Best Foot forward

Michael Foot: A Lifeby Kenneth O. MorganHarperPress £25, 532 pagesFT bookshop price: £20

Michael Foot was first elected to parliament in 1945, the high tide of Labour's fortunes. In his maiden speech, he declared that Britain had something unique to offer the world, its democratic socialist middle way. By the time Foot became Labour's leader in 1980, however, democratic socialism appeared a creed of the past, not the future.

Indeed, as early as 1959, Aneurin Bevan had declared of the British working class: “History gave them the chance and they didn't take it. Now it is probably too late.” Perhaps, however, the British working class never wanted to take the “chance” that Labour offered them. The story of Foot's life is thus a story of failure, not only of a man but of a creed. The trouble is that it has been told by someone who, in part at least, still believes in it.

Kenneth Morgan, historian of the Attlee government and biographer of James Callaghan, old Labour's final prime minister, sits on the Labour benches in the Lords. He is at pains to disown the sobriquet “laureate of old Labour” that has been bestowed upon him. Nevertheless, he shared Foot's belief that, over the years, the advance of democratic socialism would prove inexorable.

Like all of Morgan's books, Michael Foot: A Life, is a thoroughly professional piece of history, beautifully written, and with facts and arguments skillfully assembled. Its somewhat old- fashioned social democratic partiality is disarming since it is never concealed. Moreover, Morgan has done his best to find out what made Foot tick, though perhaps there is not much to find out. Pre-publication leaks have highlighted Foot's extra-marital affair with a young black woman in the early 1970s. But those looking for sex would do better to turn to Duff Cooper, the diplomat, Conservative politician and author, whose diaries are now available in paperback. Tories, after all, seem to be better at this sort of thing than socialists. Still, one cannot help reflecting that Foot would have done less damage had he confined his energies to the bedroom instead of going into politics.

The biography both benefits and suffers from long conversations with its subject. In painting Foot as a saintly libertarian, Morgan takes him too much at his own valuation. Like his hero Aneurin Bevan, Foot certainly claimed to be a libertarian socialist, opposed both to Soviet communism and to the bureaucratic centralism that he saw as characteristic of the Attlee era. As a backbench rebel, Foot was indeed a libertarian, calling for free debate in Parliament, and an end to intrusive party discipline and the repressive use of party standing orders; while, in retirement, he urged, alas unavailingly, intervention in Bosnia to forestall Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, and attacked the inertia of Tory foreign secretaries Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind. Indeed, despite his opposition to capital punishment, Foot confessed that he would like to see Milosevic hanged.

During the Labour government of 1974-1979, however, Foot was to discover that libertarianism and socialism were competing, not complementary, values, and it was libertarianism that he chose to jettison.

He had entered government as the nominee of the trade unions. His task was to discover what the unions wanted and then give it to them. He did this with great zeal, granting the unions new rights and privileges, even though every opinion poll showed that the public believed the unions to be too strong, not too weak. His worst idea was to seek to impose a post-entry closed shop in journalism so that only members of the National Union of Journalists would be allowed to contribute to the media. He was defeated only by the brave and determined opposition of a posse of Labour backbenchers, led by Bryan Magee, David Marquand and Brian Walden. They, not Foot, were the real libertarians.

Foot, the great parliamentarian, surrendered the powers of parliament to the trade unions, enabling them to exercise a stranglehold over British life. The outcome was the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79, a series of public-sector strikes that saw the dead unburied in Liverpool, cancer patients sent home in Birmingham and rats roaming the streets of London amidst uncollected refuse. “We are prostrate before you,” prime minister Callaghan confessed to the TUC, “but don't ask us to put it in writing.” Callaghan was later to admit: “I let the country down.”

The result was not only to put the Conservatives in office for 18 years, but to destroy old Labour. In the 1890s, Sir William Harcourt, a Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, had declared: “We are all socialists now.” Labour, however, could not persuade the electorate to trust it again until, under Tony Blair, it could truthfully say: “We are none of us socialists now.”

As Labour leader from 1980 to 1983, Foot led the party to its worst electoral defeat since 1918. Faced with a massive rise in unemployment under Margaret Thatcher, and the seeming de- industrialisation of Britain, he proved at a loss, being almost totally ignorant of economics. He had taught the Labour party to feel. It would have been better if he could have taught it to think.

Foot was, in essence, a journalist and man of letters who strayed into parliament and, by a series of accidents, found himself leader of the Labour party, which he then proceeded to almost destroy as a serious political force. As a supremely honest scholar, Morgan shows that Foot had nearly every virtue, except that he was almost always wrong.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University.

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