Friday, January 18, 2013

What Nasser has done tonight

Hugh Gaitskell, sometimes dubbed the best Prime Minister the UK never had, died 50 years ago today. For about a decade, and long before it was fashionable, he kept a political diary. Many of his diary entries are long and very detailed, but there are often long gaps between them. In one entry, from July 1956, he describes how Anthony Eden, one of the country’s least successful prime ministers, first informed him of Nasser’s unilateral decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company.

Gaitskell was born in London in 1906, and educated at the Dragon School, Winchester College and New College, Oxford. He became a socialist during the 1926 General Strike. During the 1930s, he worked as a teacher at University College, London, where he rose to head the Department of Political Economy. He stood for election as MP for Chatham in 1935 but was defeated by the Conservative candidate.

During the war, Gaitskell served in the Ministry of Economic Welfare, and then, in 1945, he was elected Labour MP for Leeds. By 1950, with support from Hugh Dalton, he had risen through ministerial posts to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He lost the post when Labour was defeated in 1951. Following the resignation of Clement Attlee in 1955, Gaitskell defeated Herbert Morrison and Aneurin Bevan to become party leader. However, his leadership failed to bring Labour victory in the 1959 general election.

The lack of success in the election led the party to a period of internal squabbling and to lurch to the left with a decision to support unilateral disarmament. A year later, Gaitskell managed to secure a reversal of that policy, but not to heal divisions over the issue. In 1960 and 1961, he was challenged for the leadership but successfully held on to his position. In 1962, some of his supporters were alienated by his decision to oppose British membership of the European Economic Community. His sudden death - on 18 January 1963 - led to Harold Wilson becoming party leader. History has been kind to Gaitskell in that, because he never reached the highest office, he has been dubbed by UK pundits as ‘the best prime minister we never had’. Further information is available, from Wikipedia, The Independent, the BBC, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Gaitskell began keeping a diary as soon as he was elected to the House of Commons in 1945, and continued through until October 1956, after which no further texts, recorded or dictated, have been found. His purpose, Gaitskell wrote in 1954, was to record ‘what might be called “inside events” . . . of interest to future historians, or even the public generally. It is not a personal diary about my thoughts and feelings to any great extent, but a political diary, and therefore I quite ruthlessly try and restrict it to what people regard as important events.’ His diary writing, however, was only intermittent, weekly or monthly for example, and thus his entries often recollect events over the period since his last entry. Also, there are long gaps when he wrote no diary entries at all.

The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945-1956 was edited by Philip M. Williams and published by Jonathan Cape in 1983. Williams, who some years earlier had authored Hugh Gaitskell: a Political Biography, explains, in his introduction to the diary, how it reveals a ‘good deal about the daily lives of senior politicians’, and how this was long before it was fashionable to keep political diaries. He also goes into detail as to why he thinks Gaitskell was such an irregular diary-keeper.

Here is part of one entry in which Gaitskell records how he first heard about the forthcoming Suez crisis. (The three Iraqis mentioned at the beginning, including the King, were to be murdered during the military coup in Baghdad two years later.)

26 July 1956
‘During the past fortnight or so the King of Iraq has been here and there have been various functions: one at Buckingham Palace, another at the Iraq Embassy and a third this evening at No. 10 Downing Street. The King, who is a boy of 21, brought with him the Crown Prince, his uncle, and also Nuri es-Said, the old statesman, now aged 67, who has been Prime Minister of Iraq on and off for the last 30 years. [. . .]

But the most dramatic moment was tonight at the dinner at No. 10. At about 10:45, I was sitting next to the King talking to him in one of the apartments, with the Lord Chancellor sitting near. We had been talking for some time about this and that, when Eden came up and said, “I want you to know - and I think the Opposition should know as well - what Nasser has done tonight. He has made a speech announcing that he is going ahead with the Aswan Dam, that they cannot get any foreign money, but that, nevertheless, they are going ahead, and, in order to finance it, they are taking over the Suez Canal Company, and will collect dues which the Company receives from ships using the Canal”. I asked if he had taken action in support of this. Eden said that he understood that the Egyptian police had taken over the offices and the building of the Company already. A little later, Eden corrected what he had said and added that Nasser apparently also indicated that he was going to increase the dues very substantially in order to raise the money for the Dam. I asked him what he was going to do. He said he was getting hold of the American Ambassador immediately. He thought perhaps they ought to take it to the Security Council, and we then had a few moments conversation about the consequences, Selwyn Lloyd the Foreign Secretary standing near.

I said “Supposing Nasser doesn’t take any notice?” whereupon Selwyn Lloyd said, “Well, I suppose in that case the old-fashioned ultimatum will be necessary”. I said that I thought they ought to act quickly, whatever they did, and that as far as Great Britain was concerned, public opinion would almost certainly be behind them. But I also added that they must get America into line. This should not be difficult, since, after all, the Americans had themselves precipitated this by their decision to withdraw all financial assistance for the Aswan Dam. There was some discussion about what the Russians might do. Evidently, said Eden, they had not provided the money, but, he said, they may, of course, back them up on this. I said that I was not so sure especially if they have to pay the higher dues themselves on their own ships. Moreover, they wanted to be with the big boys now, and it might not suit their policy to support Egypt. In a half-joking way, I said, since the King and Crown Prince were both standing there, “What do you think about it?” The Crown Prince rather wittily replied, after a bit, “We had better send for our Prime Minister too - that’s the constitutional position”. Whereupon there was general laughter.’

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