Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
4 February 2010

Hugh Gaitskell, 1960

Hugh Gaitskell, speech on nuclear disarmament, Labour party conference, October 1960.

By Staff Blogger

Hugh Gaitskell gave this speech at the 1960 Labour party conference as leader of the opposition. In it, he attempted to prevent the party from calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and see off critics within Labour who sought to get rid of him for being too right-wing.

The party was deeply divided over the issue, and in this case, Gaitskell lost the vote against the neutralist, pacifist wing of the party. Although he accepted that the battle was lost, Gaitskell put all his energy into this tour de force, in which he roused his supporters to “fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love”. The visible exertion he put into speaking left him sweating profusely.

The speech was met with a mixture of boos and cheers from the crowd. Although he lost the vote this time, the decision was reversed the following year.

Andrew Neil identifies the speech as “one of the great moments of modern British politics”. Gaitskell — a figure who commanded huge respect within the party as well as outside it — died three years later, leaving the leadership open for Harold Wilson.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

We may lose the vote today, and the result may deal this party a grave blow. It may not be possible to prevent this, 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, Mr Chairman, 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.

Content from our partners
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping

Vernon Bogdanor chose this as his favourite speech: “Gaitskell lost the vote but won the argument, impressing himself on the country as a leader of courage and honesty. He would have become prime minister in 1964, probably with a majority larger than Harold Wilson’s, but for his untimely death in January 1963.

“Gaitskell was a revisionist and a precursor of New Labour. He sought a party in thrall neither to ancient doctrines of public ownership nor to modern doctrines of unregulated markets.”

Click here for a video of the speech from the BBC.

Next speech: Margaret Thatcher, Brighton bomb speech, Conservative party conference, October 1984.

Previous speech: Harold Macmillan, speech to the South African parliament, Cape Town, February 1960

Back to list.