Page 6, 16th January 1981

16th January 1981
Page 6
Page 6, 16th January 1981 — Labouring after accuracy

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Labouring after accuracy

Life & Labour, An Autobiography Michael Stewart (London: Sidgwick & Jackson. pp.288, £12.50).

MICHAEL Stewart has had a long and prominent career — in the Labour Party since the mid1920's, and in Labour governments since 1946. And unusually, amongst the several Labour politicians who have told us about their lives recently. he remembers his accurately.

He is not pompous, he does not inflate his own role in important events, (well. only occasionally), and his judgements are fair. This does not always make the book more readable. for Stewart has many observations to make on matters which only fleetingly concerned him. Thus the reader will learn little that is new about Labour and appeasement in the late 1930's. or the quarrels over C.N.D. in the '50's. and early '60's.

As he approaches the Wilson / Heath / Callaghan years, too.

Stewart becomes less incisive partly because he was intimately bound up in many of the decisions taken. but partly because he does no more than ,repeat some of the old war-cries. For example, there is no doubt that .Antony Barber's policies were often 'imprudent and inflationary' (p.264). but then so were Mr Healey's in 1974-6. Of those we hear nothing. A pity because Stewart is sometimes ruminative and reflective in the best political autobiographical sense. He lays out more clearly than Crossman and more honestly than Wilson the doubts which, beset Labour ministers over the application to join the E.E.C. in the 1960's.

Stewart sprang from a time and from a class both of which provided many recruits to the second generation of the Labour Party, fashioned equally by the economic conditions of the 1930's. and. in international affairs. by the failure of the League of Nations and collective security. His background and early career is also a familiar one. His family was of the respectable but lower. middle class (this reviewer does not intend the description as an insult), and his academic distinction was gained via a string of scholarships and awards. Nonconformity and social reform were the hallmarks of his brand of Labourism, the inheritance of the pre-1914 Liberal Party of which, had he been twenty years older. he would almost certainly have been a member. As it was, the Michael Stewart of Oxford displayed another old Liberal trait — going out from the university and preaching politics to the Oxfordshire proletariat. In 1926 he visited the villages on bicycle during the general strike: in 1895 Herbert Samuel had gone round in a dog cart lambasting the 14ndlords.

It is impossible now not to wonder how. Stewart the Gaitskellite and Stewart the follower of Tawney regards the future of his party. He gives gentle hints that all is not well.

Michael Hart

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