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Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins, and Healey by Giles Radice

2 September 2007

A slight shift away from the Tories and their troubles to the Labour Party and its internal conflicts.

Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins, and Healey by Giles Radice

The history of the Labour Party in the post-war period tends to be a study in personality conflicts. From the Bevanites vs. the Gaitskellites in the 1950s to the low-level sniping and griping dutifully recorded by Tony Benn, Richard Crossman, and Barbara Castle in the 1960s and 1970s — not to mention the whole of the 1980s — party politics and personal politics seem to go hand in hand throughout. (Small wonder that Tony Blair looked back in horror at his predecessors’ approach to party management.) In Friends and Rivals, former MP Giles Radice has written a study of three of the biggest Labour personalities of their day: Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, and Denis Healey. They were in the limelight of Labour politics for nearly two decades, in and out of various Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet posts. Yet Radice’s book is not merely about the three politicians as people, but rather about the way in which their three-way rivalry gradually weakened the Labour Party’s position in the country and paved the way for the rise of the militant left…and Britain’s swing toward Margaret Thatcher’s particular brand of conservatism.

Tony Crosland is certainly known for his stated desire to destroy ‘every fucking grammar school’ during his time as Education Secretary, but his book The Future of Socialism was the Little Red Book for a generation of centre-left politicians. Roy Jenkins was one of the crown princes of the Labour Party during Harold Wilson’s time, with any number of supporters who would have carried him on their shoulders to Number 10 Downing Street, but his determination to see Britain into Europe cost him his place in British politics for the better part of a decade — only to see him re-enter the political scene at the head of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s. Denis Healey had the unenviable position of Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1976, when Britain had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a massive financial bailout. He ran for leader of the Labour Party in 1979, only to be defeated by Michael Foot and the growing hard left movement that took control of Labour during that time period. All three men were brilliant in the ways that work best for politicians — Oxford graduates, devastatingly clever debaters, excellent writers and public speakers. Indeed, it’s easy to see how their similarities contributed significantly to their personal differences as each attempted to outshine and out-manoeuvre the other two.

Radice’s book is a very well done piece of research, thorough without being tedious and chatty without being superficial. The lives of Crosland, Jenkins, and Healey are so intertwined that to write about one without the other two would be a very difficult task, and Radice somehow manages to give all three of them equal attention. (My one criticism, and it is a minor one, is that I have a bit of a problem with Radice’s occasional tendency to say, ‘I was there at the time, and here’s what I thought and look how correct I was’, or something to that effect. It’s a small distraction in what is otherwise an excellent account.) I would say that this book is almost required reading for a deeper understand of 1960s and 1970s British politics, particularly with reference to the British entry into the EEC and the conflicts that plagued Harold Wilson’s various Labour Governments. It’s an intriguing study of the politics of personalities — an aspect of political history which remains extremely important no matter who happens to be occupying the front benches or standing at the despatch boxes.

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