Although I’ve never been a member of the Labour Party, Michael Foot was one of the reasons why I often voted Labour. So I was sad to hear of his death yesterday, although 96 is a fine old innings. Vast tracts have already been written, so I just wanted to set down some personal thoughts.
Foot was one of what seems a dying breed in mainstream politics – a conviction politician who did not see intelligence as something to be embarrassed about, who could inspire and illuminate through his powers of oration, and who believed politics was about convincing people and arguing for change rather than delivering policies defined by market research. Of the similarly great and influential figures from the labour movement who shaped, rather than merely responded to, society, only Tony Benn remains.
Despite the fulsome tributes paid yesterday to Foot across the media, he was frequently smeared and riduculed while he held influence in politics by a mainstream press hopped up on the excesses of Thatcherism. It’s interesting to reflect on why he was dubbed a failure while Tony Blair was deemed a success. The obvious reason, of course, is that he led Labour to a spectacularly bad election result, while Blair led the party to a spectacularly good one. But reflecting on Foot’s contribution counters the view of the fundamentalist pragmatists who argue that winning is all that mattered.
Peace and socialism
Foot is remembered for his commitment to peace and democratic socialism, and for wearing a coat that the press decided wasn’t very smart to The Cenotaph. Blair is remembered for his commitment to war and free market economics, and for wearing open-necked shirts to show what a regular guy he was.
The route from Foot to Blair was frequently referenced, with the standard view being that the sheer awfulness of Foot’s leadership eventually convinced Labour to adopt Blairism. But there was much pondering of whether the replacement of detailed argument for political convictions with focus group-driven soundbites was a good thing. Blair’s Labour may have won convincingly in 1997, but it didn’t use its mandate to convince the country of the need to embrace even the most watered down of social democratic policies – one of the great missed opportunities of British political history.
I liked Foot’s own comment on that infamous 1983 election manifesto – dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by Gerald Kaufman (whose presence in the Labour Party has never enthused me to cast my vote). Speaking at his 90th birthday party, Foot wryly observed “It didn’t seem to stop him getting elected.” I also admired Foot for refusing to indulge in the club rules of praising a politician whose principles went against all they stood for. When asked for his views on Thatcher in a TV interview late in his life he said they were “too awful” to air.
Foot was an accomplished journalist, whose deeply-held convictions did not affect the quality of his work. Another lesson for those who argue that journalists should be “unbiased”. His intelligence was rooted in a tradition which valued knowledge and the ability of debate to hone a viewpoint and engage with the world, rather than simply sit back and pass comment upon it.
Born into a Liberal family, he was profoundly influenced by the poverty he saw in Liverpool and adopted the socialist cause. He argued against the rush to rearm in the 1930s, and was an active anti-fascist campaigner. Historical revisionists attempt to portray the two views as contradictory, but Foot understood what was behind both the arms race and the stoking of fascism. He became a unilateralist after multilateral disarmament talks failed, and was a leading figure in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He continued to argue against the folly of the UK’s so-called nuclear deterrent, recognising it was more to do with the UK’s post-imperial pretensions than countering any outside threat. And he was an early campaigner against apartheid, another ‘radical’ stance that became mainstream.
As someone who grew up late in Foot’s career, but whose early politics were profoundly influenced by the second wave of anti-nuclear activism, the anti-apartheid struggle and, above all, the terrible extended winter of Thatcherism, I remember Michael Foot as someone who stood for a better world, a better way. Without wishing to fall into the trap of becoming a Politically Grumpy Old Man, I wonder who is having the same influence on today’s teenagers. Foot was a giant, but maybe the real conclusion is that we relied too much on giants and did too little ourselves. As Foot would surely have observed, it’s not individuals who can effect real change, only the mass.