Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Encountering Michael Foot

I met the veteran British Labour politician, Michael Foot, who died last week at the age of 96, twice, with a spread of twenty years between the two occasions.  The first time I met him was in the Autumn of 1979 a few months after the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had come to power that May.  He was 66 at the time and had broken his ankle.  I remember hobbling up to the urinal next to the one I was using.  I engaged him as best I could while we washed our hands.  He was speaking at a talk on 'Forty Years On' from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, something he had witnessed as an MP and in 1940 had written 'Guilty Men' attacking the appeasers of Hitler. Interestingly he wrote it under the Classical pseudonym Cato and later wrote another book under the name Cassius.  In some ways I feel an affinity with him in terms of the need to protect your private life and especially those you love, when making political points.

The thing about Foot which I was to witness that day was though at times his speeches wandered, they were always engaging and full of life.  He was able to quote extensively and was very adept at using people's own words against them.  On the day of his death I listened to the speech he made in 1979 (in those days there was only radio coverage not television coverage) at the time of the vote of no-confidence in the Labour government of James Callaghan; it was played on the Parliament channel.  It was both funny and poignant in the ideas and challenges it laid out.  I cannot remember when I last enjoyed a political speech so much.

I met Michael Foot again when he was launching 'Dr. Strangelove, I Presume' (1999).  He was standing in Bloomsbury waiting to be collected.  I had seen him at a bus stop in the Charing Cross Road a couple of years earlier.  Despite his age (86 in 1999), he seemed full of energy.  I had once met his doctor who outlined how he walked vigorously across Hampstead Heath.  He had been rejected from volunteering for the army for the Second World War on the grounds of his asthma and he seemed to wear thick glasses all his life.  One might have thought in his late 80s he was going to slow down, but as it turned out he had another entire decade of life ahead of him. 

Anyway, again I had encountered Foot on his way to an event that I was actually attending myself.  I took the opportunity to approach him and recounted how we had met twenty years earlier, though of course he would not have remembered.  The world seemed incredibly different to 1979 to me and I got a bit of a sense of how the full expanse of his life appeared.  The event was a small scale thing and had a kind of collegiate atmosphere.  Some of the audience seemed to presume that his age was making him forgetful and this seemed to be the case when he did not respond to one question.  The same question was asked again and very honestly, he said that he had not responded to it earlier, though he had taken in on board fully, because he had no answer for it.  It was clear that his mind was as sharp as ever.

Michael Foot was an easy focus for ridicule, something that really haunted him when he was leader of the Labour Party, 1980-83.  He was ridiculed for appearing at the Cenotaph in a duffel coat as if it was offensive.  However, in my eyes, it was practical for a man of his age (Thatcher was 54 when she came to office) standing around in November and to some degree the extent of the ridicule suggests that he was still seen as a challenge by the Conservatives.  In her first term of office Thatcher was not as secure as people now assume.  There was uncertainty even within her own party about the direction she was going in, certainly away from the policies of Edward Heath towards an anti-European Community (ironically something she shared in common with Foot), far more pro-America and certainly pro-nuclear policy, backed by New Right monetarist economic policies which were wrecking so much of British industry.  If it had not been for the Falklands Conflict of 1982 and the populist chauvinism that that threw up she would have found it far harder at the 1983 election than she did.  Politics had turned very nasty as seen by the comedian Kenny Everett's (1944-95) call to a baying Conservative crowd to 'kick away Michael Foot's stick!'.  Foot had used a stick to walk since a car accident in 1963.

Neil Kinnock made a very important point last week about Foot's role in keeping the Labour Party alive during the dark days of the Thatcher regime.  The tendency among many Labour supporters in 1979 and beyond was to become more radical and move over to revolutionary politics.  This threatened to remove the Labour Party from the mainstream of British politics, and as we know from the extreme left and extreme right parties, let alone people like the Green Party, such a location means not having representation in the UK parliament.  Thatcher stated that she wanted to move towards a political system like that of the USA with two parties that were pretty close together around a rather right-wing 'centre' and in a television interview said she wanted to see the end of Socialist and semi-Socialist parties (a way she had characterised the Liberal Party on another occasion).  A more radical Labour Party would possibly have allowed her to do that.  However, given the fact that we have the kind of political pattern that Thatcher wished for, circulating around the Thatcherite Consensus with Labour and the Conservatives so close, perhaps the purging of the extremists under Kinnock after he became leader in 1983 might suggest that it meant moving to what Thatcher desired.

Foot's integrity and willingness to embrace challenging, if not utterly radical policies, meant he could not be beaten down by extremists like Militant Tendency, within his own party.  While Labour now might be shorn of true radicalism it is intact and in fact that might be Foot's greatest legacy.  The creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) including disgruntled right-wing Labour MPs in 1981, showed the risks of fragmentation for the Labour Party.  Even if Labour managed to lose the argument for reforming policies the party did not shatter in the way it had after 1931 condemning it to impotence for a decade or the way the Liberal Party did after 1922 leaving it feeble for the rest of the 20th century.  Becoming a number of small differently shaded left-wing parties would have meant no hope for anyone opposed to Thatcher.  Kinnock had a party to take over even if it had to lose a lot of what he and Foot had stood for before it could come back to power, or, perhaps not, given the irregularities of the 1992 election.

Foot was particularly condemned in the 1980s for supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament.  He did this because he had long believed in the immorality of nuclear weapons, but of course there would have been a real economic benefit for the UK if it had given up on nuclear weapons in the 1980s.  The Trident nuclear weapons cost £1 billion per year to keep and the estimated total is £97 billion by the time they will have been scrapped.  To replace them will costs £130 billion.  These are sums which make bailing out the banks look pretty minor.  The Polaris system, that preceded Trident, which the UK bought for £300 million in 1962 (worth around £6 billion at today's values) .  If this money had gone into hospitals or transport or education or power generation, Britain would be in a very different situation to where it is today.  We know that the fear of a Soviet invasion was constantly falsified and certainly from the 1970s onwards the USSR would have found it impossible to invade West Germany even if they had wanted to.  The Soviets had minimal concern about the UK and yet we had to cripple our economy for the sake of a fantasy, making lots of US arms manufacturers very rich in the meantime.  Even President General Dwight Eisenhower (president 1953-61) spoke of the 'military-industrial complex' that was so influential in the USA and clearly in the UK too.  British jobs were not created by the regular purchase of US nuclear weapons.  The current Labour government does not support the abolition of the UK's nuclear weapons, only the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) backs such a policy even though the Cold War has been over for twenty years.
In many ways, however, Foot represented an older generation of politician.  He was probably out of date even in the 1960s when Labour prime minister Harold Wilson had adopted his pipe and raincoat as his trade marks for the television era.  Foot appeared as he was, an ordinary old man of the kind you might see in the post office.  However, the public want someone with a certain style than marks them out from the ordinary; John Major only really succeeded by being painfully ordinary.  For Foot it would always be ideas and good policies that would mark out a politician but the public no longer felt that, for them style was now more important than substance.

Foot was more of the style of the Gladstone era in which long speeches which showed the erudite knowledge of the speaker were the norm and were a kind of entertainment and education as well as stirring.  In the sound bite age, his wandering speeches could not be easily 'chunked' for the short attention span viewers.  His legacy fed into Neil Kinnock, his successor as leader of the Labour Party, who though far younger (41 when he became Labour leader in 1983) did not shake off the lengthy expositions that Foot had favoured.  These men were right, politics is not simple and simplifying it makes policies have a tendency to error.  However, after the 1970s British society was 'tired of politics' and no-one can be bothered to listen to policy outlined, they would rather have emotionally swaying chunks of information that they can be certain are 'true' without analysing them at all.

Foot held fast to the deeply held views he had.  He was not a pragmatist as that would have been to betray his views.  He was a republican (seeking abolition of the monarchy) and was ardently opposed to nuclear weapons at a time when they had been made to seem 'vital' for Britain despite their huge expense and the hazard they presented.  Similarly he believed in a mixed economy, i.e. with state-run and privately-run businesses, which ironically in the era of the enduring Thatcherite consensus fostered by Tony Blair, we have ended back with.  Yet, the 1980s were seemingly all about 'free enterprise', well in fact not really free, just enterprise for the privileged and the already wealthy.  Whilst millions were losing their jobs this fantasy of a society where ordinary people could be rich was sold very successfully to too many voters.  Foot could not have lied to the public that way.  Providing opportunity for all is costly but is morally right.  In that respect, Foot can be seen as contributing to a humanist morality (he was an atheist) something which seems very at odds in the current UK where we have a choice between selfish, (in effect immoral), behaviour fostered by the right and the left seemingly to adhere to a sense that only faiths can supply morality, especially fostered by the Blairite New Labour, though more muted under Gordon Brown.

Michael Foot was a living reminder of a different, moral-based, intellectually-engaging form of politics which we seem so far away from these days even though the extremities of Thatcherism have been curtailed (for now).  One has to admire someone of such ability and conviction and I feel proud that I was able to meet and talk with him on two occasions.

No comments: