If there is a third successive Conservative election victory this summer, Labour will plunge once more into debating its own history. Not reluctantly, because as Kenneth Morgan points out, the Party 'has been captivated, even obsessed, by its history'; even more than the Conservatives it is, he says, 'a prisoner of its past'. Yet the debate will probably be more painful than in the recent past, because it will need to be more searching and less sectarian. In important ways, Morgan's book of biographies will fertilise the debate. Its clear style promises the first essential: plenty of readers. Most of its 27 biographies originated as book reviews and - in the tradition set by A.J.P. Taylor - they reappear without footnotes or full scholarly apparatus, though with a substantial 'Select Bibliography'. The newcomer gets double value from a book of this kind, for it combines surveying the abundant recently-published material on 20th-century British labour history with the integrating perspective of a sympathetic and very knowledgeable historian. Morgan's biographies do not aim at any deep analysis of personality; nor are they as preoccupied with the organisational and structural constraints on the individual as the blurb leads one to expect. They aim rather to set each subject briefly into context, and then straightforwardly to narrate the essentials of his career. The individual's contribution to the Labour movement is specified; assets and drawbacks are carefully juxtaposed; and at the end a balance is struck which aims at fairmindedness and usually attains it.
LRB 4 June 1987 | PDF Download