Gaitskell witnessed firsthand in Vienna the political suppression of the Marxist-oriented social democratic workers movement by the conservative Engelbert Dollfuss's government. The event made a lasting impression, making him profoundly hostile to conservatism but also making him reject as futile the Marxian outlook of many European social democrats. This placed him in the socialist revisionist camp.
He quickly rose through the ministerial ranks, becoming Minister of Fuel and Power in 1947. He was then appointed briefly as Minister of Economic Affairs in February 1950. His rapid rise was largely due to the influence of Hugh Dalton who adopted him as a protégé.
In October 1950, Stafford Cripps was forced to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer due to failing health, and Gaitskell was appointed to succeed him. His time as Chancellor was dominated by the struggle to finance Britain's part in the Korean War which put enormous strain on public finances. The cost of the war meant that savings had to be found from other budgets. Gaitskell's budget of 1951 introduced charges for prescriptions on the National Health Service.
The budget caused a split in the government and caused him to fall out with Aneurin Bevan who resigned over this issue. Bevan was later joined by Harold Wilson and John Freeman who also resigned. Later that year, Labour lost power to the Conservatives in the 1951 election.
He later defeated Bevan in the contest to be the party treasurer. After the retirement of Clement Attlee as leader in December 1955, Gaitskell beat Bevan and the ageing Herbert Morrison in the party leadership contest.
Gaitskell's election as leader coincided with one of the Labour Party's weakest periods, which can be partly attributed to the post-war prosperity that Britain was experiencing under the Conservatives. His time as leader was also characterised by factional infighting between the 'Bevanite' left of the Labour party led by Aneurin Bevan, and the 'Gaitskellite' right.
The Labour Party had been widely expected to win the 1959 general election, but did not. Gaitskell was undermined during it by public doubts concerning the credibility of proposals to raise pensions and by a highly effective Conservative campaign run by Harold Macmillan under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it".
Following the election defeat, bitter internecine disputes resumed. Gaitskell blamed the Left for the defeat and attempted unsuccessfully to amend Labour's Clause IV -- which committed the party to massive nationalisation of industry. He also, successfully, resisted attempts to commit Labour to a unilateralist position on nuclear weapons – losing the vote in 1960 and then rousing his supporters to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love". The decision was reversed the following year, but it remained a divisive issue, and many in the left continued to call for a change of leadership. He was challenged unsuccessfully for the leadership in 1960 and again in 1961.
Battles inside the party produced the Campaign for Democratic Socialism to defend the Gaitskellite position in the early 1960s. Many of the younger CDS members were founding members of the SDP in 1981. Gaitskell alienated some of his supporters by his opposition to British membership in the European Economic Community. In a speech to the party conference in October 1962 Gaitskell claimed that Britain's participation in a Federal Europe would mean "the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history".
In private, Hugh Gaitskell was said to be humorous and fun loving, with a love of ballroom dancing. This contrasted with his stern public image.
'Hugh Gaitskell Primary School' is situated in Beeston, part of his Leeds South constituency. Map of LS11 8AB, Hugh Gaitskell Primary School