As Labour party leader, Gaitskell exercised a more enduring impact on British politics than might be supposed from his brief ministerial career. After Winchester and Oxford, Gaitskell spent eleven years as an academic before taking up a wartime civil service post at the Ministry of Economic Warfare.
Elected to Parliament in 1945, Gaitskell was among the most impressive of Labour's new intake. Conspicuous success at the Ministry of Fuel and Power ensured rapid promotion and he became minister of state at the Treasury after the 1950 general election. Gaitskell was fortunate in the timing of his ministerial ascent. Many of the leading figures in the cabinet had been continuously in office for a decade. Gaitskell, by contrast, seemed to be the coming man of Labour politics. When illness forced the resignation of Stafford Cripps in October 1950, the 44‐year‐old Gaitskell was an obvious successor as chancellor.
His only budget in 1951 proved to be controversial. His decision to introduce limited Health Service charges prompted the resignations of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman. Attlee finally retired from the leadership in December 1955 and Gaitskell easily defeated Bevan and Herbert Morrison for the succession. His first years as leader were relatively uneventful. He even succeeded in effecting a reconciliation with Bevan. Gaitskell performed effectively in Parliament over the Suez crisis. With the Conservatives badly shaken by Suez, Labour approached the election of 1959 with confidence.
The result—a third successive Conservative victory and a substantially increased majority—was a considerable personal blow. Gaitskell determined to modernize the party to accommodate the aspirations of middle‐class voters. To traditionalists, however, this meant diluting the socialist content of the party's ideology. Such opposition led to Gaitskell's defeat in 1960 over his attempt to remove clause 4 (the common ownership of the means of production) from the party's constitution. But he restored his authority a year later, resisting the left's attempts to commit Labour to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, having done much to re‐establish Labour as a credible party of government—an achievement which benefited Harold Wilson in October 1964.