Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Gaitskell, Hugh (1906–1963)

British politician and Labour Party leader (1955–1963). Born in London on 9 April 1906, Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell was educated at the Winchester School and New College, Oxford. After leaving Oxford he taught political economy for a time at the University of London. He was inspired to join the Labour Party after witnessing the General Strike of 1926 and working in the industrial region of Nottinghamshire. During World War II, he served in various economic ministries and in 1945 was elected to the House of Commons.

Gaitskell was subsequently appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power by Prime Minister Clement Attlee and held that post from 1945 to 1947. In October 1947 Gaitskell became minister of fuel and power and then went on to serve as minister of state for economic affairs in 1950. That same year he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer and held that post until October 1951. His April 1951 budget included arms spending increases mostly at the expense of social and health programs, which prompted the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, a leading left-wing parliamentarian and social welfare proponent. Bevan was later defeated by Gaitskell in the party leadership contest of December 1955.

Throughout much of the 1950s, the Labour Party was consumed by a Left-Right power struggle that pitted Bevan against Gaitskell, although it did manage to unite in strong opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden's role in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Patriotic, pro-American, an advocate of the British nuclear weapons program, and a moderate in economic affairs, Gaitskell clashed seriously with his party in 1959 when he sought to weaken its commitment to public ownership of industry. He again precipitated a row in the party in 1960 when Labour voted to abandon Britain's nuclear arsenal, a move that Gaitskell vehemently opposed. The vote was reversed the following year. In 1962 Gaitskell opposed British entry into the Common Market (European Union, or EU), which he viewed as the beginning of the end of Britain as an independent state. Gaitskell was the Labour leader for eight years until he died unexpectedly in London on 18 January 1963, never having led his party to victory at the polls.

Paul Wingrove


Further Reading
Williams, Philip. Hugh Gaitskell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1979.
 

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