Ian Aitken looks back on the political career of Michael Foot at the time of the latter’s 80th birthday. Foot was the leader of the Labour Party from 1980-83. His leadership had often been held as the “cause of the disasters that engulfed the Labour Party in the early years of Thatcherism”, culminating with his defeat at the 1983 general election when the party obtained its lowest share of the vote since 1918 and the fewest parliamentary seats since before 1945. Aitken however argues that such takes are “nonsense and cruel nonsense at that”. Instead, he writes, “what doomed Foot’s leadership was not an inherent lack of political ability” but “quite simply, betrayal”. Under Foot in 1981, right-wing members of the party broke away to form the Social Democratic Party, splitting Labour and damaging trust in the party. Aitken argues that the event was also an act of betrayal “by the very people [Foot] could have expected to support him as the most left-wing, democratically minded leader they have ever had, or were ever likely to have”.
It was Michael Foot’s 80th birthday last week, and the occasion was celebrated by his legions of friends and admirers at three utterly contrasting events. Though they took place in the space of five days, their very disparity served perfectly to underline the astonishing range of his interests and attachments in a career that included both the editorship of the Evening Standard and the leadership of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
The first event was at an old-time music hall in Brick Lane, East London, organised by Tribune, the old Bevanite weekly that he once ran. It was a boisterous occasion, as music halls should be with much communal singing of Edwardian ballads. Michael (for who would call him Mister Foot in such circumstances?) even obliged with a couple of cockney songs of his own. Much beer and wine was swilled, and it was clear that no one was enjoying the occasion more than the guest of honour.
The second took place in the very different surroundings of the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre in Mayfair, reflecting Michael’s lifelong connections with India since before independence. It consisted of what was described in the programme as “a conversation” between Michael and a charmingly erudite Indian writer and academic, Maria Couto. The quotation marks are necessary because it quickly became a monologue in which the former Labour leader took his audience on a leisurely stroll round the contents of his remarkable mind.
We had by turns a vigorous defence of Harold Laski, emphasising his share in Indian independence: a powerful appreciation of HN Brailsford; an enthusiastic critique of Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill as historians: an analysis of the romantic poets, with a special place for his Liberal father’s attachment to Wordsworth; his own debt to the libertarian view of that same book loving father: an exposition of Milton’s political thought; an account of the part played by Swift, Burke and Charles James Fox in the birth of anti-imperialism; and, finally, a robust description of the significance of Byron’s Don Juan as a verse history of post-French revolutionary Europe, especially if read in one gulp. It was, in short, an intellectual tour de force.
The third event was a private party given by Jill Foot, Michael’s wife, and is therefore entitled to remain private. But I hope I am not betraying hospitality by revealing that the guest list included politicians, journalists, broadcasters, writers, actors and musicians as well as family and plain old pals. Among them were the present leader of the Labour Party and his immediate predecessor in that impossible office.
It is safe to say that not a single past Labour leader could have matched, let alone surpassed, the sheer breadth of the interests, commitments and scholarship that these three events revealed. Perhaps the only contemporary Labour politician who could give Michael a run for his money as a cultural and historical polymath is, as it happens, the man he beat for the leadership in 1979, Denis Healey.
Yet it is now fashionable not just to denigrate Michael Foot as a politician, but even to mock his intellectual accomplishments, as if they were in some way incompatible with political success and an inevitable cause of failure. His leadership had been held – often by people who ought to know better – to be the cause of the disasters that engulfed the Labour Party in the early years of Thatcherism, culminating in the election loss of 1983.
Yet this is nonsense and cruel nonsense at that. What doomed Foot’s leadership was not an inherent lack of political ability, let alone a self-confessed bibliophile unworldliness. It was quite simply, betrayal – and betrayal by the very people he could have expected to support him as the most left-wing, democratically minded leader they have ever had, or were ever likely to have.
For the essential feature of Foot’s narrow victory over Denis Healey is that the Labour MPs who made the choice under the then rules of the party did so in the firm and sensible belief that he was the only man who could hold the party together. Healey, it is necessary to remind ourselves, had yet to begin that remarkable mellowing process which has since transformed him into a lovable old champagne-swigging raconteur, full of wise saws and Christian forgiveness. On the contrary, he was then at the height of his thuggish powers, and implacably at odds with most of the policies and personalities of the party conference as then constituted. His election as leader would have been a formula for instant and inevitable confrontation.
Did I hear a voice say that such an outcome could scarcely have been worse than what actually did happen? Well, maybe – though I beg leave to doubt it. The reality, however, is that the very people who would have confronted Healey as their natural right-wing enemy if he had been foisted on them by the Parliamentary Labour Party nevertheless proceeded to confront Michael Foot as if he, of all people, were the natural right-wing enemy. And at their head was Michael’s old friend and dining companion, Tony Benn.
To be sure, Comrade Benn has since matched Denis Healey in the business of mellowing, and now appears before us as a kindly Christian socialist whose cabinet diaries are a suitable substitute for bible reading on the BBC. But in those days he was the rampaging leader of a terrifying rabble of Trotskyists, Militants, Livingstoneites, and assorted troublemakers of all kinds, that held virtual control of the party conference and its National Executive Committee.
[See also from the NS archive: CND and the Labour Party]
By the time Foot became leader, Benn had already embarked on his campaign – crusade might be a better word – to “democratise” Labour’s constitution. His aim was not just to end the PLP’s exclusive right to elect party leaders, but to make MPs totally subordinate to the conference and the NEC in the matter of policymaking. Such was the viciousness of this campaign that when an old left-winger like Ian Mikardo sought to achieve a reasonable compromise in one of its aspects, the Bennites voted him off the NEC.
Benn succeeded in achieving the first of his objectives, thus making inevitable the present damaging conflict over OMOV [one member, one vote] and the party’s links with the unions. Thanks partly to Foot, he mercifully failed with the second. Had he succeeded, it is certain that the substantial defection to the breakaway Social Democratic Party, which was the direct result of the row, would have turned into a mass exodus. It might even have led to a unilateral declaration of independence by a substantial section of the PLP.
In the end, Foot saw off Benn, though not without fearful damage to the movement and to himself. But he handed the party on to Neil Kinnock more or less in one piece, and ripe for his successful onslaught on Militant. In the circumstances, it was a near-miracle.
These days, you would hardly know that anyone had actually participated in the crucifixion of Michael Foot. Tony Benn talks mildly about his belief springing from the nonconformist Christianity of his gentle parents. Folk like Chris Mullin, who turned even Michael’s own paper savagely against him, now smile affably and get on with Good Works. Even the saintly Michael seems ready to forgive. I, alas, am not.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).