Biographies Are a Key to History Three New Books Reexamine British Politics, the Spanish Monarchy, and Victorian Mores

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Long before there was New Labour in Britain - before Prime Minister Tony Blair was even born - there was Old Labour that looked very like it: strongly pro-American, staunchly opposed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and firmly committed to expanding educational opportunity.

In the 1950s, this kind of Labour was exemplified by Hugh Gaitskell, who served as chancellor of the exchequer in the waning days of Clement Attlee's administration in 1950-51, and went on to become leader of the opposition in 1955. But for his untimely death early in 1963, Gaitskell would have become prime minister the following year instead of Harold Wilson.

In Hugh Gaitskell (Richard Cohen Books, 492 pp., $50), Brian Brivati, a British historian, provides a valuable portrait of a man widely regarded as one of the best prime ministers Britain never had. Brivati, though too young to remember Gaitskell, is an excellent guide to the rediscovery of a political leader who paved the way for the present government: "In some respects Mr. Blair can be seen as Gaitskell writ large," notes Brivati. "He leads from the front and is prepared to push the boundaries of revisionism against all that was formerly sacred." Brivati is well aware of the differences between Blair and Gaitskell, but the Blairite perspective that he brings to this biography clearly enhances its value to today's readers. Whereas Blair's New Labour has triumphed by assimilating many Thatcherite ideas, Gaitskell succeeded in getting the Conservative government of the 1950s to adopt many of his economic policies. Known as Butskellism, after Gaitskell and his Conservative successor as chancellor, R. A. Butler, this moderate stewardship of a mixed economy was a tribute to Gaitskell's brand of socialism, just as New Labour's adoption of Thatcherite policies can be seen as validating her approach. Gaitskell was derided by his leftist enemies as "a desiccated calculating machine." He is revealed here to have been something very different. True, this academic economist and civil servant was analytical and intellectual, but he was also a man of strong beliefs and considerable passion - and not only for politics: Although a fond husband and devoted father to his daughters, he had a long affair with the wife of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming. But he will be remembered as the man who wanted to "fight and fight and fight again to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our Party with its great past may retain its glory and its greatness." And he would, as this book clearly shows, be delighted by Tony Blair's triumphant return of Labour to power. Not one of history's most admired monarchs, Phillip II (1527-1598) ruled Spain, its European dependencies, and its rapidly expanding New World empire in the second half of the turbulent 16th century. He reigned over a country where the infamous Inquisition was in full force. On the larger European stage, Philip's regime fought to crush dissenting Protestants. In the Americas, Spanish settlers enslaved the native populations. A contemporary of England's Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Philip had been married to her older half-sister, Mary Tudor, and at one point was considered - and firmly dismissed - as a potential husband by the self-styled Virgin Queen herself. She would later thwart his designs far more seriously when England's unpredictable weather destroyed his formidable Spanish Armada in 1588 in what proved a vain attempt to show English privateers who ruled the waves. Henry Kamen's scholarly but very readable Philip of Spain (Yale U. Press, 384 pp., $35), aims to redress what the author sees as the Spanish monarch's excessively bad press. Philip, Kamen feels, has too often been portrayed as a bigoted, tyrannical Prince of Darkness. Using many primary documents, including Philip's own letters, Kamen presents a more congenial portrait of a man who may have had his flaws, but who was not a monster. …