Michael Foot: RIP

Some of his much-mocked policies remain relevant even in the 21st century.

The former Labour leader Michael Foot has died at the age of 96. He was a brilliant man, a prolific writer (and a former New Statesman journalist), a natural orator and a legendary if infamously unsuccessful leader of the Labour Party. Oh, and he was also a devoted Plymouth Argyle fan and the oldest registered professional player to date in the history of football. (Here's a link to some related New Statesman profiles, interviews and stories.)

Personally, I can't help but agree with Craig Murray, writing on his blog in May 2009:

The sad thing is that Michael Foot was perhaps the most honourable man ever to lead a major political party in this country. Foot would never have dreamed of milking his MP's allowances, or letting anyone else do so. It is totally inconceivable that Foot would have tolerated creatures like McBride and Draper around him. He was not in politics for backstabbing and smear.

The irony is that it was Foot's innocence of the dark arts we now deplore in politicians, that led to his extreme unpopularity. He deliberately and consciously abjured the media soundbite, in favour of the well-made and complete argument that did not fit in a news bulletin.

He absolutely refused image makeover. I remember very well that this came to a head when he arrived at a cold Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph wearing a duffel coat. The Murdoch press went crazy, calling it a "donkey jacket". It was at the time as big a media sensation as the MPs' expenses claims are today.

Foot's political legacy will be much discussed and much disputed in the coming days, but here is the architect of "New" Labour himself, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, speaking about him at the Labour party conference in 1997, shortly after coming to power:

Thank you to the Party organisation, the volunteers, the professionals who fashioned the finest political fighting machine anywhere in the world. And thanks to those that led before me . . .

My own debt of honour to Michael Foot: you led this Party when, frankly, it was incapable of being led and without ever losing a shred of your decency or your integrity. Thank you.

Also in the coming days, among the inevitably innumerable profiles, essays and obituaries, you'll hear much about Labour's 1983 general election defeat under Foot and his "crazy" left-wing election manifesto, often described as "the longest suicide note in history" (copyright: Gerald Kaufman).

But here's a thought experiment. Read this extract from the 1983 election manifesto, from the "Finance for Industry" section:

It is essential that industry has the finance it needs to support our plans for increased investment. Our proposals are set out in full in our Conference statement, The Financial Institutions. We will:

* Establish a National Investment Bank to put new resources from private institutions and from the government -- including North Sea oil revenues -- on a large scale into our industrial priorities. The bank will attract and channel savings, by agreement, in a way that guarantees these savings and improves the quality of investment in the UK.
* Exercise, through the Bank of England, much closer direct control over bank lending. Agreed development plans will be concluded with the banks and other financial institutions.
* Create a public bank operating through post offices, by merging the National Girobank, National Savings Bank and the Paymaster General's Office.
* Set up a Securities Commission to regulate the institutions and markets of the City, including Lloyds, within a clear statutory framework.
* Introduce a new Pension Schemes Act to strengthen members' rights in occupational pension schemes, clarify the role of trustees, and give members a right to equal representation, through their trade unions, on controlling bodies of the schemes.
* Set up a tripartite investment monitoring agency to advise trustees and encourage improvements in investment practices and strategies.

We expect the major clearing banks to co-operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers' deposits.

Funny to see "New Labour" Brown and Darling going beyond "Old Labour" Michael Foot and Denis Healey in terms of nationalising the banks, eh? If only it had happened sooner . . . !

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.