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Michael Foot vs the New Statesman

In 1978 the New Statesman reprinted extracts from a 1968 speech by the Labour MP. A war of words ensued in the magazine’s correspondence pages the following week.

The New Statesman

6 October 1978

Extracts from a speech by Mr Michael Foot, MP at the Labour party conference in 1968:

"The best socialist way to pay this country's debts, to make us independent, is to plan for full national production, and we are not doing that now. The deliberate policy of the Government is not to plan for full national production, and that is why the unemployment figures stand up at the high total they do at the present time. (Note: they were about 500,000. The Government of which Mr Foot is now a pillar is presiding over unemployment of 1.4 million.)

"I say as a socialist, we are not prepared to tolerate the scourge of unemployment at the rate we have had it over these years. (Applause.)

"We are not prepared to tolerate it for socialist and economic reasons, particularly when some of the fiercest burden falls on areas that have to bear the heaviest burden of industrial change at the same time.

"There are some people who are against full employment, against planning for full production, who openly say they want a large margin of unused resources. Those are the words of the Governor of the Bank of England, never repudiated by the members of the Government. (Applause.) . . .

"Governments must choose . . . between an old, orthodox deflationary policy and an updated, full employment, socialist policy. All the humiliations and indignities that we have had to suffer during these years - the prescription charges, the cuts in school milk, the compulsory wages policy in defiance of all the pledges we were given - derive from the Government's apparent settled determination to pursue that old, orthodox, conservative financial policy . . .

"What we have to do is readopt the socialist policies . . . which can most quickly make this country independent, reinvigorate our movement and enable us to win the next election instead of submitting to the defeatism which is all around us.

"I say we can break out of it, but we will only break out of it if we have faith in our own principles, not in the principles of Edward Heath. (Prolonged applause.)"

13 October 1978

Dear Bruce Page,

Thanks for printing on your front page last week extracts from my 1968 Conference Speech; it offered an improvement, in political and literary standards, on what your readers have had to endure for quite a time.

It is true that the Labour government of that decade had much more room for manoeuvre and action than this one has. First, they had what we have never had since 1974, a full majority in the Commons. However, despite this constraint, we have pushed through a multitude of worthwhile transitional reforms, such as the removal of the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 – with no help from the New Statesman, which urged us, with customary faint-heartedness, to settle for something like the Heath propositions. More serious still are the limitations imposed by our membership of the Common Market. But please don't you have the gall to lecture me on the subject: save your strictures for the New Statesman of only three years back which urged us all to vote "Yes" in the referendum.

Third, and no less significant, this Labour government has had to contend with a worldwide slump, two elements of which are unemployment and inflation. We must defeat inflation if we are to overcome both the old and new brands of unemployment. Many of the required measures have been initiated during the past four years, and many can be carried much further in the next five, provided we get the real majority we need.

So will you, the new editor of a once-great socialist newspaper, assist us in the task? No one will attempt to deny those who have resolved to sustain the government have had many painful choices to make. But the alternative was to run away, to yield to the Thatcher-Keith Joseph counter-revolution. This, I have always believed, would be the real betrayal of those who elected us.

This seems to be the course recommended by Mr Christopher Hitchens who drools a steady flow of malicious tittle-tattle into your columns. May I ask: is he a member of the Labour Party which he so pompously admonishes? Does he still draw fat fees for attacking trade unionists in the Daily Express? Is he one of Paul Johnson's prodigies left behind to serve the Thatcherite cause? Or is he truly what he is alleged to be, a dilettante self-styled Trotskyite, a New Statesman Nigel Dempster, the Socialist Workers' William Hickey? My apologies to Trotsky: nothing so squalid was ever associated before with his great name.

Michael Foot

Christopher Hitchens writes: Mr Foot is entitled to his ad hominem remarks, though to be accused of fakery by him is like being sold hair tonic by a man as bald as an egg.

His comments are free as air, but could I just say that I only once wrote on trade unions for the Express and used the space to defend unofficial strikers against the willingness of union leaders to toe the Healey line. I don't think that paper has run any other articles along those lines – certainly not during the days when Mr Foot was one of Lord Beaverbrook's closest associates and greatest admirers.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism