The Foreign Secretaries (18): Patrick Gordon Walker

pgwPatrick Gordon-Walker, 1964-65

Labour, under Wilson

If Patrick Gordon-Walker is remembered at all, it is primarily for losing his Smethwick seat in the 1964 general election. In the end, that defeat brought to a shuddering halt to what had been his seamless ride to the top hitherto.

He was the son of an Indian civil servant and spent most of his childhood in the Punjab, before being educated at Wellington College and Christchurch, Oxford. By the mid-‘thirties he was a don, but one whose attentions were increasingly drawn to politics. He spent much of 1930, and some of 1933 in Germany; he became a passionate opponent of appeasement. His fluent German led him to broadcasting for both the BBC and the Americans. His response to entering Belsen is still powerful today. You can read about it here, and watch below.

In 1945, Gordon-Walker entered the Commons. His rise was rapid. By 1946, he was Herbert Morrison’s PPS. The following year, he was a junior minister in the Commonwealth Office. By 1950, he was secretary of state for the Commonwealth and in the cabinet. He would become the party’s leading specialist on the Commonwealth, an institution in which he placed a great deal of what would prove to be misplaced faith.

Like all of his generation of Labour, the 1951 defeat would mean he was in opposition for the next 13 years. He became a prominent supporter of Gaitskell, and a moderniser, looking to weaken links with the trade unions, ending the commitment to further nationalisation and opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. When Bevan died in 1960, he was a natural choice for Gaitskell and so became shadow foreign secretary. He was talked of as a possible future leader, but when after Gaitskell’s sudden death, he ran George Brown’s campaign.

His defeat in Smethwick bucked the national trend. Whilst nationally there was a swing to Labour, Smethwick saw a 7% swing to the Conservatives. The West Midlands had seen large-scale ‘new Commonwealth’ immigration, and the Tories played the race card.


Gordon-Walker, with his strong Commonwealth links, had opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1962. The same West Midlands that gave us Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 gave us one of the more disgraceful political campaigns in modern history. Apart from the infamous slogan (right), Tory canvassers also spread rumours that Gordon-Walkers daughters had married black men (so-called mixed marriage was deeply controversial at the time), that he had sold his house to blacks and that there would be lepers hospitals opening in the area. Wilson called the result ‘a disgrace to British democracy’, but Labour now knew they would have to contend with white working-class racism. Gordon-Walker’s career was the collateral damage. The story is well told by Tides of History.

For all that, Wilson still intended him for the Foreign Office. A safe seat was found in Leyton, East London. Immigration was not a big issue in the campaign, though the far right taunted him (see below): Denis Healey famously punched the fascist Colin Jordan and, certainly, the East End was hardly immune to the charms of racism. The Tory press enjoyed caricaturing him as the Hampstead liberal forced upon reluctant cockneys. The voters certainly proved resistant, and he lost, and lost the Foreign Office with it.


He won Leyton in 1966, and retuned to cabinet. It was, however, a brief diminuendo and he left office in 1968.


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