In every pouch and crease of his lugubrious face Patrick Gordon Walker — who died last month — was a flesh and blood discouragement of the idea that there is much joy in the life of a dogsbody of capitalist politics.
Much ponderous energy was invested in building his career, which at the end dissolved into catastrophe. He made a reputation in a number of unwanted ways —Foreign Secretary for only three months, and at that without a seat in Parliament; the loser of two safe Labour constituencies in rapid succession; an apparently helpless victim of an overtly racist election campaign. Wearily, his days were ended in the quiet obscurity of a life peer.
Child psychologists might look for an explanation of Gordon Walker’s career in his parentage; his father was both a Fabian and a High Court judge in India, which may have conditioned the young Gordon Walker into the reflexes of reconciliation so useful to anyone seeking to make their name in politics. Further conditioning came at public school and at Oxford, where he was a receptive student and later a history tutor.
After a wartime stint as a propagandist at the BBC Gordon Walker had learned enough to come into the House of Commons, at a by-election at the safe Labour seat of Smethwick. Almost at once he was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to Herbert Morrison, one of the dominant leaders in the Attlee government, and about a year later he was a junior minister at the Commonwealth Relations Office. That government was supposed to be leading a war-weary British working class to socialism and Gordon Walker came to the conclusion that this task would be better in the hands of Ernie Bevin. He joined with George Brown in a clumsy attempt at a putsch to replace Attlee with Bevin but when Brown, from his own account, cheerfully went off to tell Bevin to get ready to move into Number Ten, he was crushed by Bevin’s angry and contemptuous rejection. But the incident did not seem to injure Brown’s career, nor that of the more subtle Gordon Walker.
It was during Labour’s long years in the wilderness, while the working class were gratefully voting for one dose after another of Tory capitalism, that Gordon Walker established himself as shadow Foreign Secretary. George Brown was clearly hurt at this treachery by his fellow conspirator; he had wanted the job himself and did not take too kindly to the idea that anyone should double cross him:
I had discussed with Gordon Walker what I was thinking of doing and had said that I was going to ask to be allowed to do Foreign Affairs. He gave me no indication that he was interested in the job himself. (In My Way.)
As it turned out, Brown might have had a narrow escape; Gordon Walker’s readiness to do anything led him into opposing the Conservative Commonwealth Immigration Bill of 1962. This was during a brief, bizarre period in which the Labour Party pretended that they were opposed to racism and were concerned for international unity. Gordon Walker seemed to be out of touch with his constituents, who at that time were actively seeking scapegoats for the stresses of Birmingham’s industrial and urban capitalism and who found them too readily in the coloured immigrants who had concentrated in some parts of the constituency. Their member’s pose as a man of principled opposition to racist laws was not popular where his votes came from.
By the time of the 1964 election the Tory campaign in Smethwick, orchestrated by their candidate Peter Griffiths, was well under way, playing upon baseless anxieties with slogans like “If You Want A Nigger For A Neighbour, Vote Labour”. Seemingly unaware of the full significance of what was .going on, Gordon Walker plodded stoically to defeat. After the result the TV men asked the unsavoury Griffiths what his maiden speech would be about. “Widows’ pensions”, nasally lisped the new member for Smethwick.
Of course, the workers of Smethwick were being quite unfair; Labour had stopped opposing immigration controls as early as January 1963, when they voted in the Commons for the continuation of the Commonwealth Immigration Act. In the election which cost Gordon Walker his seat their policy was clear: “. . . in view of the need to limit the number of immigrants entering Britain, immigration control will be retained.” (When Labour Wins, 1964.) And when they were in power, Labour were better than their word; they not only kept the controls but strengthened them. In this matter, as in most others, there was nothing to choose between Labour and the Tories.
Harold Wilson, however, was not to be deterred. He had appointed Gordon Walker as Foreign Secretary and, whatever the voters of Smethwick said, Foreign Secretary he would stay. In the House there was uproar as Wilson invited Tory leader Douglas-Home, famous for his bone-headed affability, to regard Peter Griffiths as a “Parliamentary leper”. Perhaps because he was so affable, Douglas- Home did not make the same suggestion to Wilson about some of his supporters — like Ray Gunter —who were pressing for tighter immigration control, nor about the Labour clubs where, as zealous sleuths from the press revealed, coloured people were either banned or frozen out. What would Hugh Gaitskell — who in a sense had started it all by suggesting that the Labour Party was on to a good thing by opposing the Immigration Bill —have made of it?
Doggedly, Wilson propelled his Foreign Secretary towards what was to be his great defeat. First, Wilson forced Labour MP Reg Sorensen out of his comfortably held seat at Leyton and into the House of Lords so that Gordon Walker could fight the by-election there. Sorensen, who had built up a strong personal following at Leyton, did not want to go. When the by-election came, the MPs had just put up their pay at the same time as the government were insisting that an increase in pensions would have to be delayed for some months — hardly the sort of propaganda a government of capitalism thrives on. There was a lot of anger at the railroading of Sorensen and the stigma of Smethwick was still perceptible about Gordon Walker. Less than 60 per cent of the electorate voted and Gordon Walker converted a Labour majority of nearly 8000 into a Tory one of 205.
George Brown, trying to reconstruct British capitalism at his Department of Economic Affairs, was annoyed at the reshuffle caused by the Leyton result: “If Patrick Gordon Walker”, he commented sniffily, “Had done us the favour of holding Leyton and thereby remained Foreign Secretary, there would have been no shuffle just then . . .” It was in effect the end of Gordon Walker’s career. Wilson gave him a few odd jobs, like going on a “fact finding” tour of the Far East with special emphasis on Vietnam. Whatever “facts” he found there did not persuade the Labour government to stop supporting the war; the best he could think of to say was that in Vietnam “. . . there could be neither victory nor defeat . . ." And when he wrote that he was not thinking about the workers and peasants on both sides who were dying and suffering in Vietnam, in the cause of their master classes. Although he came back to the Commons in 1966, and held some government posts, Gordon Walker’s ambitions were at an end. It might have been a relief to him, to be made a life peer in 1974 and to join all those other Labour lords whose leathery intellects provide a convenient, protective distortion of historical facts.
They must need it; there was nothing in the career of Gordon Walker, nor of the governments of which he was a member, to justify any pride or even satisfaction. The crises of capitalism swamped those governments just as they have all governments; Labour ministers contested with workers over wages and working conditions; they supported — and sometimes engaged in —the wars of capitalism and their immigration policy was as restrictive as it needed to be, to persuade racist workers to vote for them. It was a sordid story, summed up in a Fabian Society study of Labour in power (Labour And Equality, 1980) by Peter Townsend: “. . . people in all parts of the Labour movement . . . did not want to believe that their expectations had not been fulfilled because that would have threatened life long political beliefs.”
The lesson for the Labour Party from Gordon Walker at Smethwick and at Leyton was not to stand for political principle, not to struggle against anti-working class prejudices, not to campaign for an international unity of workers for a happier, saner world. The lesson they applied — for they had learned it a long time before —was to protect their votes by pandering to political ignorance and to prejudice, to fashion their policies not to help workers understand society but to accept a degraded position in it.
Workers who don’t understand capitalism are easy prey to any prejudices; it is, they think, simpler to turn upon a scapegoat rather than to examine their problems for their cause. Such people are the very stuff of Labour support; the Labour Party dare not encourage them to an awareness of their class interests because that would be suicidal for them as a party. So if that ignorance sometimes recoils upon them, as it did in the case of Gordon Walker, they have no grounds for complaint. Only the innocent can protest; and in the desperate history of capitalism none can bear more guilt than the Labour Party.