Extracts from memoirs and diaries, chosen by Ian Irvineby / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 18th January, 1963. Tony Benn, Labour MP, writes in his diary: “Hugh Gaitskell died today after a terrific fight for his life over the last week or so… He was a divisive leader of the Party. He had a real civil servant’s mind—very little imagination and hardly any understanding of how people worked… it looks as if George Brown will succeed him and for a number of reasons he is totally unsuited to be Leader.”
Susan Crosland, wife of the leading Labour MP, Tony Crosland, writes in her memoir: “As is the custom, before Gaitskell’s body was cold others were moving into position to determine who would succeed him. Most of the Gaitskellites, reeling, took a few days to pull themselves together. Early the next week several met up at 19 The Boltons [Crosland’s house]. The only thing on which they all agreed was that they would oppose Harold Wilson. Nobody considered him a dangerous left-wing leader, they were hostile because they considered him an opportunist, preoccupied with tactics, conservative. As Deputy Leader, George Brown was a major contender. He was visiting Herbert Morrison the night Hugh died. ‘It’s come too soon,’ George said, ‘I’m not ready for it.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ Morrison said, ‘The Labour Party will never elect a leader from the working class.’”
Ben Pimlott writes in his book Harold Wilson: “Tony Crosland complained that the choice [between Wilson and Brown] was between ‘a crook or a drunk’ (echoing Hugh Dalton’s remark in the 1935 contest, that the choice was between ‘a nonentity or a drunk’—Clement Atlee or Arthur Greenwood).”
8th February, 1963. Richard Crossman, Labour MP, writes in his diary: “[With Gaitskell’s death] the whole situation was transformed and overnight I was chucked into a battle to elect Harold Wilson. From the day Hugh died, it seemed to me… in view of Harold’s reputation for shiftiness and manoeuvring his best campaign was to have no campaign at all and to be seen studiously doing nothing with closed eyes, while the party makes up its mind.” [On a vote of the parliamentary party Wilson won, defeating Brown and James Callaghan.]
October 1963. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, fell ill during the party conference and resigned. The convention then was for a new Tory leader to “emerge” after consultation by a “magic circle” of party grandees. To much astonishment, Rab Butler, the Deputy Prime Minister and widely seen as the natural successor, was not chosen but instead Alec Douglas-Home, the 14th Earl of Home.
In January 1964, Iain Macleod, the new editor of the Spectator and the former Leader of the Commons who had refused to serve under Home, wrote a review of Randolph Churchill’s The Fight for the Tory Leadership: “Churchill writes: ‘It can be argued that Macmillan did all he could during his seven years as Prime Minister to advance the fortunes of Butler.’ Almost anything can no doubt be argued, but no one close to politics or to Harold Macmillan could seriously support this suggestion for a moment. The truth is that at all times, from the first day of his Premiership to the last, Macmillan was determined that Butler, although incomparably the best qualified of the contenders, should not succeed him. Once this is accepted, all Macmillan’s actions become at least explicable…
“The only interesting part of the book is the account of the advice Macmillan tendered: of how having first supported [Lord] Hailsham in the decisive days, he switched to Home; of how he organised the collection of opinions by Lord Dilhorne, Lord St Aldwyn, Lord Poole, Mr John Morrison and Mr Martin Redmayne. Eight of the nine men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton….
“I joined [Reginald] Maudling [Chancellor of the Exchequer] for lunch. Butler we discussed a good deal. Hailsham we mentioned once… Home we never mentioned in any connection. It is some measure of the tightness of the magic circle on this occasion that neither the Chancellor nor the Leader of the Commons had any inkling of what was happening.”
Nigel Fisher, Macleod’s friend, fellow MP and biographer, observed: “The article spelled out in biting detail the manoeuvres which had led to the exclusion of Butler and the emergence of Home as PM. There had never been before so informed an exposure of the power of the ‘magic circle.’ Macleod had realised there would be a row; he had not foreseen its scale and duration. It was widely thought that he had heaped disloyalty upon disloyalty… At Westminster many parliamentary colleagues were shocked and angry, and when Humphry Berkeley persuaded him to go into the Smoking Room for a drink… they were ostentatiously cut by every Tory in the room.”
On the 50th anniversary of the article’s publication Vernon Bogdanor wrote: “The Conservatives made a remarkable recovery in 1964, losing the election by a whisker—0.7 per cent of the vote. Labour had an overall majority of just four seats. On the day that he left No. 10, Home was heard blaming the defeat on Macleod in language which those present had not heard him use before; and he was to tell his biographer that Macleod’s article was the single most important factor in the Tory defeat. Indeed Home thought that no one had done more damage to the post-war Conservative party.” [Home stood down as leader in June 1965 after arranging that his successor would be chosen by a secret ballot of the parliamentary party. Edward Heath was elected. Home was the last public-school educated Prime Minister until the arrival of Tony Blair in 1997.]