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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.

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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.

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

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