Michael Foot: A Life, by Kenneth O Morgan, Harper Collins, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-007178261
Kenneth O Morgan has written extensively on twentieth century British history, mainly on Labour and on Wales. The Welsh connection is relevant because Foot, though Morgan stresses his credentials as part of a distinctly English tradition, was Aneurin Bevan’s successor in the Welsh constituency of Ebbw Vale, the basis of what is now Blaenau Gwent. Morgan has already covered the period of Foot’s career separately in his book The People’s Peace – 1945-1989 (Oxford University Press, 1990).
He is a friend of Michael Foot’s and Foot invited him to write the book, so this is in a sense an official biography. He gives reasons why he might have been an unsuitable choice, including some political disagreements with his subject, and adds modestly: “I have always been a historian rather than a biographer; only six of my books have been biographies.”
“This book has been great fun to write,” he says, and this seems to have been mainly due to the interviews with Foot himself, which are a major source. He has also extensively interviewed people who worked with Foot, notably the civil servants and political staff of his period in office in the 1970s, who all emphasise that while he was very demanding, working for him was enjoyable. There is much emphasis on his sociability, his loyalty to his friends, the hospitality of his house in Hampstead, the conversations with Eric Hobsbawm on the Number 24 bus and on the conviviality of his table in The Gay Hussar in Soho, his favourite restaurant.
Foot did not always have this reputation for being nice, nor does it quite fit with his self-image as jagged-edge rebel. He became generally known to the public through a very early television chat show – if that is the appropriate term – started in 1950 and called In The News; Foot was “much the least popular of the four regular team members with the viewers”, apparently because of his dogmatic, finger-jabbing style. The BBC considered sacking him but was dissuaded when his friend AJP Taylor threatened to quit in solidarity. Foot’s first major contribution to political life was as part-author of the pamphlet Guilty Men, denouncing the supporters of Chamberlain who remained in government in 1940 after Churchill had taken over as prime minister. Morgan, who speaks highly of it (“the greatest radical tract since the time of Wilkes”), describes the work as “uninhibited venom”; and there is, perhaps, something not quite nice about a man who could use the pseudonym “Saint-Just” – the beautiful young man who was reputedly the most bloodthirsty of the leaders of the Jacobins at the height of the Terror. It is difficult to know why, given that choice of pseudonym, Morgan should think he would mind being compared to Robespierre.
Morgan suggests that his character began to improve after a motor accident in October 1963, when he also gave up smoking – his long life is quite an achievement for a man who smoked up to seventy Woodbines a day. But even before then we have glimpses of a generous and chivalrous spirit. For example, during the campaign he fought in Plymouth Devonport in 1950, he and his wife had to look after the rival candidate Randolph Churchill, sober him up and see him on his train after he had been abandoned by his own party activists (the source of the story is Foot himself and we are not told how often it happened).
I have begun by evoking Foot’s likeability, and the fact that Morgan obviously likes him, because the book is, on the whole, in the nicest possible way a devastating critique of his political career. Sometimes in the generally well-disposed body of the text something resembling a cloven hoof appears, as when he says of a group of old supporters of Aneurin Bevan – Foot, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle – who joined together against Britain’s entry into the European Common Market – that they were “resolute for a better yesterday”. Or later, writing of the great confrontation between Foot and Tony Benn in the 1980s: “as exponents of socialist thinking neither Foot nor Benn is significant”.
But his final chapter, “Envoi: Toujours l’audace”, is a more or less open assault on the inconsistency and often irrelevance of Foot’s thought:
In the later 1940s, for instance, he favoured a wages policy and a federal Europe, both of which he vehemently resisted as a minister in the 1970s …
Foot did not seriously engage with the major debates when the original impetus of the Attlee government’s programme slackened after 1951. Bevanism was doctrinally repetitive. There is no Foot critique of [Anthony] Crosland’s The Future of Socialism – the powerful revisionist view that public ownership was largely irrelevant in a transformed capitalism where management had superseded ownership, and that socialism was now “about equality”. Education and the argument for comprehensive schools, for instance, never seemed to be a topic of great interest to Foot …
His election campaign in 1983 seemed a repetition of the old tunes of forty years earlier. Newer themes, like the environment or globalisation, seldom emerged …
His broad lack of interest in economics at any stage of his career was a major factor: perhaps a deep, abiding suspicion of capitalism in any form, and hatred of its instruments within a global economy, made him reluctant to turn his mind to discussing fundamental economic principles. It is doubtful if he really understood them …
His inability to contribute to economic debates on international development, trade and Third World indebtedness curbed his effectiveness. Such matters did not seem to engage him. Also, his inattention to detail in analysing the machinery of government did not encourage enquiry on his part into how the apparatus of socialist planning might actually work …
He had surprisingly little to say about workers’ control or industrial democratisation, down to the 1976 Bullock Report …
Foot’s political legacy was an evanescent one. There was no more eager champion of causes that were irretrievably lost …
So what else is there? Earlier Morgan has told us: “Even more than his opposition to the bomb, anti-Europeanism was his most strongly held political position.” But he also tells us that during the period when Labour was in government, in the 1960s and 1970s, Foot’s opposition to the bomb was “the dog that did not bark”. He did not raise it, even when Trident and the stationing of Cruise missiles were under discussion in the last days of the Callaghan government, of which he was a member. In 1982, however, as leader of the Labour Party in opposition, he turned up at Christmas with presents for the women protesting against Cruise missiles on Greenham Common.
As for anti-Europeanism, we have seen that in the 1940s he had been in favour of a federal Europe, which he had seen as a possible third force independent of both the USA and USSR. At the time, of course, the European economy, and the British economy with it, were, or appeared to be, heavily reliant on American aid – the main preoccupation of Ernest Bevin’s policy as foreign secretary. Foot argued the case against Bevin in a pamphlet produced with a group that also included Mikardo and Richard Crossman called Keep Left (1947). Morgan misses a trick when he fails to mention the reply, Cards on the Table, published by Transport House, defending Bevin’s policy. It was written by Denis Healey, a political rival to Foot all his life who eventually served as his deputy leader in 1981-3.
Foot, then, was originally pro-Europe and was even disciplined by Transport House in 1948 for attending the founding conference of the Council of Europe at the Hague (the Labour government subsequently, in 1949, succeeded in greatly weakening the council’s potential as a vehicle for European union). But more significantly, given the intensity of his anti-Europeanism in the 1960s and 1970s, he reverted to a pro-European position in the 1990s: “His old Euroscepticism was given a decent unchristian burial.” By this time, of course, he was an old man, but a very active old man, still producing books and arguing the case for military intervention in Yugoslavia – a subject to which we shall return.
Explaining Foot’s earlier anti-Europeanism, Morgan refers to “cheap food, that great triumph of one of his political heroes, Richard Cobden, in 1846. Free trade had always been a central tenet of Foot in his liberal days and he never forgot it.” The remark is a little mysterious given that as an economic thinker Foot was anything but a free trader. His solutions to Britain’s economic problems were usually, like Tony Benn’s, protectionist. His opposition to the European Common Market was largely based on the perceived need for parliament to maintain the fullest possible control over the British economy.
But Morgan is clearly thinking specifically of free trade in agriculture. The Common Agricultural Policy was designed to protect European agriculture by maintaining price levels against the vagaries of the market. In England, however (and we are talking about a specifically English – not a Welsh, Irish or Scottish – trait), the triumph of the radicals typified by Richard Cobden had been the triumph of the industrial sector over the agricultural, of town over country. The priority was not to preserve a local agricultural capacity but to be able to import food, together with raw materials for industry, at the lowest possible price, and in the century following the triumph of Cobden this was effected under the empire.
There was, then, a tension in Britain between the immediate practical interests of the British working class (cheap food and raw materials) and the larger internationalist and anti-imperialist vision associated with socialism. The point is illustrated in the case of two countries apparently dear to Foot’s heart – Ireland and India, both of them compelled to export cheap food to England at times when their own populations were undergoing famine. Foot’s enthusiasm for the triumph of Richard Cobden in 1846, during the Irish famine, might give an Irish reader pause for thought. Had he been a more methodical moral or philosophical thinker than he was it is a problem that might have featured more prominently in his biography. Although Foot’s political rhetoric was the rhetoric of socialism as a total worldview, there can be no doubt that, as Morgan says, the moral world he inhabited was largely that of nineteenth century liberalism.
His father, Isaac Foot, a successful solicitor, had been briefly involved in HM Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, the beginnings of Marxism in Britain, but had gone over to the Liberals after the 1906 election. He was later mayor of Plymouth and Liberal MP for Bodmin, becoming minister of mines in the National Government – the coalition formed by Ramsay MacDonald, provoking a revolt within his own Labour Party in 1931.
Despite his self-image as a rebel, Michael Foot never seems to have strayed very far from the central preoccupations of his father. Of course he passed from Liberal to Labour but this was quite a normal development in the Liberal politics of the time and Isaac seems to have looked upon it benignly. Morgan does say that, while still a Liberal, Michael supported Lloyd George, who led a small group of Liberal MPs that refused to join the National Government. It is possible that there is something here that runs deep, given Foot’s abiding suspicion of coalition government. If so, Morgan does not draw it out. What is certain is that Foot’s pantheon of heroes, frequently evoked by Morgan, was inherited almost entire from his father, chief among them Oliver Cromwell. Foot’s brother Dingle tells us that there were at least twenty busts of Oliver Cromwell in the family home. In 1941, as a contribution to the British war effort, Isaac published a collection of stirring addresses under the title Cromwell Speaks! Michael Foot frequently evokes Cromwell and was a vice-president, as was his brother John, of the Cromwell Association. Another characteristic that might give Irish readers pause for thought.
As Morgan says: “Inspired always by his father Isaac, he generated for himself a unique cultural genealogy, pivoting on Swift, the déclassé outsider who dished Marlborough and the Whigs, but going back to Montaigne and then moving onwards to Hazlitt, Byron, Heine and H.G. Wells, with Orwell and [the Italian writer Ignazio] Silone as more contemporary exhibits.”
The great majority of Foot’s books are focused on personalities rather than political topics and of his major personal studies only the biography of Aneurin Bevan is sharply focused on the socialist tradition. The Bevan biography is undoubtedly Foot’s most important contribution to political literature and it is written with a fairly clear political purpose. Nye Bevan stands as the incorruptible socialist tribune facing a succession of compromisers, appeasers and pragmatists, who include Ernest Bevin, Arthur Deakin (Bevin’s successor as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union) and Hugh Gaitskell. This is why we could have done with more about the relations between Foot and Denis Healey – the former communist turned Gaitskellite who eventually found himself standing with Foot in opposition to the rank and file revolt led by Tony Benn.
Morgan, professional historian that he is, is sceptical about the Bevan biography: “It is a polemic, and hopelessly one-sided.” He recommends John Campbell’s later biography as a more balanced account and suggests that the line between Bevan and Bevin was not as clearcut as Foot would have us believe. Bevan, he says, was willing to work under Gaitskell. He was “a kind of more ideological Ernie Bevin. But this could not be gleaned by reading Foot’s account.” Foot’s polemic did, however, have a clear political purpose which I would regard – and I suspect, reading between the lines, that Morgan would agree – as positively harmful to the intellectual wellbeing of the British Labour tradition.
Most obviously, it had the effect, which Bevan certainly would not have wished, of discrediting Bevin. Ernest Bevin, as the creator of the TGWU and through his work as minister of labour, when he largely organised the internal life of the country during the war, helped to prepare the way for the radical achievements of the Labour government after 1945 and then for the years following, dominated by the consensus that went under the name of “Butskellism” – a “centre ground” in politics that was several miles to the left of what goes under the name of centre ground today. Bevan’s role, leaving aside his period in government, was to goad this process along from the left. Foot’s contribution was to aid the process of its destruction, admittedly at a time when preserving it would have been very difficult and would have required the skills of another Bevin. The closest we came to that – and it was not very close – was Edward Heath.
Butskellism, an amalgam of the names of the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, and the leading Tory theorist, RA Butler, reflected a conviction on the part of both Conservative and Labour governments that the most substantial social power in the state was the trade union movement and that the economy had to be organised in the interest of the working class, which meant in the first instance that it had to provide security – security of employment, security of housing and of health and a secure existence outside work. This entailed a sort of class collaboration and as such was painful for a liberal romantic such as Foot, with his head full of John Ball and the peasants’ revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists, whose “eternal enemies were Tories, landlords, generals and industrial capitalists of all descriptions”, to quote Morgan, who calls it a “simple-minded populist picture”. He goes on to say that it “was complicated by other factors, notably a deep patriotic pride in English liberties and institutions”, but this was not, under the circumstances, very helpful.
Butskellism had been rendered relatively easy in the early 1950s by the strength of the British economy in relation to the rest of Europe, but by the time the Labour Party was back in power in the 1960s Britain was under heavy pressure from what another school of economic thought would call the bracing winds of competition. The Butskellite consensus relied on an unwritten agreement that neither side, management or unions, would push too hard. In the more difficult circumstances of the 1960s, however, elements within the trade unions, conscious of their power, were tempted to test the limits of the possible. The management side, at least if my own memory of the period serves me well, were still inhibited.
In these circumstances the unwritten agreement which underpinned Butskellism was breaking up. What was required was to strengthen it with what it still lacked – the force of law. It was in the socialist interest that the state should be able to intervene in industrial relations and that of course was widely recognised outside Britain. The person who understood this most clearly inside Britain was Barbara Castle, an old friend of Foot’s from the days of Stafford Cripps’s Socialist League before the war, who was also, with Foot, among the supporters of Nye Bevan in the 1940s and 50s. The title of her white paper outlining the need for an industrial relations act, In Place of Strife, was a conscious echo of Bevan’s In Place of Fear.
In Place of Strife provoked great opposition from within the trade union movement and, in parliament, from a group that included Michael Foot, which evoked the principle of “free collective bargaining”, which, at the time, seemed to favour labour, which was still the stronger side. But it did not and could not take account of the economy as a whole, which only the government, or possibly the trade union movement considered as a whole – the TUC – could see. Free collective bargaining without state involvement in conditions of straitened resources could only eventually have the effect of setting parts of the working class against each other.
In Place of Strife had been in part a response to the government’s failure to secure a prices and incomes policy, proposed in 1966. Morgan quotes Harold Wilson: “Without an effective policy of this kind there would be literally no other choice than to restrict the level of jobs to that at which workers will not ask for wage increases or, if they did so ask, employers would not be able to pay them.” Those of us who lived through the period of wage-push inflation in the 1970s followed by the unemployment-generating efficiency drive of the Thatcher years will read that as a prophecy.
Morgan, from what I have called a broadly “Butskellite” political perspective, which I share, disapproves of Foot’s opposition to the principles of incomes policy and industrial relations law. He also, in a passage I have already quoted, expresses surprise at his lack of interest in the third pillar of what might have been a viable socialist policy for the 1970s: “He had surprisingly little to say about workers’ control or industrial democratisation, down to the 1976 Bullock Report.” In fact he tells us that Foot, in cabinet in 1975, opposed the setting up of a commission of inquiry into the question of industrial democracy. The commission was chaired by Sir Alan Bullock, author of the great biography of Ernest Bevin.
The Bullock Report was in the event torpedoed by the opposition of the unions themselves and their supporters in parliament, despite the enthusiasm of Jack Jones, Foot’s best friend among the trade union leadership. Notwithstanding Jones’s position, Foot had recognised from the start that the unions would oppose industrial democracy. Had they been willing to endorse it it would have signalled a huge shift in British working class culture – a willingness to face up to and assume responsibility for helping to resolve the problems of management. There was much sneering at the time at the worker participation schemes set up in Germany after the war. But the British working class is now living under the domination of a completely unrestrained managerial class and the situation of German workers does not look too bad by comparison.
As minister of employment in the 1970s Foot’s main task was to dismantle the industrial relations legislation imposed – along lines not dissimilar from Barbara Castle’s – by Edward Heath. But he knew as well as anyone that some form of incomes restraint was necessary. The hope was that by strengthening the hand of the unions in free collective bargaining the government could persuade them, out of gratitude, to restrain themselves voluntarily. It was a rather forlorn hope but we can take Morgan’s word for it that the surprising extent to which it did succeed was largely down to Michael Foot. Eventually, however, the government was forced to introduce an incomes policy with an element of compulsion. Foot defended this at party conference with one of his most famous speeches, quoting Joseph Conrad on the need to face typhoons frontally and evoking “the red flame of socialist courage”. Barbara Castle tells us that she was almost reduced to tears by its “emotional voltage”. She may have had another reason. Had it been made a few years earlier it might have saved the British labour movement.
What, then, is left? Desperately casting around for something of lasting substance, Morgan comes up with the following:
His was a deeply principled attachment to parliamentary sovereignty – yet also a romantic conservative one. It was the sovereignty of Parliament, not the defence of socialism, which provided the basis of his passionate opposition to entry into Europe. It was Parliament which provided the framework for his socialism, in opposition to the left-wing extra-parliamentary (or, as he felt, anti-parliamentary) movements like Militant. Parliament was the foundation of the democratic socialism with which he resisted Tony Benn. Parliament should be inviolable as for centuries past …
But here he touches on what is, for me, a raw nerve. In the preface to his book Loyalists and Loners, Foot launches a passionate defence of the British party system. He complains about efforts to justify terrorism in “societies that can truly be called democratic”. Where a parliamentary system with functioning political parties able to compete for government exists there can be no excuse for “the wanton killings of the Bader Meinhof Group or the Sikh extremists or the IRA”.
I was at the time, in the 1970s and 80s, a member of a Marxist group – the small but intellectually very lively British and Irish Communist Organisation. It may have been a bad thing to be a member of a “left-wing extra-parliamentary (or, as he felt, anti-parliamentary)” movement of this sort, but I had a good excuse. I lived in Northern Ireland and was therefore excluded from membership of the Labour Party. Northern Ireland was, like it or not, part of the United Kingdom and at the time it was directly ruled from Westminster. But even when there had been a separate parliament at Stormont it was very much under the control of Westminster, which oversaw the budget.
My government, therefore, was Westminster and the refusal of the Labour Party to organise or contest elections in Northern Ireland meant that I could not join or vote for or against a party of government. That being the case, Northern Ireland, where the IRA was active, was not a society that could “truly be called democratic”. By 1986, when Loyalists and Loners was published, Foot and other members of the Labour leadership had been bombarded with material from our little unparliamentary Marxist group explaining this elementary and obvious principle of parliamentary democracy, yet the point never seems to have got through to him. It might have been explained to him by his friend Enoch Powell, who certainly understood it, but by that time Powell seems to have felt that his loyalty to the provincial Unionist Party was more important than the need to admit the people of Northern Ireland into the wider political system under which they were governed.
That is one point that escapes Morgan’s attention. There are others. I have presented Foot’s biography of Bevan as being in part a polemic against the perceived continuing influence of Ernest Bevin. Foot, and indeed the Labour left in general, seem to have wanted to erase Bevin’s achievement from the historical consciousness of the British labour movement. One element in this was to smear him with the accusation of anti-Semitism because of his policy on Palestine in the period of British withdrawal and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947-8.
Here Morgan appears as a willing collaborator with Foot. He refers to Bevin’s “blatantly anti-Jewish policy in Palestine” and says, without giving a source, that on the British withdrawal “the Foreign Office imagined that the various Arab armies would simply drive the Jews into the sea”. Foot was at the time very sympathetic to Zionism as was, generally, the left of the Labour Party, obviously deeply affected by the sufferings of the Jews in Europe during the war. Foot’s biography of Bevan offers a similar caricature of Bevin’s policy and enthusiastically evokes Bevan’s own enthusiasm for Zionism, including a visit to Israel when he was very impressed by his “young friend” Yigal Allon, later, in the 1960s and 70s a government minister and, briefly, prime minister. (Allon’s earlier activities in organising the destruction of Arab villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants during the period of the Naqba are described in some detail in Ilan Pappe’s recent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.)
Morgan, however, has less excuse than Foot since he is writing after the publication of the third part of Alan Bullock’s biography of Ernest Bevin, which describes the evolution of his Palestine policy in detail. Very briefly, Bevin knew what was obvious to anyone who gave the matter any thought (yet rarely stated out loud) that a secure Jewish state could not be created in Palestine without a large-scale displacement of the native Arab population. It was not just a matter of numbers, though even a large-scale immigration of displaced persons from Europe would still leave a substantial Arab population in any area big enough to allow for a viable state – never mind the full territory of mandate Palestine, which the Zionists were demanding. As things stood most of the land in any conceivable Jewish state would still be occupied by Arabs. This was well understood by the Zionists and they knew it would necessitate a military conflict. Pappe shows that they were initially nonplussed by the apparent reluctance of the Arab population to fight.
As for military prowess and the idea that the foreign office expected the Jews to be pushed into the sea, all the intelligence Bevin was receiving, including indications from the Zionists themselves, suggested that the advantage lay with the Jews. The major force on the Arab side was the Arab Legion, based in Jordan, but it was under British leadership and control and confined itself to preserving the West Bank, the area that interested the British-oriented Jordanian king Abdullah. The self-confidence of the Jewish paramilitary forces was shown by their eagerness to secure a British withdrawal, clearing the way for a direct confrontation with the Arabs.
Bevin tried to find a solution that would have prevented the ethnic cleansing of Palestine – essentially a binational single state. When he failed – and he got no support from the Arabs themselves, unwilling to give the Jews any special legal status in the area – he washed his hands of the matter, handing responsibility over to the fledgling United Nations without any British recommendation as to the policy to be adopted. He could indeed be criticised for failing to provide for the protection of the Arabs and especially for allowing the British army to stand by looking on when the ethnic cleansing began. But instead he was widely reviled as an anti-Semite continuing the policy of the Nazis. (When he went to New York the dockers refused to handle his baggage and he was booed when his presence was announced at a football match.) This was not a pleasant situation to be in in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It also brought the risk of a major confrontation with the United States when alliance with the US was the cornerstone of his European policy.
Morgan tells us that Foot later on, in the 1970s, began to question his support for Israel, to follow his fellow Tribune contributors and to feel that the Israelis had spoiled their own case. He objected to the Israeli occupation and settlement in the West Bank, though it not obvious why this was worse than what was done in 1948, apart from the fact that in 1948 Israel had a “left-wing” image while throughout the 1970s it was increasingly dominated by the “right-wing” Likud party. Morgan comments, a little naively, that Israel’s West Bank policy was “only beginning to be reversed in 2006”.
Another area in which Morgan and Foot are in agreement on what seems to me a simplistic view of foreign affairs is the breakup of Yugoslavia. Foot and his wife, the filmmaker Jill Craigie, visited Dubrovnik, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, in 1981 and fell in love with it, as they had previously fallen in love with Venice. They were naturally horrified by the siege and shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991-2. They saw the break-up of Yugoslavia through Croatian eyes and blamed the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic for all the wars which accompanied it.
Curiously, one of their great friends was Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a beautifully written but very pro-Serb view of Yugoslavia published in 1942 at a time when British sympathies were still very much with the anti-German Serbs. Morgan refers briefly to West but does not engage at all with the main thrust of her argument. Anyone reading her, however, would have known that Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were bound to resist incorporation into any independent Croatian or Bosnian state. And the book was based on her travels in 1937 before the persecutions that the Serbs suffered in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the war.
Very broadly, the Serbs, spread throughout the whole territory, had an interest in the unity of Yugoslavia, while other peoples – most obviously the Slovenes and Croats – had an interest in increased local autonomy. The tension between these two positions was well-established and informed the whole period of the Tito dictatorship. It was democracy that blew the system apart – and Serbia was a democratic country under Milosevic, with elections which were always problematic for him. The Kosovan Albanians had the vote along with everyone else but chose not to exercise it. Here, as so often, Foot, putting everything down to the personal wickedness of Slobodan Milosevic, was using all his impressive moral fervour to promote a dangerously oversimplified view of the world. In one of the essays in Loyalists and Loners, he expresses great contempt for David Owen. But Owen’s Balkan Odyssey is a much more interesting account of the Yugoslav conflict than anything Foot ever wrote, and much more informative on the role of Milosevic. Owen eventually, very belatedly, came to recognise what should have been seen at the outset, that the break-up of Yugoslavia required a preferably negotiated redrawing of its internal boundaries.
“Without Foot … there could have been no Tony Blair.” Morgan’s remark is obviously a little double-edged but insofar as it can be read as a compliment it means that without Foot the Labour Party would not have survived as a body capable of returning to power in 1997. This is indeed probably Foot’s most substantial contribution to British political history: he saw off the challenge posed by Tony Benn, who wanted Labour’s elected representatives to be strictly bound to the wishes of the party rank and file in the constituency Labour parties and as expressed in the resolutions of the annual party conference.
Had Benn succeeded he might indeed have brought about the final demise of the Labour Party, reducing it to the status of a narrow little left-wing sect. But one can never be sure. It could also have resulted in an enormous boost to popular participation, as people – not all of them Trotskyite entryists – would have felt that by joining a political party they could have some personal influence on national politics. As it is, the opposite has happened. Inner party democracy has been completely hollowed out and the parliamentary party is under no popular pressure at all other than from its own understanding of opinion polls and the views of the popular newspapers.
In these circumstances “New Labour” has broadly accepted the Thatcherite view that the economy should be dynamic and competitive and that the necessary condition for this is insecurity within the working class. This may not be as incompatible with Foot’s legacy as it might appear. His socialism, as we have seen, was underpinned by a solid grounding in the free market radicalism of the nineteenth century. Bevan said of him: “Deep down, Michael is still a liberal.” Morgan comments that his true cultural habitat (like Tony Benn’s, he thinks) was the French Enlightenment. He was Voltaire to Benn’s Rousseau.
In sum, he was an individualist: hence his insistence on the rights of individual MPs and his (in my view very honourable) defence of Enoch Powell. It is difficult to identify a leading idea running through Foot’s whole career, but one possible candidate might be opposition to “corporatism”, the charge (with its associations of fascism) brought against Bevin in the 1940s and Heath in the 1970s. Heath had actually proposed that the economy could be run corporately by the government, the TUC and the CBI working together on the basis of a clearly established legal framework. It may be that what Foot disliked most about such a corporate arrangement was first its entrenchment of management as a legitimate corporate interest, but more instinctively perhaps its probable dullness – the emphasis on security, stability, the safe pair of hands. This may also have informed his hostility to communism in Eastern Europe. Now that we are experiencing a dynamic economy generating insecurity, especially insecurity of employment, everyday dull security is beginning to look more attractive as a political ideal.
Morgan tells us that Foot was quite comfortable with Tony Blair and with the victories of New Labour until the Iraq war in 2003. It is not easy to see why, after supporting the illegal war on Serbia he should feel so strongly about the illegal war on Iraq, especially since I see no sign that he opposed the destruction of Iraq’s civil infrastructure in 1991 or the subsequent United Nations-imposed sanctions which prevented rebuilding and gradually destroyed what there was of a modern, organised civil society. 2003 merely finished the process off by destroying the state (a state structure which preceded the period of Baathist domination and had maintained a large degree of national unity through successive putsches, war and the deliberately induced famine of the United Nations embargo). But perhaps Foot just found the crowds and the banners and the excitement of it all irresistible. Once again things were simple and clearcut. The forces of good were ranged against the forces of evil. The Liberty Tree was once again raised.
Significantly, among the very few mainstream politicians who opposed the war from its beginnings in 1990-91 – the moment when the post-Soviet New World Order had been announced – were the Butskellites, Foot’s old adversaries, Edward Heath and Denis Healey, who were to my mind, much more than Michael Foot, the true representatives of a better era in British politics.
Peter Brooke is the author of Ulster Presbyterianism, The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, Athol Books, Belfast, and of an account of the life and thought of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, For and Against the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, London and New Haven.