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Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (9 April 1906 – 18 January 1963) was a Britishmarker Labour politician, who served in a number of Cabinet positions under various governments, and was the Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from 1955, until his death in 1963.

Early life

He was born in London, England, and educated at the Dragon Schoolmarker, Winchester Collegemarker and New College, Oxfordmarker, 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 Nottinghamshiremarker. In the 1930s he was an academic at University College Londonmarker, where he headed the Department of Political Economy. He also worked as a tutor at Birkbeck Collegemarker.

Gaitskell witnessed firsthand in Viennamarker the political suppression of the Marxist-oriented social democratic workers movement by the conservative Engelbert Dollfuss's government. The 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.

Early political career

During the war, Gaitskell worked as a civil servant for the Ministry of Economic Warfare which gave him experience of government. 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 was then appointed briefly as Minister of 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. Gaitskell's budget of 1951 introduced charges for prescriptions on the National Health Service.

The budget caused a split in the government and caused him to fall out with Aneurin Bevan who resigned over this issue. 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

He 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 intervention initiated by the prime minister, Anthony Eden.

The Labour Party had been widely expected to win the 1959 general election, but did not. 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".

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 committed the party to massive nationalisation of industry. 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 in the left continued to call for a change of leadership. He was challenged unsuccessfully for the leadership in 1960 and again in 1961.

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. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history".

Death in 1963

He died in January 1963 aged 56, after a sudden flare of Lupus erythematosus; an autoimmune disease. His death left an opening for Harold Wilson in the party leadership.

The abrupt and unexpected nature of his death led to some speculation that foul play might have been involved, the most popular conspiracy theory involving a supposed KGBmarker 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 Sovietmarker defector Anatoliy Golitsyn. Golitsyn was a controversial figure who also claimed, for example, that the Sino-Soviet split was a charade intended to deceive the West. His claims about Wilson were repeatedly investigated and never substantiated.

Hugh Gaitskell is buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead Churchmarker, north London.


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".

He is still regarded with affection even among Labour's left wing, including Tony Benn, who in particular contrasts 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 Leeds South constituency.

Marriage and personal life

He was married to Anna Dora Gaitskell from 1937, who became a Labour life peer one year after his death, but it is widely known that he had a number of affairs, even during his time in public life with the socialite Ann Fleming, the wife of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

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.


  2. Hugh Gaitskell Primary School, Beeston, South Leeds
  3. Map of LS11 8AB, Hugh Gaitskell Primary School
  4. Hugh Gaitskell without the dancing? The Independent


  • Davies, A.J. To Build a New Jerusalem (1996) Abacus ISBN 0349 108099
  • - Biography of Gaitskell.

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