Securing a legacy for Michael Foot

February 18, 2012 3:30 pm

It’s almost two years since former Labour leader and writer Michael Foot died. It seems relevant to question his political legacy for both current and future generations. One cannot see many existing members of the current Shadow Cabinet as representing a clear connection with the politics he advocated. The great Tribune carries the torch and is surviving a financial crisis. It’s in the process of becoming a co-operative. I’m sure Foot would have approved.

Michael Foot is well recognised as a libertarian socialist. But perhaps people miss another, more important aspect to his philosophy. He was a humanist. As an essay writer and biographer, his portraits have coloured perceptions, of events and people. Foot’s legacy is probably better represented now within the UK’s literary culture, within the arts, than within politics itself. Yet because he had humanism as his starting point, there is reason to believe that eventually, he will return to political fashion both for the political values he represented, his integrity and his uncompromising and logical approach to human rights and civil liberties.

In the current situation, people are asking where Labour’s moral outrage is. We have a government inflicting marketisation across a range of government services, privatising the education services by the back door and increasingly punishing the growing number of unemployed by forcing them into unpaid labour. It’s a world where the Thatcherite settlement, with public services provided for profit, is writ in stone. The sense of righteous anger at social injustices, at the deprivation arising from poverty and homelessness, is only partially, if at all, represented by the official opposition. Eventually the response must come, to speak for the dispossessed, for the people, and it will be the ceaseless campaigning of Michael Foot, not his successors, that may prove the model for a new axis of popular resistance against Britain’s renewed, and apparently immovable, Thatcherite legacy.

The irony is perhaps that despite being an atheist, Michael Foot provides possibly the best example of what a Christian Socialist politician might look like. His lack of sanctimony and his own indiscretions – his realism, or even cynicism – only added to this. As some people have said, he came to represent Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ He gave Labour politics a sense of the ‘sacred’ alongside that of the ‘profane’ and defined this according to his interpretation of Bevanite socialism, which was always a hybrid of practical politicking and visionary intent. The practicalities of being an Employment Minister in the 1970s were about as rough of politics gets. He became all too aware of the cruel ironies of office, overseeing the closure of factories in his home constituency, in the absence of workable alternatives. Yet this drove him forwards into trying to realise his social goals in more universal ways. The appeal of Michael Foot did not lie in his sanctification, it was his presence in politics as a rare breed of philosopher. A genuine political guru, yet one who was modest enough to appreciate and recognise that his political platform depended upon the voluntary involvement of working people.

It’s not really clear it that many Labour MPs or leadership figures actually like, or understand, most of their electorate, preferring to see the population through the prism of the mass media in order, sometimes, to justify authoritarianism. Michael Foot was not of the working class. He was somebody who tried to understand the working class, and came to understand – somewhat wearily, perhaps – that there were limitations to both working-class political aims and the possibilities to realise these. The era of mass suffrage had not led to continued development of class consciousness, in the Marxist sense. The parameters in which Labour operated – these buffers of reality – were provided by capitalism itself, increasingly maintained by both consumerism and the intensity of media-driven modes of production. As Foot was all too aware, Labour is both a diversion of Socialist aspirations, a trap, and yet simultaneously the main outlet for Socialist aspirations.

By the time he became leader, Foot was one of the last of the Bevanites still active in UK politics. It wasn’t meant to be like that. In the 1950s, he was the literary part of a bright team including Bevan himself, Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson, Jennie Lee, Richard Crossman, Ian Mikardo and others. Foot reached the summit, yet the generation around him weren’t there to help, making him exposed to attacks from his own party and others. Perhaps significantly, Michael Foot was the last English leader of the party until Ed Miliband’s victory, and despite his belief in nuclear disarmament he was always a man from the military town of Plymouth, underpinning his support for what he considered just wars in Bosnia and the Falklands. We can argue about the details of the 1983 manifesto. But we cannot argue that in cultural terms, Foot was an irreplaceable figure, a true heavyweight. No leader since has come close to his levels of social understanding and critical perception – not the hard left, soft left or post-Blairite right of the party. He had many friends who were musicians, artists, writers and thinkers. Perhaps more importantly, he represented a bridge between the post-war Labour Party and the generation that came of age during the 1960s. Almost alone among Labour leaders in history, Michael Foot was cool.

Tendencies towards media-driven politics, with communication, projection and mass-manipulation as the standard political toolset, combined with a continued obsession with consumerism, have continued to encroach upon political life. No-one wants to repeat the 1983 election result. But this is not the point. The symbolic figure of Michael Foot has to be the closest symbol Labour has, to imagining that another world is possible. The fact that somebody like him was a minister, let alone a leader, looks incredible in today’s political climate. Labour allows itself still to governed by the fear of a repeat of 1983, inhibiting it in openly questioning or fundamentally correcting the current flawed basis of the political economy. Labour is reduced to looking for space provided by the Conservatives overreaching themselves, or acting with arrogance and stupidity. Given that the Tories are what they are, this may provide enough fuel to win an election, yet doing so will further expose any failure to address more fundamental questions as to what comprises prosperity and democracy in the early 21st century.

Politics is increasingly defined by the ‘pseudo-sacred’. Talk of goodness and fairness belies the fundamental vacuum within a mainstream politics mostly devoid of ideology; whilst also increasingly short of technical know-how and genuine grasp of core issues. Politicians increasingly fail at being technocrats whilst lacking the bravery to pursue ideological ends. The Left are caught in a Catch-22 where there isn’t enough activity in the party to attract left-wingers, thereby ensuring that left-wingers remain marginal and unable to truly influence Labour. Further organisation is needed to create a cultural and political alliance which can begin to realise a renewed version of Michael Foot’s aspirations as a politician. A Michael Foot Foundation could work to restore the concepts of liberty and humanism to the core of Labour’s mission. It should also include those who are not currently party members, as we cannot assume that Labour’s legacy is attractive to everyone who wishes to see greater social justice.

Such a foundation would be a great way to honour his legacy by supporting, for example, the annual publication of a collection of essays and prose from promising writers.

  • Robert_Crosby

    This article says a lot about how I feel about senior (mainly Westminster) Labour politicians right now.  I’ve been a Party member since 1983 (when I was 15).  Michael Foot was a great man with principles, beliefs and high standards of personal integrity.  Simailrly, I have a lot of time for Gordon Brown (funny how the story about HIS earnings since the election disappeared once it was understood that he hasn’t profited at all from them).  Where are the worthy successors?

    • AlanGiles

      Yes I agree about Michael Foot. He was a man of integrity – and a man of letters. You cannot imagine him churning out Poundland fodder like “A Journey”, or that disgraceful 2006 volume of self-pitying diaries like Blunkett.

      I think an annual anthology of essays would be a marvellous way to commemorate him

    • treborc

       I see so sitting at home picking up a wage he’s not earning is ok

      • Robert_Crosby

        Well, I’m waiting for someone to actually provide some evidence to substantiate that statement.  Every Prime Minister (and most Leaders of the Opposition for that matter) I can remember from Wilson onwards has had a low-key presence (in Blair’s case, that was obviously non-existent) once they’ve stepped down – including Thatcher.  Heath was the only example to the contrary and seemed hell-bent on settling old scores inside the Tory Party.  If there’s hard evidence that Brown isn’t doing his workload as an MP (and that doesn’t just mean Commons speeches), then let’s hear it.

        • derek

          Robert, GB would have stood down a while back, problem is the london brigade don’t want GB to stand down because labour would probably lose the fife seat to the SNP. 

          • Robert_Crosby

            I’m not at all convinced by that.  He’s got a thumping majority that others all around the country can only dream of – and Salmond’s goose is almost certainly cooking now too.  

            If Labour ‘strategists’ really feel that they will be hard pressed to defend Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, then it says much more about their “compulsive triangulist” mentality and the fact that they don’t know how to fight these days than it does anything about Brown.

            I expect Brown will stand down at the next election anyway… as most would have expected any former Prime Minister to do before Balir decided to resign his seat as well?

          • derek

            I agree with most of that Robert, At the GE of 2010 most Scots voted against conservatism and an alternative to cuts.

            The Scottish labour party is in a real mess Robert, Cameron is more popular than Ed up here and the conservatives have only one MP in Scotland, for sure the days of labour seats being certain are gone, the last MP to be elected in Scotland (Inverclyde) won on the alternative message, labour has surrendered that message, unless there is some drastic turn around labour will lose most if not all labour MP’s in Scotland.

          • Robert_Crosby

            These aren’t good times, Derek, it’s true.  I usually argue (with anyone who’s prepared to listen!) that Labour’s corrosive obsession with Gould-inspired focus groups and ‘triangulation’ is now its undoing.  Taking just one example (I know we could pick on many), Labour’s policy is supposed to be one of opposition to Gove’s academy schools – and yet we are seemingly ashamed to argue the case.  The Anti Academies Alliance is largely populated by good, decent and far from extreme LP members and supporters.  
            Miliband and CO said several months ago that “we can’t just expect the electorate to deliver victory into our laps” at the next election.  The apparent abandonment of the alternative that we all voted for suggests that that is exactly their strategy now?

  • Franwhi

    Along with Tony Benn he is one of my all time Labour heoes. As that generation slip into history who will replace them ?

    Maybe we could have an award for young left wing champions – I’d vote for Owen Jones  

  • Robert_Crosby

    Well, I’m waiting for someone to actually provide some evidence to substantiate that statement.  Every Prime Minister (and most Leaders of the Opposition for that matter) I can remember from Wilson onwards has had a low-key presence (in Blair’s case, that was obviously non-existent) once they’ve stepped down – including Thatcher.  Heath was the only example to the contrary and seemed hell-bent on settling old scores inside the Tory Party.  If there’s hard evidence that Brown isn’t doing his workload as an MP (and that doesn’t just mean Commons speeches), then let’s hear it.

  • M Cannon

    Mr Foot lives on in Mr Ed Miliband, himself the product of the left-wing intelligensia and another born winner!

  • Chas999
    • No

       You’re a coward. And so is Moore, for writing this about someone unable to defend himself, and basing it on verbal evidence from a man who has consistently lied and exaggerated to inflate his own importance.

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