michael mackintosh foot, 1913-2010: the case for…

4 03 2010

by Sharon Borthwick

“So lets put a stop to defeatism, and put a stop too to all those sermons about Victorian values. The Labour Movement – the Labour Party and the Trade Unions acting together, came into being, as one of our poets, Idris Davies, said, to end ‘the long Victorian night.’ It was a fight to introduce civilised standards into the world of ruthless, devil-take-the-hindmost individualism.”

So went a part of Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto, the so called, “longest suicide note in history” (Gerald Kaufman). And with Michael Foot’s death yesterday, dies too the idea of socialism brought about via parliamentary means. The current ‘Labour’ government would hardly even dream of using terms such as a Labour Movement and are only seen to attack the Trade Unions, ever favouring the concerns of big business; New Labour is just that – New Business.

I wonder, are New Business quoting poets in their manifestos of late? It’s a ripe and hideous testament that during the perfidious press campaign against MF, ‘old bibliophile’ was deemed a term of abuse. Michael Foot had seeped himself in literature throughout his long life: Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, Swift, Burke being among his particular favourites. It was this book learning that had made him into such a great orator. “The only man I ever knew who could make a curse sound like a caress”, Aneurin Bevan said of him.

Indeed, he would have been a formidable foe if the 1983 battle had been fought on sound grounds. Margaret Thatcher had refused to debate openly with him, knowing full well her intellectual inferiority. But the Murdoch consortium feigned concern with his lack of interest in fashion. Of course, he was sunk even before that campaign began by the SDP-Liberal alliance, the eventual result being SDP-L – 25.4%, Labour – 27.6%, Con – 42.4%. He resigned his leadership of the party after this and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock from where the rot of New Labour was begun.

Michael Foot was from a privileged background, going from prep school to the Quaker public school, Leighton Park (known as the Quaker Eton) and thence unto Oxford where he read philosophy, politics and economics. He became a Labour man as soon as he saw the true conditions of the working class in the thirties whilst working in Liverpool. In 1940 he co-wrote ‘Guilty Men’ under the pseudonym, Cato. The book exposed the then Conservative government for their willingness to appease Nazism. MF, in spite of his CND credentials, being one of its founding members, was not a pacifist. He denounced fascism wherever he saw it, whether in Franco’s Spain or Stalin’s Russia, (making an absolute nonsense of the Sunday Times allegations in 1995 that he was Russia’s agent Boot).

But when in 1933, the multilateral disarmament talks broke down he begun the fight, fought and lost all his life for Britain’s unilateral disarmament. And that was his political history – battles mostly fought and lost. A staunch defender of the Trade Unions, most of his ideas, implemented whilst he was employment secretary, were thrown out by Thatcher, only ACAS and health and safety laws remaining. He would have seen the back of the House of Lords, but sadly never did, and so on with all his socialist ideals.

He was principled throughout – twice turning down government positions over matters of increased defence budgets, opposing his government’s (under Wilson) moves to restrict immigration. Against the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, more than once turning down a peerage and a knighthood.

I will end as I began with his own words: “we are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer, to hell with them! The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”

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5 responses

5 03 2010
Adam Ford

“…with Michael Foot’s death yesterday, dies too the idea of socialism brought about via parliamentary means.”

This is a vital point. Foot was the last ever Labour Party leader to openly use the ‘s-word’ and mean something by it, and though his understanding of that word was very different to that of people on this site, he no doubt wanted to bring about substantial reform.

I think it’s also more than interesting to note his appetite for literature. It is impossible to imagine any of today’s leading politicians having an appetite for the Romantic poets, or being able to spice up their speeches with purple prose. He belonged to a very different political era.

However, I must take up the challenge and sketch the ‘case against’.

Firstly, on his opposition to ‘appeasement’. Winston Churchill also opposed it, from the perspective of perceived threats to the British ruling class, especially the effect on trade if and when Poland was invaded. I have not read Foot’s writing on this, and I’m aware he was not even an MP when World War Two broke out, but he was committed to working for his political objectives through the mechanisms of the British state. Many on the post-war Labour ‘left’ backed repression against those who sought to overthrow British power in the colonies, so his ‘anti-fascism’ might have been of a piece with this.

Foot was certainly not an advocate of working class internationalism. Though he opposed certain wars (Vietnam, and much later Iraq), he supported the founding of NATO in 1949, and decisively backed Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands/Malvinas war, as well as NATO’s war on Serbia in the 1990s (any who opposed the bombing of Belgrade were also ‘appeasers’, apparently).

On his relationship with the ‘Labour movement’, he was certainly a left critic of the Wilson governments, until he joined the last one in 1974. As Employment Secretary, he granted some (admittedly significant) concessions, in return for ‘wage restraint’ (effective pay cuts) and pit closures (including in his own Ebbw Vale constituency). In an old BBC documentary repeated yesterday, Barbara Castle recalled how Foot had criticised her government from the left for the ‘In Place Of Strife’ White Paper, and then brought in similar legislation when he got into power. Apparently he never grasped the irony. It’s the old, old story.

When the IMF bailout of the UK economy came with neoliberal strings attached, and effectively undercut the material basis for Keynesianism, he certainly didn’t resign and advocate revolutionary socialism. Instead, he made his peace with the new regime, and stayed in power until the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and Thatcher (see Sheila Cohen’s excellent article for more on this – http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/what-went-wrong-with-the-winter-of-discontent/).

As Labour leader, he openly attacked Tony Benn’s deputy leadership bid from the right, and started the Militant witch-hunt, which his chosen successor Neil Kinnock then completed. In a sense then, Foot was actually an early architect of New Labour.

One thing’s for sure: we can’t go back. Enough with reformism. In the genuinely inspiring words of Percy Shelley:

“Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you/Ye are many – they are few.’

5 03 2010
sharon Borthwick

Adam,

thank you, the case against needed making. I concede most all your points. Even, that in some ways he may have set the blue print for New Labour by his willingness to at least seem more willing to be more rightward bent. Though the 1983 manifesto is full blown socialist.

He certainly wasn’t a communist, sadly. I suppose his nephew, Paul had many an argument with him on that score. We may have seen the same bbc documentary where they showed footage of an older interview asking him was he a communist to which he replied in the negative. The interviewer said, “so you’re not a Communist, You’re not a Marxist”. “Oh a bit more of a Marxist” he said. It seemed that the overarching message of the documentary was that he was a bit vague and romantic for politics.

I must confess that I haven’t read ‘Guilty Men’ either. Maybe somebody out there has and can enlighten us.

6 03 2010
Bill Butlin

Adam you write that ‘Foot had criticised her government from the left for the ‘In Place Of Strife’ White Paper, and then brought in similar legislation when he got into power. Apparently he never grasped the irony. It’s the old, old story’.

What ‘similar legislation’ was that then ? or did you take Castles interpretation of this ‘old old story’ without checking your facts?

6 03 2010
Adam Ford

Actually Bill, ‘legislation’ was a slip on my part (that would wait for Thatcher). But as I understand it, the wage restraint process co-opted trade union leaders into putting a brake on potential strikes (at the same time as it protected and enhanced some trade union rights).

Bill, as a side issue, I have noticed before that you word your comments in a very uncomradely way, which seems to assume the worst in the person you are (maybe) disagreeing with. I read your recent article, and we seem to be on the same side, so I would appreciate it if you treat me (and others) with more respect.

6 03 2010
Bill Butlin

Thanks Adam Point taken. The venom in my e-mail was directed at Barbra Castles distortion of history as opposed to your comments.




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