Up the Garden Path

R.W. Johnson

  • Michael Foot: A Life by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Harper, 568 pp, £25.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 717826 1

One day in 1993, I found myself on a bus in Oxford with Michael Foot. He looked shambolic even by my standards – donkey jacket, stick, long hair all over the place. But nobody minded. You don’t often see leading politicians on a bus and passenger after passenger came up to say hello. He smiled and was the soul of friendliness. As he stood up to get off he half-stumbled and six or seven people rushed to help him. As soon as he’d gone I heard the same words over and over: ‘What a dear old man.’ I’ve never heard such spontaneous warmth evoked by a politician, but my guess is that I was one of the few people on the bus who’d actually voted for him ten years earlier, and I’d done it with some exasperation.

Kenneth Morgan’s over-long biography brings back all these feelings. Part of the problem is Morgan himself. He has written a long list of books about Wales, the Labour Party, Lloyd George, Wales, Jim Callaghan, Wales, the Labour Party, and just occasionally, to spice things up, about the Labour Party and Wales. He is not just fascinated by this little world but sentimental about it. Take Michael Foot’s marriage to Jill Craigie. Although Craigie wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea – not Barbara Castle’s, for a start – she was clearly a wonderful partner for Foot, but Morgan can’t stop there: ‘The Labour Party cherishes its great partnerships – Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Douglas and Margaret Cole, the Callaghans, the Kinnocks, the Blairs. In this pantheon the touchingly loyal team of Michael and Jill may confidently be placed.’ ‘Michael and Jill’: how cosy.

It seems unfair to bracket Glenys Kinnock, say, with Beatrice Webb and Margaret Cole, both of whom were serious intellectuals, and I can’t get used to the idea of a pantheon that includes Cherie Blair, with or without her lifestyle adviser. Or Jim Callaghan, that dire waxwork who embodied the terrible fate of the old dreams of social democracy: Tom Nairn’s phrase about ‘the full medicine pill misery’ of having to ‘behold the gartered Callaghan’ swims back to mind. A similar unease overcomes me each time Morgan writes of the gale of derision directed at Foot’s Worzel Gummidge appearance and how this was meant as a reproach to Craigie. I dress quite badly myself, but I can’t see that it is my wife’s fault.

But Foot, too, is part of the problem. We learn all about his enviable West Country Liberal background and his admirable bibliophile father, Isaac Foot, but intellectually the key experience comes at Oxford, where Foot was president of the Union (always a bad sign, it means hundreds of hours wasted in undergraduate rhetoric and sleeve-tugging, and usually goes with a 2.2). As an undergraduate reading PPE, Foot couldn’t abide anything analytical – economics, philosophy or Lewis Namier’s structural analysis of 18th-century politics. (Morgan approvingly quotes Foot’s friend A.J.P. Taylor criticising Namier for ‘taking the mind out of history’ without allowing for the fact that what Taylor found hard to bear was knowing that Namier had changed the study of political history for ever, in a way he himself never could.) Given that socialism originates in a critique of capitalism and is concerned with imposing a new set of economic arrangements on society, a complete ignorance of, and lack of interest in, economics might have been thought a fairly crippling disability for a socialist but, as with so many in the Labour Party, including his great hero, Aneurin Bevan, Foot’s socialism owed more to Methodism than to Marx. The result, as Morgan points out, is a pulpit preacher used to preaching only to the converted. Preachers never get the chance to do much else, but politicians are supposed to try and spread their creed.

Foot’s rhetoric was characterised by a terrible windiness. What was he thinking of when he wrote in a preface to Julius Braunthal’s Tragedy of Austria, that ‘no one with any kindred feeling can read the story of Red Vienna without being a better socialist for it’? Socialism, it seems, is something that goes on in one’s heart or possibly one’s soul. Foot was a bibliophile like his father and, as Morgan puts it, his was ‘a socialism of the book’. Listen to him exhorting the faithful at the 1976 Labour conference:

We face an economic typhoon of unparalleled ferocity, the worst the world has seen since the 1930s. Joseph Conrad once wrote a book called Typhoon, and at the end he told people how to deal with it. He said: ‘Always facing it, Captain MacWhirr, that’s the way to get through.’ Always facing it, that’s the way we have got to solve this problem . . . I am asking this movement to exert itself as it has never done before, to show the qualities which we have, the socialist imagination that exists in our movement . . . above all to show the supreme quality in politics, the red flame of socialist courage.

The typhoon analogy suggests that high unemployment and record inflation just blow up like a storm. The way to combat them is to be found in a novel and is all about showing moral strength. Exactly how ‘socialist imagination’ or ‘socialist courage’ differ from other sorts isn’t clear, though the implication is that they are ethically superior. Barbara Castle wrote that this peroration almost reduced her to tears, and this was intended as a compliment: she spoke of its ‘emotional voltage’ and passionate sincerity. It almost reduces me to tears too, because it is obvious that anyone exhorting working people to believe that they can meet the challenge of unemployment simply by showing moral qualities is leading them up the garden path.

It’s also a matter of taste. This sort of language works for some people and Morgan is one of them. Over and over again he praises Foot’s two-volume life of Bevan as a monumental study of ‘the man and his socialism’. It is repeatedly contrasted with Philip Williams’s biography of Gaitskell, always in order to say how much better Foot’s book is – it being understood that Foot was a Bevanite, Williams a Gaitskellite. Once in full flow Morgan writes in the same windy, cadenced way as Foot: ‘Foot’s socialism was neither ideological nor logical, but inspirational. His great and incomparable contribution to socialist understanding is undoubtedly his massive Life of Aneurin Bevan, partisan and often unfair, but a thrilling evocation of what it meant to be a socialist.’

What is Morgan on about? Socialism is surely an ideology with its own internal logic, yet here we have a socialism which is not logical or even ideological. What is ‘inspirational socialism’? Indeed, what is ‘socialist understanding’ as opposed to any other sort of understanding? And why can’t ‘what it meant to be a socialist’ be set out plainly, like any other political creed? Maybe you aren’t supposed to approach a sermon or a poem that way, but I don’t even think that’s true. In reality, Foot’s biography of Bevan is deeply disappointing and can’t possibly be compared favourably with Williams’s Life of Gaitskell. Philip Williams was a man of great intellect and encyclopedic knowledge. Because he and Foot had been ploughing much the same furrow, even if from opposite directions, when he had finished his own book he wrote an article politely listing the scores of errors in Foot’s. Foot replied briefly, saying he would deal with it in detail and at length later on, but he never did.

Bevan was the principal figure in Foot’s political life. As Morgan puts it, Foot was not just Bevan’s comrade but (modestly) ‘his Boswell, his Engels, his John the Baptist, and of course his parliamentary heir’. At this distance it is difficult to understand the passions of the decade-long civil war between Bevanites and Gaitskellites which originated with the split of 1951, when Gaitskell imposed prescription charges on Bevan’s NHS. A compromise should surely have been possible over the imposition of a mere £23m of charges on dentures and glasses. Indeed, when Harold Wilson and John Freeman met with Bevan to discuss their collective resignation from the cabinet, Wilson kept saying: ‘It’s not enough, Nye. We have to broaden the issue. We can’t just resign over specs and false teeth.’ And so the issue was broadened into one of fundamental principle, into a choice between defence and social expenditure, and this was the way in which Bevanites like Foot treated it ever afterwards. For Foot this led naturally on to a principled nuclear unilateralism and he was shattered when Bevan poured scorn on CND, a crucial episode on which Foot’s biography of Bevan is less than frank.

For all his devotion, Foot got Bevan wrong. Bevan was the most talented and charismatic working-class intellectual the Labour movement has ever produced, and had every reasonable expectation of becoming its leader. The parting of the ways with Gaitskell came in 1950 when Attlee appointed the latter chancellor of the exchequer. It was obvious that Gaitskell, with his Winchester and Oxford background, was being groomed as the party’s future leader. Bevan was furious. It must, indeed, have been very painful for him to have to accept that, for all his working-class roots and his brilliance, he was at a disadvantage when set against a drier, more privileged man with a better formal education. From that moment on, Bevan was looking for a fight and his fight was extremely personal; it was, as he put it, about ‘my Health Service’. Many of Bevan’s later moves were petty and wrong-headed, incomprehensible unless one takes this personal bitterness into account. And however much Foot and other Bevanites made of his testament, In Place of Fear, the book was just a recycling of fragments and fine phrases without any statement of principle for his disciples to cling to. After Gaitskell easily defeated Bevan for the Labour leadership in 1955 Bevan sued for peace and worked with Gaitskell until his death in 1960. But Foot and the other Bevanites continued their crusade, not appearing to notice that Bevan himself had dropped out, and it was absurd that Foot should have been so dismayed when Bevan, quite predictably, took the same view as Gaitskell over unilateral disarmament.

Much of Foot’s career was spent on endless (and often hopeless) protests of one sort or another, but in the 1970s he served loyally in the Wilson/Callaghan governments. Morgan is quite admiring of his achievement as secretary of state for employment, though it now seems a chronicle of wasted time, as he pushed through one piece of highly restrictive labour legislation after another, including such monstrosities as a closed shop for journalists. All of this was swept away by Thatcher, and I don’t imagine there are many, even among Old Labourites, who are sorry it has gone. There followed Foot’s sad and short period as Labour leader, in which he led the party to its worst defeat since it first became a nationally organised entity in 1918.

One of the great strengths of Williams’s Life of Gaitskell was that he used it as a prism through which to understand a key period in Labour’s history. A biography of Foot, still with us at 93, offered the same opportunity over a much longer period, but Morgan has not taken it. This is a great pity, for it was Foot’s bad luck to ascend to power within Labour while the party was undergoing a traumatic decline, a process that is still somewhat mysterious. The key seems to have been the erosion of the old class solidarities and with it the cohesion of the Labour vote. From 1945 to 1974 that vote never fell below 43 per cent: in 1974, it dropped to 37.9 per cent. The Rubicon was the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, to which Morgan gives little space, appearing embarrassed by Foot’s role in the ‘no’ campaign – ‘not his finest hour’. Yet this was a sociologically unique occasion, when every movement with a significant working-class base lined up on the same side: the Labour left and most of the trade unions, the Northern Irish SDLP and Ulster Unionists, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the Communist Party, the National Front and Enoch Powell, with his immense appeal to working-class Tories.

Never in our history had there been such a perfect class alignment, but it failed dismally – the ‘no’ vote reached only 32.8 per cent – in the face of a massively better funded media campaign by the other side. The centrists were thrilled at having won so overwhelmingly and for the first time saw the possibility of a future centrist majority: the seeds of the SDP and thus the LibDems were sown. The promise for Thatcher was even greater. Until she came to power, it had been gospel for all Tory governments that to confront the working-class majority head-on meant certain defeat. The One Nation Tories and the Butskellites all owed their existence to that premise. Now it seemed quite possible that, given the right circumstances, one could indeed risk and win handsomely the sort of pitched battle in the class war which had always been considered suicidal. The demise of the Tory wets, the rise of the Thatcherite right and the crushing defeat of the unions were all suddenly on the agenda. For Labour the prognosis was gloomy: even with enormous outside help it had failed to rally its core constituency. Further dire losses were clearly possible: after 1975 the collapse to 28.3 per cent in 1983 was on the cards.

As Old Labour decomposed two things happened. As so often with the dying, there was a final burst of energy, in this case the rise of Bennism and the ‘entryist’ far left. And then, as the movement itself fell back, so its old constituent armature, the unions, became increasingly powerful: the bones of the skeleton were showing through. The unions unseated Heath’s government, dictated terms to its Labour successor, and not only determined labour legislation but, in the shape of Jack Jones’s £6 a week incomes policy, brought about a wage increase for the entire country. On top of which they both imposed and deposed politicians. Foot was made employment minister because Jones wanted him, and in 1980 it was clear enough that by electing Foot as leader the party would keep the unions onside. Once Foot lost, the unions turned him out. The day after the 1983 defeat, Moss Evans (TGWU) and Clive Jenkins (ASTMS) met and decided Foot must be replaced by Kinnock; indeed, Jenkins announced Foot’s resignation to his union executive and put out a press release to that effect. It was utterly humiliating. But in the years both before and after that, Foot did battle against Benn and the Bennites, despising Benn as he did for his disloyalty and opportunism. Rather more of a gentleman than Benn, Foot wanted to save the Labour Party and preserve its unity, even if doing so meant supporting people and policies he didn’t like, while Benn wanted to exploit its weakness to impose his own agenda.

It is difficult not to believe that Foot’s ultimate victory over Benn was a victory for decency. And that is the golden thread through Foot’s life. When he was 25 Stafford Cripps sacked the editor of Tribune – he wanted someone pro-Soviet – and offered the job to Foot. Foot not only refused this prize but resigned in sympathy with the editor. While others shilly-shallied about Stalin’s show trials, Foot denounced them from the first. In his early campaigns as Devonport’s MP he was twice opposed by Randolph Churchill, who was nothing if not a lusty opponent. But he was an impossible man and at the end of each day his disgruntled Tory helpers would dump him on the pavement, glad to be rid of him. Foot and Jill Craigie would each evening pick him up, take him out to dinner and carefully deliver an inebriated Churchill to the station to catch his train. Later, when Churchill was sued for defamation, Foot volunteered to give evidence on his behalf though he knew it might cost him his job – and got him off. When Wilson offered Foot the Home Office in 1965, Foot declined, on the grounds of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet he generously applauded Roy Jenkins’s triumphant rule. That Jenkins was nothing if not a Gaitskellite, that it would have been easy to accept the job himself, pretend that being home secretary had nothing to do with foreign policy and accept all the plaudits that went Jenkins’s way, seems not to have entered his head. When he was employment secretary his young press officer, Jacqui Lait, was a keen Tory, hoping to become an MP. Foot, knowing this, drove her to the station and carried her case along the platform so that she wouldn’t miss a key Conservative conference. Most strikingly of all, when Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech saw him anathematised by the whole political class, Foot befriended him and invited him endlessly to dinner. Powell, he argued, was no racist – he had protested bitterly against the Hola Camp atrocities in Kenya – and he was a literary man after Foot’s own heart. All these actions and many others indicate a fundamental decency and generosity of spirit which is rare anywhere, let alone among politicians.