Life of Hugh Dalton

Socialists in Retrospect:  HUGH DALTON

Socialists like to be able to place their leaders in neat categories, heroes or villains, Bevan and Gaitskell, Benn and Healey. Those figures who cannot be so neatly slotted into place on right or left tend to be forgotten. Dalton is one such figure – a rather peculiar personality, an academic, a practical politician, a leading figure on Labour’s NEC for many years and Labour’s first and only radical Chancellor.[A]

He is remembered at all today, it is as the associate and mentor of Gaitskell and Crosland. and thereby a man on the Right of the Labour Party. Yet when he resigned as Chancellor in 1947 he was supported by the Tribune Group and came to be seen as a standard-bearer of Labour’s radical policies against the austerity policies of Stafford Cripps, the erstwhile left-winger who succeeded him as Chancellor.

Practical Socialism

These diaries tell the story of Labour’s evolution from a party without a practical programme for government in the 1920s into an effective reforming government in the 1940s and ultimately a party locked into an increasingly futile ideological rivalry by the time of his death in 1962.

Dalton was, along with Attlee, Morrison and Bevin. a key figure in turning Labour into an effective party. His most important book. Practical Socialism [1935] put the emphasis on planning and nationalisation md its ideas were more or less realised by Labour when in government after 1945.

His overall view was Fabian, in so far as the transition to socialism would be achieved through a series of legislative and administrative acts. His views on economics were expansionist and Keynesian, although unlike Keynes he believed that the expansion of the economy should favour the working class.

He distanced himself from the Left more in the sphere of foreign policy. In the 1930s he was in favour. of rearmament and against all attempts by the Communists to infiltrate the Labour Party.

Dalton as Chancellor

When Dalton became Chancellor, the Treasury was not the all-powerful department it is today. Ministerial policy for economic policy was divided between Dalton. who had control over budgetary policy, Morrison. who was in charge of planning and physical controls, and Cripps who ran industry.

As Chancellor, Dalton attempted to relate financial policy to socialist objectives – notably full employment md a fairer taxation policy. Thus in his first two budgets he reduced income tax while increasing surtax and death duties. A further aspect of his policy was cheap money – low interest rates – which would help investment and also enable local authorities to borrow for the housing programme.

His most serious problem as Chancellor was the balance of payments problem – without foreign loans there was little if my prospect of a general rise in the standard of living. However, given these limitations and the overall problems of the post-war era. Labour did succeed in transforming Britain in the interests of the working class.

Personal rivalries and ideological differences

It is interesting to note that for as long as Labour had a clearly defined policy with a common aim and a practical programme for· government, its personal rivalries and ideological differences, while always there (as is clear from many entries in the diaries) were never able to divert the party from its chosen path. Personal differences were subordinated to the party’s clear sense of purpose and political will to carry out its programme.

After about 1950 these rivalries come to the fore and personality clashes, envy and haired merged into ideological struggles and became inseparable from than. Dalton was a victim of this as much as anyone.

Yet he was not unaware of what this was doing to Labour. As he noted in February 1953, “Labour is making no progress in the country. We don’t look or sound like an effective government”. Nor was Labour to do so again in his lifetime.

What the diaries demonstrate above all is that when in tune with the demands of a rising social class Labour was able to develop an effective and radical programme for government and was able to put it into practice. But once out of tune with the basic instincts of society it would quickly fall back into an ineffective squabbling opposition.

Today, Labour is not in tune with the working class. Its ideological parameters prevent it from tuning into and leading it And it seems that not even the prospect of a General Election has been able to prevent Labour from reverting to the sterility of the 1950s.

Erratic Judgement

Dalton himself, for all the self-confidence, vanity and arrogance he displays in these diaries, was very much a flawed personality. In particular, he was much addicted to plotting against his colleagues – especially Attlee, whom Dalton simply could not understand. And he often revealed poor judgement

In a manoeuvre in 1947, aimed at replacing Attlee with Ernest Bevin. he seems to have expected Morrison to cooperate with this despite the latter’s own ambitions to be premier and his deep dislike of Bevin.

But in many of his assessments, Dalton proved to be correct He saw early on that Aneurin Bevan could not lead Labour, and that Morrison’s reputation was fatally damaged after his disastrous spell as Foreign Secretary in 1951. He also felt that Wilson was not to be trusted, observing that “he trims and wavers”.

But others do not emerge as rounded figures from the diaries. In particular, one notes that Dalton simply could not make any sense of Attlee – he thought he would be a better leader himself. An~ was . Shinwell really such an odious character?

Yet behind the personality clashes and the intrigue there lies the great success of Labour’s reforming government of 1945. In the light of the 1987 election, one may well ask if we shall ever see another one!

J. Papadopoulos


This article appeared in July 1987, in Issue 3 of Labour and Trade Union Review.

[A] The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1918-1940 and 1945- 1960, edited by Ben Pimlott. Jonathan Cape, 1986, £40.