The Last Labour Adventurer: Remembering Michael Foot

by Binoy Kampmark 06.03.2010

He was called a walking obituary of the British Labour Party more prone to writing suicide notes (in the political sense), than manifestoes for survival. In a sense, Chris Patten had been right when he used that somewhat cruel description of Michael Foot, who was its leader between 1980 and 1983. His passing has brought the last vestige of decent left politics in Britain to a close. From his defeat in 1983, the pulls of modernization, fluffy public relations and cosmetic packaging came to dominate the political landscape. Brilliant orators and literary politicians were less relevant than the slick workings of Saatchi advertising. The romantics and idealists were exiled as suicidal maniacs, and the centre was readied for the New Labour sovereign in the guise of Tony Blair.

The unfortunate demise of Foot the politician should do little to lessen his legacy as orator, writer and activist. His meditations on Keats, Shelley and Byron might have gone down like lead balloons with the electorate and some colleagues, but he would have been nothing without them. After leaving office, such literary loves made him form common ties with notable Tories such as Ian Gilmour, another hatchet victim of the 'serious' side of politics.

He picked the causes that were deemed winnable. He set his heart on unilateral disarmament when others were embracing the lunacy of mutually assured destruction. 'A Britain,' he powerfully exclaimed in 1960, 'which denounced the insanity of nuclear strategy would be in a position to direct its influence at the United Nations and in the world at large, in a manner at present denied us.' It was a move that caused a rift between Foot and the colossus of the Labour movement, Aneurin Bevan. With his writings came a sense of justice, the need for accountability. Already, in 1940, we could see with his anti-appeasement tract Guilty Men, that some causes had to be fought, however unpopular.

He was considered politically destructive, though he had his moments of acumen and some might say, Machiavellian insight. With Labour struggling under Jim Callaghan in the late 1970s, he kept those of the Left and the union movement on side, though at the cost of high wage settlements and galloping inflation. He also nurtured a known association with Lord Beaverbrook. Under Foot's leadership, the party seemed to go into a state of implosion, with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) rupturing the Labour base.

Much was not his own doing. Tony Benn, in some ways similarly quixotic, contended for the mantle of Deputy Leader of the party from Denis Healey in 1981. Then there was General Leopoldo Galtieri, whose invasion of the Falklands to satisfy Argentinean whim invigorated Margaret Thatcher's sense of Britannic purpose. That said, a 1983 platform of unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and re-nationalisation did not go down well with voters battered by Thatcher's handbag economics. With characteristic candour, Foot would admit on looking at the 1983 defeat that the party had not had the necessary 'armour, the strength, and quickness in maneuver, yes, the leadership.'

In a sense, it could not be any other way. Foot was always a touch naughty, and in politics, naughtiness has somehow receded, pasteurized by the publicity goons and human relations geeks. His fondness for Disraeli, that genuinely mischievous Tory, was well documented, and one can only wonder how such a figure might have fared in today's managed political environment. In passing into history, politics has lost a gifted orator and much colour. The dull have triumphed, and not necessarily for the better.

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