This is the fourth in our series of the best conservative speeches from the last century to the present day.
Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party and of the Opposition from 1955 to 1963 was the best Labour Prime Minister the country never had. His premature death was a tragedy for his party and for the country.
If anyone needed illustration of how the far the Labour Party has fallen since, look no further than his decade-long battle with the Left of the party which he endured and won.
An economics lecturer, a wartime civil servant and then an office holder in Clement Attlee’s governments, Gaitskell was no socialist revolutionary. Far from it. He had lived through war. For him, country and the defence of the realm came before ideology. He knew when tough and unpopular economic decisions had to be made, even if it risked schism in his party. Principle won the day. He won the bitter leadership battles with the party’s far Left arm, something that today’s craven Labour moderates might note.
He did fail in his attempt to remove Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, which committed Labour to nationalisation of all the means of production (only finally removed by Tony Blair), yet he was not deterred. When the Left attempted to adopt unilateral nuclear disarmament as Labour Party policy he opposed it head-on. In the face of the most intense opposition and constant barracking at the 1960 Labour Party Conference he defiantly opposed the motion endorsing it, knowing that many of the votes were already committed in favour by the unions. He risked all on a matter of principle in a fine speech notable for its conviction, words and timing. This is part of it:
Do you think we can become, overnight, the pacifists, unilaterists, and fellow travellers that other people are? How wrong can you be? How wrong can you be? As wrong as you are about the attitude of the British people.
We may lose the vote today, and the result may deal this party a grave blow. It may not be possible to prevent it, but there are some of us, I think many of us, who will not accept that this blow need be mortal: who will not believe that such an end is inevitable. There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love. We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness.
It is in that spirit I ask delegates who are still free to decide how they vote to support what I believe to be a realistic policy on defence and to reject what I regard as a suicidal path to unilateral disarmament, which will leave our country defenceless and alone.
Gaitskell lost the vote but by a much narrower margin than expected, and the decision was reversed the following year.
You can read a full report of the speech here, and view clips from it here:
Then ask yourself: How far has Labour’s leadership sunk since then?