Hugh Gaitskell

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The Right Honourable
Hugh Gaitskell
Hugh Gaitskell 1958.jpg
Gaitskell in 1958
Leader of the Opposition
In office
14 December 1955 – 18 January 1963
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Anthony Eden
Harold Macmillan
Preceded by Clement Attlee
Succeeded by George Brown
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
14 December 1955 – 18 January 1963
Deputy Jim Griffiths
Aneurin Bevan
George Brown
Preceded by Clement Attlee
Succeeded by Harold Wilson
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
26 October 1951 – 14 December 1955
Leader Clement Attlee
Preceded by Rab Butler
Succeeded by Harold Wilson
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
19 October 1950 – 26 October 1951
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Stafford Cripps
Succeeded by Rab Butler
Minister of Fuel and Power
In office
24 October 1947 – 15 February 1950
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Manny Shinwell
Succeeded by Philip Noel-Baker
Member of Parliament
for Leeds South
In office
5 July 1945 – 18 January 1963
Preceded by Henry Charleton
Succeeded by Merlyn Rees
Majority 17,431 (65.4%)
Personal details
Born Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell
(1906-04-09)9 April 1906
London, United Kingdom
Died 18 January 1963(1963-01-18) (aged 56)
London, United Kingdom
Nationality British
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Anna Dora Frost (née Creditor)
Alma mater New College, Oxford

Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell, CBE, PC, MP (9 April 1906 – 18 January 1963) was a British Labour politician who held Cabinet office in Clement Attlee's governments, and was the Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from 1955 until his death in 1963. He was responsible for introducing prescription charges in the National Health Service, which caused Aneurin Bevan to resign from the Cabinet in 1951.

Early life

He was born in Kensington, London, the third and youngest child of Arthur Gaitskell (1870–1915), of the Indian Civil Service, and Adelaide Mary Gaitskell, née Jamieson (died 1956), whose father, George Jamieson, was consul-general in Shanghai and prior to that had been Judge of the British Supreme Court for China and Japan. He was educated at the Dragon School from 1912 to 1919, at Winchester College from 1919 to 1924 and at New College, Oxford, from 1924 to 1927, where he gained a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1927.

His serious interest in politics came about as a result of the General Strike of 1926, and he lectured in economics for the Workers' Educational Association to miners in Nottinghamshire. Gaitskell moved to University College London in the early 1930s at the invitation of Noel Hall,[1] and became head of the Department of Political Economy[citation needed] when Hall was appointed Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 1938. He also worked as a tutor at Birkbeck College.[2]

Gaitskell was attached to the University of Vienna for the 1933–4 academic year and witnessed first-hand the political suppression of the social democratic workers movement by the conservative Engelbert Dollfuss's government in Vienna in February 1934.[1] This event made a lasting impression, making him profoundly hostile to conservatism but also making him reject as futile the Marxian outlook of many European social democrats. This placed him in the socialist revisionist camp.

Marriage and personal life

He was married from 1937 to Anna Dora Gaitskell, who became a Labour life peeress one year after his death. They had two daughters: Julia, born in 1939, and Cressida, born in 1942.[3]

It is widely known that Gaitskell had a number of affairs, including, even during his time in public life, with the socialite Ann Fleming, the wife of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.[4]

In private, Hugh Gaitskell was said to be humorous and fun loving, with a love of ballroom dancing. This contrasted with his stern public image. He was a member of the Steering Committee of the Bilderberg Group.[5]

Early political career

In the 1935 General Election, he stood for Chatham as the Labour candidate, but was defeated by the Conservative Leonard Plugge.

During World War II, Gaitskell worked with Noel Hall and Hugh Dalton as a civil servant for the Ministry of Economic Warfare which gave him experience of government.[1] For his service, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1945. He was elected Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for Leeds South in the Labour landslide victory of 1945.

He quickly rose through the ministerial ranks, becoming Minister of Fuel and Power in 1947. He then served briefly as Minister for Economic Affairs in February 1950. His rapid rise was largely due to the influence of Hugh Dalton, who adopted him as a protégé.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1950–51

In October 1950, Stafford Cripps was forced to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer due to failing health, and Gaitskell was appointed to succeed him. His time as Chancellor was dominated by the struggle to finance Britain's part in the Korean War which put enormous strain on public finances. The cost of the war meant that savings had to be found from other budgets, and a controversial decision was made to introduce charges for prescription glasses and dentures on the National Health Service.[6]

In addition, purchase tax was increased from 33% to 66% on certain luxury items such as cars, television sets, and domestic appliances, while entertainment tax was increased on cinema tickets.[7] At the same time, however, taxation on profits was raised and pensions increased to compensate retirees for a rise in the cost of living,[8] while the allowances for dependent children payable to widows, the unemployed, and the sick, together with marriage and child allowances, were also increased.[9] In addition, a number of small items were removed from purchase tax,[7] while the amount of earnings allowed without affecting the pension was increased from 20 shillings to 40 shillings a week.[10]

The budget caused a split in the government and caused him to fall out with Aneurin Bevan who resigned over this issue, seeing the prescription charges as a blow to the principle of a free health service. Bevan was later joined by Harold Wilson and John Freeman who also resigned. Later that year, Labour lost power to the Conservatives in the 1951 election.

Leader of the Opposition, 1955–1963

Gaitskell later defeated Bevan in the contest to be the party treasurer. After the retirement of Clement Attlee as leader in December 1955, Gaitskell beat Bevan and the ageing Herbert Morrison in the party leadership contest.

Gaitskell's election as leader coincided with one of the Labour Party's weakest periods, which can be partly attributed to the post-war prosperity that Britain was experiencing under the Conservatives. His time as leader was also characterised by factional infighting between the 'Bevanite' left of the Labour party led by Aneurin Bevan, and the 'Gaitskellite' right.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, in one of the highlights of his career as leader, Gaitskell passionately condemned the Anglo-French and Israeli military intervention to secure the Suez Canal. Gaitskell had himself told the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan at a dinner with King Faisal II of Iraq on 26 July 1956, that he would support the use of military action against the Egyptian dictator Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, but warned Eden he would have to keep the Americans closely informed. The Conservatives later accused Gaitskell of betrayal when he publicly condemned the military operation in November. Gaitskell's position had become more cautious during the summer, and he had suggested the dispute with Egypt should be referred to the United Nations. In two letters to Eden sent on 3 and 10 August Gaitskell condemned Nasser, but warned that he would not support any action that violated the United Nations charter.[11] In his letter of 10 August, Gaitskell wrote: "Lest there should be any doubt in your mind about my personal attitude, let me say that I could not regard an armed attack on Egypt by ourselves and the French as justified by anything which Nasser has done so far or as consistent with the Charter of the United Nations. Nor, in my opinion, would such an attack be justified in order to impose a system of international control over the Canal - desirable though this is. If, of course, the whole matter were to be taken to the United Nations and if Egypt were to be condemned by them as aggressors, then, of course, the position would be different. And if further action which amounted to obvious aggression by Egypt were taken by Nasser, then again it would be different. So far what Nasser has done amounts to a threat, a grave threat to us and to others, which certainly cannot be ignored; but it is only a threat, not in my opinion justifying retaliation by war."[12]

The Labour Party had been widely expected to win the 1959 general election, but did not.[13] Gaitskell was undermined during it by public doubts concerning the credibility of proposals to raise pensions and by a highly effective Conservative campaign run by Harold Macmillan under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it", which capitalised on the economic prosperity of Britain. This election defeat led to questions being asked as to whether Labour could ever win a general election again, but Gaitskell remained as leader.[14]

Following the election defeat, bitter internecine disputes resumed. Gaitskell blamed the Left for the defeat and attempted unsuccessfully to amend Labour's Clause IV—which its adherents believed committed the party to further nationalisation of industry, while Gaitskell and his followers believed it had become either superfluous or a political liability. He also, successfully, resisted attempts to commit Labour to a unilateralist position on nuclear weapons – losing the vote in 1960 and then rousing his supporters to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love". The decision was reversed the following year, but it remained a divisive issue, and many on the Left continued to call for a change of leadership. He was challenged unsuccessfully for the leadership by Harold Wilson[15] in 1960 and again in 1961 by Anthony Greenwood.[16]

Battles inside the party produced the Campaign for Democratic Socialism to defend the Gaitskellite position in the early 1960s. Many of the younger CDS members were founding members of the SDP in 1981. Gaitskell alienated some of his supporters by his apparent opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community. In a speech to the party conference in October 1962, Gaitskell claimed that Britain's participation in a Federal Europe would mean "the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!"[17] He added: "You may say, all right! Let it end! But, my goodness, it's a decision that needs a little care and thought."[17]


He died in January 1963, aged 56, after a sudden flare of lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease.[18][6] His death left an opening for Harold Wilson in the party leadership; Wilson narrowly won the next general election for Labour 21 months later.

The abrupt and unexpected nature of his death led to some speculation that foul play might have been involved. The most popular conspiracy theory involved a supposed KGB plot to ensure that Wilson (alleged by the supporters of these theories to be a KGB agent himself) became prime minister. This claim was given new life by Peter Wright's controversial 1987 book Spycatcher, but the only evidence that ever came to light was the testimony of a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn. Golitsyn was a controversial figure who also claimed, for example, that the Sino-Soviet split was a deception intended to deceive the West. His claims about Wilson were repeatedly investigated and never substantiated.

Gaitskell is buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church, north London. His wife was buried alongside him following her own death in 1989.[19]


Because he never became prime minister, and because of the great capacity many considered that he had for the post, Hugh Gaitskell is remembered largely with respect from people both within and outside of the Labour Party. Gaitskell is regarded by some as "the best Prime Minister we never had".[20]

Tony Benn contrasted his stand on the Suez Crisis to that of the former British prime minister Tony Blair on the war in Iraq. Margaret Thatcher compared Blair with Gaitskell in a different manner, warning her party when Blair came to power that he was the most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell.

His name appears in popular culture from time to time. For example, 'Hugh Gaitskell House' is the building Nicholas Lyndhurst's character Garry Sparrow is looking for in Goodnight Sweetheart when he first stumbles into World War II London. A tower block of that name can be found opposite Stoke Newington railway station in North London.

Hugh Gaitskell Primary School is situated in Beeston, part of his former Leeds South constituency.[21][22] The area is now in the Leeds Central constituency, represented by Hilary Benn.

In 1978, some 15 years after his death, a new housing development by Sandwell council in the Tividale area of the West Midlands was named Gaitskell Terrace.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 John Saville. "Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963): An assessment". The Socialist Register 1980. Socialist Register. pp. 155–158. Retrieved 8 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Birkbeck, University of London Continuing Education Courses 2002 Entry. Birkbeck External Relations Department. 2002. p. 5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. William Rodgers: Gaitskell , (Anna) Dora, Baroness Gaitskell (1901–1989) rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 17 March 2013
  4. Hugh Gaitskell without the dancing? The Independent
  5. "Former Steering Committee Members". Bilderberg Group. Retrieved 8 February 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Howse, Christopher (28 December 2012). "Anniversaries of 2013". Daily Telegraph. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hugh Gaitskell by Brian Brivati
  8. The Labour Governments, 1945-51 by Henry Pelling
  9. Post-Victorian Britain 1902-1951 by Lewis Charles Bernard Seaman
  10. The Labour Government 1945-51 by Denis Nowell Pritt
  11. Turner, Barry Suez 1956, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006 pages 231-232.
  12. Turner, Barry Suez 1956, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006 page 232.
  13. David E. Butler and Richard Rose, The British General Election of 1959 (1960)
  14. "Election Battles 1945–1997". BBC News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. [1]
  16. [2]
  17. 17.0 17.1 Charlton, Michael (1983). The Price of Victory. London: BBC. p. 274. ISBN 0-563-20055-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell dies". BBC. Retrieved 4 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. [3]
  21. Hugh Gaitskell Primary School, Beeston, South Leeds
  22. Map of LS11 8AB, Hugh Gaitskell Primary School


  • Brivati, Brian. Hugh Gaitskell: The First Moderniser (2005)
  • Davies, A.J. To Build a New Jerusalem: The Labour Movement from the 1880s to the 1990 (1992) Abacus ISBN 0-349-10809-9
  • Jones, Tudor. Remaking the Labour Party: From Gaitskell to Blair (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Williams, Philip Maynard. Hugh Gaitskell (1985)

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Henry Charleton
Member of Parliament for Leeds South
Succeeded by
Merlyn Rees
Political offices
Preceded by
William Foster
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fuel and Power
Succeeded by
Alfred Robens
Preceded by
Manny Shinwell
Minister of Fuel and Power
Succeeded by
Philip Noel-Baker
Preceded by
Sir Stafford Cripps
Minister for Economic Affairs
Office abolished
Title next held by
Sir Arthur Salter
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Rab Butler
Preceded by
Arthur Greenwood
Treasurer of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Aneurin Bevan
Preceded by
Clement Attlee
Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Harold Wilson
Leader of the Opposition
Notes and references
1. List of Ministers