing could have produced a different result in 1951."
After the election defeat Gaitskell began the long campaign to replace Clement Attlee as leader of the Labour Party. His main rival was Herbert Morrison, also on the right of the party. However, to some members of the party, Morrison had run out of energy and they were attracted to the younger Gaitskell. As a former chancellor he was able to successfully lead the attack on the Conservative government's economic policies.
It was also important for Gaitskell to deal with the left-wing of the party. In a speech at Stalybridge on 5th October 1952, Gaitskell suggested that communists had infiltrated the party. His stand as a patriotic anti-communist and critic of the broader left gained him a powerful network of backers among the leadership of the right-wing trade unions, including at this time the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). With their support Gaitskell defeated Aneurin Bevan in the election for Labour Party treasurer in October 1954. The following year he took the lead in the unsuccessful attempt to have Bevan expelled from the party.
Anthony Eden replaced Winston Churchill as prime minister in April, 1955. D. R. Thorne, the author of Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon (2003) has argued: "The crown prince had at last ascended the throne. Eden's long years as deputy leader had contributed to his irascibility, his inability at times to delegate, and his touchiness in the face of criticism, characteristics that were to become more apparent in Downing Street. His appearances at the dispatch box were marked more by formality than spontaneity. Nevertheless, Eden's premiership began in an atmosphere of goodwill and optimism." Eden believed that he should take an early opportunity of seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate, and nine days after becoming prime minister he announced a general election for 26th May. At the time the Conservative Party was only 4% ahead of the Labour Party. During the 1955 General Election Eden emphasized the theme of the "property-owning democracy", and won by sixty seats.
Clement Attlee finally retired as Labour Party leader after losing the election. Gaitskell's main rival was the sixty-seven year old Herbert Morrison. In the ensuing leadership election, held in December 1955, Gaitskell won an easy victory at the first ballot, gaining 157 votes against 70 for Bevan and 40 for Morrison. Gaitskell attempted to unite the party and in 1956 he appointed Bevan as the shadow foreign secretary.
During this period he met the society hostess Ann Fleming, the wife of the writer Ian Fleming. The journalist Christopher Hudson, has explained: "The pregnancy which led to their marriage resulted in Caspar, their first and only child. The birth, Ann's second Caesarian, left wide scars on her stomach, to the disgust of Fleming who had a horror of physical abnormality. Ann said it marked the end of their love-making." Gaitskell began an intense affair with Fleming. The author of Ian Fleming (1996) has pointed out: "Friends and close colleagues worried both that the liaison would damage Gaitskell politically and that the kind of society life that Fleming lived was far removed from the world of Labour politics. Widely known in journalistic circles, though never reported, his attachment did not outwardly affect his marriage, but it did show the streak of recklessness and the overpowering emotionalism in his character that so diverged from his public image."
Gaitskell and Fleming would sleep together at the home of Anthony Crosland. Her biograpaher, Andrew Lycett, has argued: "Ann used to joke that when she went to bed with Gaitskell, she liked to imagine she was with the more debonair Crosland. Much as she enjoyed her unexpected romance, she could only cope with it by being slightly disparaging." Fleming told Lord Beaverbrook: "I suppose I shall have to go dancing next Friday with Hugh Gaitskell to explode his pathetic belief in equality, but it will be a great sacrifice to my country."
In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower became concerned about the close relationship developing between Egypt and the Soviet Union. In July Eisenhower cancelled a promised grant of 56 million dollars towards the building of the Aswan Dam. Gamal Abdel Nasser was furious and on 26th July he announced he intended to nationalize the Suez Canal. The shareowners, the majority of whom were from Britain and France, were promised compensation. Nasser argued that the revenues from the Suez Canal would help to finance the Aswan Dam.
Anthony Eden feared that Nasser intended to form an Arab Alliance that would cut off oil supplies to Europe. Secret negotiations took place between Britain, France and Israel and it was agreed to make a joint attack on Egypt. On 29th October 1956, the Israeli Army invaded Egypt. Two days later British and French bombed Egyptian airfields. British and French troops landed at Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal on 5th November. By this time the Israelis had captured the Sinai peninsula.
Gaitskell immediately attacked the military intervention by Britain, France, and Israel, calling it "an act of disastrous folly". Brian Brivati, the author of Hugh Gaitskell (1996) has pointed out that he argued that the government's policy had "compromised the three principles of bipartisan foreign policy: solidarity with the Commonwealth, the Anglo-American alliance, and adherence to the charter of the United Nations." When it became clear that Anthony Eden, had been lying to him in private, he reacted with characteristic passion and emotion, broadcasting a powerful attack on Eden on 4th November 1956.
President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, grew increasingly concerned about these developments and at the United Nations the representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union demanded a cease-fire. When it was clear the rest of the world were opposed to the attack on Egypt, and on the 7th November the governments of Britain, France and Israel agreed to withdraw. They were then replaced by UN troops who policed the Egyptian frontier.
Harold Wilson did not think Gaitskell made a good leader of the party. In his memoirs he argued: "Hugh Gaitskell had many fine qualities, including unswerving loyalty to his close band of friends and to the principles of economics as he interpreted them, together with great personal charm. But once he came to a decision, a remarkably speedy process associated with great certainty, the Medes and the Persians had nothing on him. Whether the argument took place in the Shadow Cabinet or the National Executive, any colleague taking a different line from his was regarded not only as an apostate, but as a troublemaker or simply a person lacking in brains."
Denis Healey was another Shadow Cabinet member who disliked Gaitskell style of leadership. In his autobiography, The Time of My Life (1989), he pointed out: "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. Thus he would keep meetings of the Shadow Cabinet going, long after he had obtained its consent to his proposals, because he wanted to be certain that everyone understood precisely why he was right. In the political world a leader must often be content with acquiescence; he is sometimes wise to leave education to his juniors."
George Brown was a supporter of Gaitskell in the shadow cabinet: "Hugh Gaitskell became too much the product of other people and the manoeuvring of other powerful figures and too little himself. Yet his capacity to inspire other people with his ideals was extraordinary. Had he lived he would have been a tremendous leader of young people and an enormous bulwark against the machine politicians, the bureaucrats and everything else which has tended to debase the currency of modern life."
In October, 1957 Aneurin Bevan decided to make a speech against unilateral nuclear disarmament at the party conference. His wife, Jennie Lee, disagreed strongly with his decision: "I did not argue with him that evening, he had to be left in peace to work things out for himself, but he was in no doubt that I would have preferred him to take the easy way. I dreaded the violence of the Conference atmosphere which I knew would be generated by the dedicated advocates of immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament, but, like Nye, I did not foresee the bitterness of the personal attacks made by some delegates who ought to have known him well enough not to have doubted his motives. Disagreement was one thing: character assassination another. Were these his friends? Were these his comrades he had fought for over so many years? Could they really believe that he was a small-time career politician prepared to sacrifice his principles in order to become second-in-command to the right-wing leader of the Party?
Bevan later recalled: "I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend and even hurt many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications and do not run away from it you will send a Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber."
Gaitskell urged Britain's entry to the European Economic Community but was unable to persuade the majority of members of the Labour Party to agree to this policy. After losing the 1959 General Election Gaitskell attempted to change party policy on nationalization (Clause IV). At the party conference in November 1959 he argued: "Why was nationalization apparently a vote loser? For two reasons, I believe. First, some of the existing nationalized industries, rightly or wrongly, are unpopular. This unpopularity is overwhelmingly due to circumstances which have nothing to do with nationalization. London buses are overcrowded and slow, not because the Transport Commission is inefficient, but because of the state of London traffic which the Tory Government has neglected all these years. The backward conditions of the railways are not due to bad management but to inadequate investment in the past, which has left British Railways with a gigantic problem of modernization.... Above all, we must face the fact that nationalization will not be positively popular until all these industries are clearly seen to be performing at least as well as the best firms in the private sector. When we have achieved that goal, then we can face the country with complete confidence."
Gaitskell continued her relationship with Ann Fleming. Senior figures in the Labour Party became concerned about his involvement with someone who was known to be a right-wing supporter of the Conservative Party. Gaitskell's biographer, Philip M. Williams, the author of Hugh Gaitskell (1979) has argued: "At home at Frognal Gardens his guests were mostly progressive and few were actively Tory. But he kept up a few personal friendships across the political divide, largely through Anne Fleming and her circle. Crosland chided him about it; but, with his Wykehamist sense of rectitude and distaste for the idle rich, Gaitskell was not in the least worried that he might yield to the embrace of the social Establishment, or might be sourly suspected of doing so. He appreciated its comforts, and its intellectual stimulus still more."
Andrew Lycett saw the relationship very differently: "He (Hugh Gaitskell) saw her (Ann Fleming) as a spirited and amusing antidote to his dour professional life; she liked his brains and political clout, and considered it a challenge to wean him from his puritanical socialist principles to an enjoyment of the more overt pleasures in life. On one level, she promoted Gaitskell with Beaverbrook and ensured that his policies received favourable Express group newspaper coverage in any internal Labour Party dispute with his left wing. On another, she subverted the Labour leader's pretensions to seriousness. Ann Fleming, the political hostess who split the Labour Party and kept the Labour right wing in business: it is an interesting and not implausible thesis."
In March 1960 Gaitskell persuaded the party's national executive to endorse a new statement of aims that played down the commitment to Clause IV. However, throughout that summer, the verdicts of union conferences showed that this new proposal would probably be rejected by that party's autumn conference. To avoid defeat Gaitskell withdrew the proposal.
Gaitskell felt very strongly about the party policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. At the party conference in Scarborough in October 1960, two unilateralist resolutions, from the transport workers and the engineers, were carried and the official policy document on defence was rejected. Gaitskell's thought these were disastrous decisions and made a passionate speech where he stressed that he would "fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love".
Harold Wilson now challenged Gaitskell for the leadership but was defeated by 166 votes to 81. Gaitskell now had the confidence to advance a defence policy that effectively rejected the Scarborough decisions. As Brian Brivati points out: "He and his allies sought to reverse the unilateralist commitments of the trade unions. They were sufficiently successful, though sometimes by only narrow margins, to secure a decisive vote in favour of multilateralism at the Labour Party conference held at Blackpool in October 1961. In the aftermath of Scarborough pro-Gaitskellite activists in the constituency parties and in the unions had come together in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, a strongly revisionist group. Its impact on the complex shifts in trade union positions was small, but its long-term significance was in influencing the selection of parliamentary candidates."
In July 1961 Harold Macmillan applied for entry to the European Economic Community. Gaitskell had always been in favour of joining the EEC but he now changed his position. At the party conference in Brighton in October 1962 he argued that the prospects for a federal Europe as amounting to: "The end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history". Gaitskell's Brighton speech dismayed many of his closest friends. Dora Gaitskell commented: "All the wrong people are cheering".
Hugh Gaitskell died at the Middlesex Hospital, London, of the rare disease lupus erythematosus, on 18th January 1963. He was replaced as leader of the Labour Party by his long time enemy, Harold Wilson. Some members of MI5 believed that Wilson was a Soviet agent. Anatoli Golitsyn also told them that Gaitskell had been poisoned by the KGB. A senior figure in MI5, Peter Wright, explained in his biography Spycatcher: "I knew him (Gaitskell) personally and admired him greatly. I had met him and his family at the Blackwater Sailing Club, and I recall about a month before he died he told me that he was going to Russia. After he died his doctor got in touch with MI5 and asked to see somebody from the Service. Arthur Martin, as the head of Russian Counterespionage, went to see him. The doctor explained that he was disturbed by the manner of Gaitskell's death. He said that Gaitskell had died of a disease called lupus disseminata, which attacks the body's organs. He said that it was rare in temperate climates and that there was no evidence that Gaitskell had been anywhere recently where he could have contracted the disease." In 1968 Wright became involved with Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, in a plot to bring down Wilson's government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten.