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Dream and reality

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Michael Foot
Mervyn Jones
Victor Gollancz £20.00

How did Michael Foot, once champion of parliamentary socialism, become the anti-left bungler ridiculed in the right wing tabloids and denounced by the left as a compromiser?

This book does not really give the answer, because it never asks the question. Jones, a lifelong friend of Foot, seems to have travelled much the same political road, and defends each new twist and turn of Foot’s politics as if there is no serious contradiction involved.

To reach an answer requires understanding the party he dedicated most of his life to. Foot joined the Labour Party at the age of 22 in 1935. He came from a family of radical Liberals and had been in the Liberal Party at Oxford University.

The horrors of 1930s capitalism had a profound impact upon him. In a letter to his mother he defended his break with Liberalism:

‘I have come to the conclusion that in the present circumstances Liberalism offers absolutely no contribution to the problem of poverty which with peace is far and away the most important problem and that socialism is the only solution ... I realise of course that the Labour Party possesses a rotten set of leaders, but as I believe in socialism and still believe in democracy and parliamentary methods I do not think there is any other course but to support the Labour Party in the hope it will improve.’

He threw himself into trying to ‘improve’ Labour and fight its ‘rotten’ leaders immediately, aligning himself with the left.

Foot became one of the left’s most vocal and witty champions. He became editor of Tribune, the paper that was to be the voice of his mentor, Nye Bevan.

Entering parliament in 1945 Foot railed against the dreadful Cold War foreign policy of the Attlee government and stood firmly behind Bevan when he resigned over prescription charges.

On Labour’s fall from power in 1951, Foot fought Attlee’s successor, Hugh Gaitskell, a man on the hard right of the party, a witch hunter and consensus politician every inch of the way.

When Bevan ultimately betrayed the left by opposing unilateral disarmament, Foot stood his ground and stuck to his unilateralist principles.

During Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s Foot rejected overtures to join the cabinet. He opposed the Vietnam War, the arms race, supported workers’ struggles and was a champion of nationalisation.

All this was an unlikely background for a man who was to become a cabinet minister, leader of the House of Commons, and eventually Labour Party leader.

Foot would become one of the chief architects of the social contract, which would knock the stuffing out of a combative working class, leaving it vulnerable to the future Thatcher onslaught. He remained in a government which introduced the monetarist measures which were taken up with gusto by the Thatcherites. As leader he would lead anti-left witch hunts of the sort he had opposed all his political life, devoting his energies to smashing Tony Benn and his supporters, and paving the way for Kinnock’s massive swing to the right.

Crucial to understanding these incredible shifts is Foot’s ultimate belief in Labour, and perhaps more importantly, his slavish devotion to parliament, in particular the British parliament, which he continues to believe is the finest democratic institution in the world.

In the early 1960s, when he fought Gaitskell, Foot pleaded with those beginning to look to extra-parliamentary action not to desert the fight. He pleaded to those in CND who were seeing Labour as a dead end and tearing up their party cards that ‘every resignation from the Labour Party is a victory for Mr Gaitskell, soldier on ... [despite being] sick of the leadership’s arrogant cynicism’.

This politics of necessity doesn’t just wear down principles, it begins to transform them altogether. So Foot, the life long CNDer and ‘inveterate and incurable peacemonger’, ended up making one of the most bellicose and nasty speeches in the initial debate on the Falklands War.

The trappings of parliamentary politics became more powerful than any principle. Foot loved parliament and the cut and thrust of debate among the country’s elite. He respected its ludicrous traditions, its pompous smug public school atmosphere. He gained much of his reputation as an orator by his biting witty parliamentary forays which were full of clever literary and historical allusions. He admired others who could play the game with equal panache.

Hence his attitude towards Enoch Powell. Powell was also noted for the brilliance of his debating style.

But for socialists Powell is much better known as an odious racist who inspired every hardened racist and fascist and gave them the veneer of respectability.

Following his infamous Rivers of Blood speech Powell was ostracised by many Labour MPs, but not Foot who very publicly put his arm around him in the Commons tearoom and asked him how he was.

Of course Foot deplored the speech, but just as easily could separate the great parliamentarian from the wretched racist.

Indeed even in his better days the life Foot led brought him into strange company, for example his friendship with, and willingness to accept patronage from, the right wing press baron Lord Beaverbrook or his friendship with Indira Gandhi.

Foot’s major legacy, however, is the current Labour Party. He began the witch hunt against Militant, which Kinnock followed with such gusto. He began the process of discrediting Tony Benn.

Today’s party of Smith, Brown, and the other grey professional politicians, may not have been the party Foot dreamed of when he joined it aged 22, but it is certainly the party he has helped to create.

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