How easy it is to say the wrong thing!

Hugh Gaitskell in 1947
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Hugh Gaitskell found himself at the centre of an unintended media storm in November 1947, shortly after being appointed as Britain’s Minister of Fuel and Power. In a speech addressing the stark realities of post-war austerity and fuel conservation, a comment about personal hygiene sparked attention both from the media and Winston Churchill, and a few weeks later, Gaitskell reflected on the brouhaha in his diary. Gaitskell went on to become Leader of the Labour Party in 1955, a role he held until his death in 1963, but these careless sentences lingered in the public consciousness.

The Diary Entry

Friday, 14 November 1947

How easy it is to say the wrong thing! How easy it is not to recognise one has said the wrong thing!

About three weeks ago I made a speech at a municipal election meeting in Hastings. I had spoken earlier at Eastbourne in the afternoon at a very successful meeting, where there were plenty of good humoured interruptions which enlivened the proceedings. I was tired when I got to Hastings but it was again a good meeting, though rather less lively than at Eastbourne. I tried to keep my speech fairly above Party despite the coming election and inevitably referred to fuel economy in the course of it. Then I let fall two fatal sentences:

“It means getting up and going to bed in cold bedrooms. It may mean fewer baths. Personally, I have never had a great many baths myself and I can assure those who are in the habit of having a great many baths that it does not make a great deal of difference to their health if they have fewer.

And as far as appearance—most of that is underneath and nobody sees it.”

Of course the first sentence was said in a joking manner and the second was a pure joke, and the audience laughed and took it as such. It is the kind of thing I have said again and again at open air meetings to liven things up. After the meeting one of the local people who was driving me round referred to this, and said he would not be surprised if it was in headlines next day. Though he, himself, thought it a joke and took it as such. The press did pick it out though not very flamboyantly. However, on Tuesday it so happened that Churchill was making his big speech against the Government on the Address and he made great play of these remarks of mine. I was not present at the time myself but everybody tells me that he was extremely funny at my expense. Since then I have become associated in the public mind with dirt, never having a bath, etc. I am told that at the Command Performance no less than three jokes were made about this by music hall comedians, though they all seem to have been in quite a friendly manner.

First of all, I did not worry at all. It seemed inconceivable to me that anybody could believe it was anything but a joke. However, I now consider I really made a mistake. Psychologically it is probably a bad thing for a Minister to be associated in the public mind with not washing. I had a few anonymous letters and some packets of D.D.T. powder sent to me. And two signed letters which reflect different points of view. The first was from a distant connection of some kind, taking me to task for what I said and asking me when I was speaking in public to be more careful of what I said because the name was such an uncommon one. The second was from my old nurse whom I have not seen or heard from for over thirty years, but who always had a very good sense of humour. I was very touched by this.

Further Reading

Gaitskell kept a sporadic diary for a little over a decade, beginning in 1945. It was published by Jonathan Cape in 1983 with the title, The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell 1945–56. Edited and introduced by P. M. Williams.


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