How long will Attlee hold on?

Berverley Baxter December 24 1955

How long will Attlee hold on?

Berverley Baxter December 24 1955

How long will Attlee hold on?


Berverley Baxter

EVERY YEAR in the month of October the two great political parties of Britain hold their annual conference before advancing upon Westminster for the winter session. And almost invariably they choose a seaside holiday resort because the ozone adds spirit to their spirits and because the hotels have plenty of rooms available.

This year the Tories chose Bournemouth which is not only a seaside resort but almost a state of mind. There you see the retired colonel and his hawk-nosed wife, the over-age company director and his unmarried daughter, the senior civil servant who has reached the peace of superannuation, and the comfortably off widows of successful industrialists.

Bournemouth even has a symphony orchestra although it is finding television a tough competitor. But there was not a great deal of sweet music about this year’s Tory conference. Even Chancellor of the Exchequer Rab Butler, who has long been regarded as the party’s man of destiny, came under heavy fire. As for Peter Thorneycroft, the debonair president of the board of trade, he was told by a delegate from the cotton areas of Lancashire to get on or get out. Nor was this just a private brawl. The television cameras revealed it to the eyes of the nation.

Naturally the two great parties do not hold their conferences in the same place or in the same week. Each is Big News and neither wants to share the available newspaper space.

I am sorry to confess that while I rarely attend the Tory conference I never miss the one held by the Labor Party. For one thing, the socialists are usually in a state of crisis; they do not intrigue merely in private. This year it was obvious that sensational things would happen.

For example, Clement Attlee had let it be known that he was feeling the strain and hoped that he would soon be relieved of the leadership which has been his for twenty years. This brave little man, this giant of understatement, this sphinx without a secret, had undergone a stroke about the same time as Sir Winston Churchill.

As a matter of record, Attlee has led the party longer than any other leader in its history. He felt that, like Cincinnatus, he should be allowed to lay down his task even if he did not return to the plough.

But inevitably a political leader is concerned with the choice of his successor. Nor is he in a hurry to lay down the burden of leadership when the actual moment arrives. In fact the only political leader, to my knowledge, who ever relinquished power gladly was Stanley Baldwin. But then he hated politics. He preferred watching cricket and smoking his pipe.

One can understand Attlee’s feelings as

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Will Morrison or Gaitskell succeed the chief?

London Letter


the socialist throng arrived at Margate and spread to the hotels which seem to have been almost completely bought up by that remarkable ex-Torontonian, Billy Butlin, of holiday-camp fame. My hotel was Butlin’s St. George and from my window I could see at least three other Butlinized establishments of similar size and splendor. The Winter Garden where the great conference was to meet gleamed with lights and posters and flags.

For the first time in many years Aneurin Bevan was not the star turn. He had challenged ex-Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell for the powerful but unpaid post of party treasurer and had been defeated by five million votes to a paltry million. In case the size of these figures puzzles you, let me explain that the trade unions have a block vote and, of course, their membership is huge.

It is difficult to understand why Bevan challenged the Young Pretender in this way. The trade unions, which incidentally supply the Labor Party with its political funds, look upon Bevan as a wild irresponsible individualist. And the sober leaders of the unions (more conservative than the Tories in temperament) despise wildness, irresponsibility and individualism.

By the rules of the party Bevan was no longer a member of the national executive, following his defeat by Gaitskell. Thus for the first time in many years Bevan was no longer on the platform but had to sit in the body of the hall together with the humble constituency and trade-union delegates. No longer surrounded by his adoring henchmen he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy left behind while the ventriloquist goes out for a drink.

Smiles In All Directions

Now to return to Attlee’s dilemma. It is no secret that he wants Gaitskell to succeed him. In spite of the disparity in years (Gaitskell is forty-nine and Attlee is seventy-two) they have much in common. Both came from comfortable upper-middle-class families and both were educated at a public school.

There is nothing unusual in the emergence of the left-wing intellectual whose parents have done well out of the capitalist system. All revolutions, bloody or peaceful, are led by a mixture of intellectuals and wild men. It was so in France and Russia, and it is not less true in the bloodless revolution that brought the Labor Party to six years of government.

Let there he no doubt about Hugh Gaitskell’s ability. He succeeded Sir Stafford Cripps as chancellor of the exchequer, and now in Opposition he holds his own against Rah Butler in the financial debates.

But Gaitskell has one serious disadvantage his youth. A political party hesitates to choose a leader who might carry on for thirty years. Churchill, Attlee and Chamberlain all became prime ministers in the significant sixties.

Therefore, when the two wings of the Labor Party (the political and the trade union) were faced with the supposedly imminent resignation of Attlee, they could not fail to notice that Herbert "Cockatoo” Morrison was smiling in all directions and that his famous hairdo was like the plume of a prancing charger.

With Attlee about to resign, with Gaitskell too young for the crown and Nye Bevan wandering in the wilderness, who was the obvious successor to the socialist throne? In other words, the

great moment had arrived for the Cockney statesman who is called "Our ’Erb” by those of his faithful followers who dwell within the sound of Bow Belfa.

But wait! Was not Morrison a conscientious objector in World War I? He was indeed.

Morrison has never attempted to deny or explain that charge. But here are the facts and it is time they were made known. Herbert Morrison was the son of a London policeman and they lived with the Cockneys in a humble little house. One day something happened in that house— an accident which has never been explained —but the boy Herbert lost his eye. Nothing more is known than that. Eventually he got a job in the circulation department of a small newspaper and he joined the Labor Party which was struggling for its place in the sun.

But then came the 1914 war and, after a time, conscription became the law Morrison came up before the tribunal and claimed exemption as a conscientious objector. Thus he remained in Civvy Street while his generation went to dusty death.

A few years ago I talked about t his to Morrison and asked him if he regretted wh&t he had done. "In some ways, yes.” he answered. And then I realized for the first time that his action in 1914 was born of courage rather than cowardice. Lacking one eye he could not have been called up for military service—which he clearly understood at the time. But as a belligerent pacifist he chose political martyrdom by making it a matter of conscience.

Yet such is the irony of political life that as a minister in Churchill’s war government he did everything in his power to assist in the destruction of Nazi Germany.

Therefore, to return to Margate with its lazy slithering waves, it seemed a certainty that Attlee would nominate

Morrison as successor, with the understanding that in a matter of three or four years Morrison would make way for socialism’s man of destiny, Hugh Gaitskell.

But by the third day of the conference eyebrows were lifting in many directions. Not only was Attlee on the job throughout the day in the conference sessions but he was attending all the social functions that were taking place in the evenings. If it were a dance, Attlee took the floor and only left off when the band played the national anthem. Nor did he seem ready for bed even then. In fact the Little Bantam was shedding the years like peanuts.

The Laborites scratched their heads and gazed in puzzled admiration. And then next day a wise old bird from the Labor Party gave me an explanation that was founded on deduction but was remarkably convincing.

"All this dancing and staying up late by Clem,” he said, "is for the purpose of showing the boys that he is in good shape to carry on. You will see that he will still be the leader when this conference breaks up. Actually he is not at all well and he wants to retire, but he is determined to stop Herbert as his successor.”

I expressed suitable surprise but he brushed it aside.

"Clem loved Ernie Bevin,” he said. "Clem thinks that Ernie was the one man who made it possible for the party to form a real effective government. And he also thinks that Ernie was a great foreign secretary. You know of course that Ernie and Herbert were enemies to the death.”

I reminded him that they had a reconciliation during the Hitler war. "Sure thing,” said my socialist friend. "It was a death-bed reconciliation in which each thought the other was for the high jump. They were both sick men at the time but Herbie recovered and it was Ernie who went west.”

The Margate conference resumed next day. Aneurin Bevan made an amusing and flamboyant speech from the humble rostrum used by the delegates while the great men on the platform gazed upon him with that sense of security which distance sometimes gives.

But when the week came to its end. and the delegates were singing Auld Lang Syne, Attlee was still wearing the crown, and Morrison’s cockatoo hairdo had wilted almost to the horizontal.

So now the seaside political pierrot troop moves to Westminster. Instead of visiting Margate as an interloper, l shall sit in my place and watch the unfolding drama of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

Can Attlee hang on for another year? That is what the wild wives are saying if I may carry the seaside atmosphere lo the Thames. And if you think that is merely a play on words, 1 can assure you that those political wives Mrs. Attlee, Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Gaitskell are almost as interested and excited as their husbands.

1 cannot carry the story further than that. But from time to time I shall let you know how the battle for the Labor successorship is progressing.

But how much more pleasant it is to belong to the Tory party where we know for years ahead who will be our next leader. -AT