At the Party Conference following Labour’s crippling defeat in the 1983 election Michael Foot stood before the massed ranks of the faithful to account for his stewardship of the Party. ‘I am deeply ashamed,’ he began. Unfortunately for Mervyn Jones, who both loves and admires his subject and would have us dwell on other things, it is the freeze-frame of that moment which lives on. For Foot had led Labour to its worst defeat since 1922, a defeat so bad that it handicaps Labour still. In almost exactly half the country’s constituencies the SDP-Liberal Alliance ran ahead of Labour. Eleven years later, despite the implosion of the Alliance and two better elections for Labour, the Liberals have clung onto the majority of those bridgeheads: for Labour to win a Parliamentary majority of any comfort now it has to perform the difficult trick of going from third to first place in a considerable number of seats. This ‘Foot deficit’ may well live on to haunt Labour leaders into the next century, and with it will go the memory of Foot as the most disastrous Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald.
All of which is a considerable pity, for Foot is undoubtedly one of the nicest and most decent men to sit in Parliament. The trouble perhaps – or part of it – is that it has always been rather too easy for him to mistake myth for reality. His father, the remarkable Isaac Foot, was the very model of the battling West Country Liberal, a man of wide learning who amassed one of the finest private libraries in the country. Born the fifth child of seven, the young Michael grew up among a veritable forest of Foots, all passionately committed to the Liberal verities in a household where a radical Whig sense of history, literature and rhetoric was not just part of the furniture but pretty much what life was for. Most of Foot’s household gods were to remain the same all his life – Hampden, Swift, Hazlitt, Cobden, Bright, Mill, Gladstone, Wilberforce and Charles James Fox. There was, in time, one great socialist addition to the pantheon, Aneurin Bevan. It followed that politics was mainly about two things: standing up for moral principle and making wonderful speeches. Any idea that it was also about perks and patronage and necessary trade-offs, about the brokering of compromises between material interests and pressure groups, about spoils and contracts, about pork-barrel and pay-offs – all this was foreign to the Foot world.
In an earlier generation Foot would probably have been a Nonconformist lay preacher. In this secular age, however, the peculiarity of such Nonconformist radicals is that they find they can manage without God, but continue to rely heavily on the Devil. While the ‘struggle for socialism’ always remained somewhat vague and woozy, the obligation to stand against this, that or the other evil was always absolute. Indeed, Foot’s political life consisted largely in identifying such evils so that one could stand against them: Fascism, Appeasement, German re-armament, apartheid, colonialism, the Bomb, unemployment and so on. In this he has, of course, been typical of the Labour mainstream. So dominant did this modus operandi become that no one seems to have noticed that without a sense of the Christian goal/socialist heaven such thinking is intrinsically oppositional. Not only is it happier in opposition than in power, but it tends to the view that power and the holding of it are intrinsically bad things: Acton’s aphorism about all power corrupting touches a deep nerve. Not surprisingly, people who feel like this hardly know what to do with power when they get it; and there have been quite a few Labour ministers who managed to remain psychologically in opposition through quite long periods in government.
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