Michael Foot was a fine and inspiring man who stood for significant radical values throughout his life and whose personal qualities rightly won him wide affection and respect. A far cry from the unsavoury New Labour politicians, their mealy-mouthed evasions and ‘attack dog’ tactics who have run the party he ‘saved’ for the past 20 years.
But Michael Foot’s life and political career exemplify the fault line that runs through British politics and has divided liberty from equality not least in his own beloved Labour Party. We can imagine his feelings especially when he learnt that a Labour government was not only complicit in torture, but when the judges reprimanded the security services for their cover up, Labour Ministers launched a coordinated attack on the judges! It is a fault line we have to overcome to achieve a society of which we are not ashamed.
As anyone who has read some of the plentiful obituaries or tuned into the wealth of television comment now knows, Michael Foot was born into a high-minded liberal family but at an early age turned away from family tradition to join the Labour Party. In the 1930s, Labour seemed the best vehicle for the wholesale changes that would be required to challenge established power and create a more equal, just and democratic nation. From then on, Foot was to play several distinctively different roles in the rise, fall and rise again of the party, while its commitments to freedom and equality varied, atrophied and diminished.
The first task for anyone who writes about the life of Michael Foot is to rescue his legacy from the near universal image ofa scruffy, avuncular and talkative old man who ‘saved’ the Labour party and to pay tribute to to his early radicalism and reputation as a ‘firebrand’ without romanticising it too readily. But ‘firebrand’ he was with an internationalist outlook in his early years as a journalist and then as a rebellious MP after 1945. In those days, he was gloriously outspoken, stating for example that American capitalism was “arrogant, merciless and convinced of its capacity to dictate the destinies of the world”; or that “most of the freedoms which we possess have been secured by riots”.
Then came his well-documented years in Labour government and finally his election by fellow MPs as leader of the party in 1980. On that evening several of us staff writers on New Society, Martin Kettle among us, decamped to the Covent Garden piazza to celebrate with champagne. How silly it seems in retrospect. The gesture was of course born of respect; and I can only suppose that we imagined that he would be able both to keep the incipient bunch of social democrat defectors within the party while at the same time holding it to a rational and liberal sets of policies. Wrong on both counts. He simply wasn’t the man for the job.
This turning point in Labour’s fierce civil war is portrayed as a left-right struggle, and of course it was that. But the party lost to the new SDP a cadre of social democrats, both from within Parliament and outside, whose liberalism, belief in social justice and plain common sense it badly needed. Yes, it lost some utter right-wing stick-in-the-muds as well, but many of more of them remained. That loss was felt immediately as the SDP bit into Labour’s vote at the 1983 election as the centre-left vote was split almost down the middle between the two parties. It was also felt in the absence within the party of MPs and members who may have been able to prevent or moderate Labour’s backwards-looking election manifesto.
But Foot had already, as it were, sold the pass to Mrs Thatcher. In the House of Commons emergency debate on 3 April 1982 on the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands Islands, Michael Foot employed all his feted oratorical gifts to urge Mrs Thatcher to prove ‘by deeds’ that she would not betray the Islanders. Tory MPs were moved to congratulate him for speaking for the country. But as Anthony Barnett said in Iron Britannia, he had delivered the country (and Labour) into Mrs Thatcher’s hands for a costly stroke of adventurism that distracted the country’s attention from the more costly consequences of the government’s social and economic policies.
Why on earth did he succumb to such a posture? In my view he had over the years assimilated some of the worst aspects of Old Labour. There was always a distinct whiff of both liberal imperialism and Little Englandism in the party’s attitude towards war, colonialism and international affairs. Even in his finer moments, as in the opposition to Britain’s phoney independent nuclear deterrent, there was an echo of imperialism in the idea that a moral stand against nuclear weapons would serve as a model for the whole world. As for Little Englandism, the party’s stand on Europe under Foot was extraordinary.
I believe that his ‘loyalty’ to Labour, which has been widely praised, included an acceptance of labourism that limited his commitment to democracy and freedom. He never questioned the effects of winner-take-all elections to Parliament on the quality of our democracy. He remained at one with the classic old Labour view in believing that the opportunities granted to a majority in the House of Commons with much less than half the popular vote would enable Labour to press through its policies for the nation. He even made common cause with Enoch Powell to frustrate partial reform of the House of Lords so that the upper chamber, which he wanted to abolish, could not restrain the Commons. This frankly illiberal parliamentary nostalgia was combined with his weakness for trade union influence on party and government policies. It seems he could not understand why they would drive even his personal friend, Shirley Williams, as well as her colleagues, out of the party with dreadful consequences both for the left and for Britain.