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Three memories of Michael Foot

Paul Mason | 14:15 UK time, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The first time I ever saw Michael Foot was in 1980, in Glasgow. The occasion was the first big demonstration called by the Labour Party against unemployment. I can remember the person next to me heckling him as he spoke. He was in his duffle coat speaking to a massive crowd of miners, shipyard workers, car workers.

He finished off his speech with the famous passage from Shelley, written after the Peterloo Massacre: "Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number, shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many, they are few."

He was not greeted with elation: the unions were still angry with Labour for the mess they had made in government and I remember a number of donkey-jacketed blokes shaking their heads at the rhetoric - shopfloor militancy had a whole different kind of rhetoric of its own. I remember the general feeling in the crowd was: hold on a minute, who's responsible for the slumbering in the first place?

The second memory I have is invoked by the book I've just pulled down off my shelves: "Guilty Men" by "Cato" - Michael Foot's pseudonym. Written in July 1940, my Gollancz edition dustjacket - the 21st impression produced just three months later - proclaims "110,000 copies sold". (Its surtitle is "Victory Book Number 1").

Guilty Men is a piece by piece demolition job on the British establishment in the run-up to World War Two. It did not cause the fall of Chamberlain or the rise of Churchill - that had already happened. But it was one of the seminal pieces of journalism that shaped the anger over Britain's defeat in May 1940 and turned the conflict into what we now know as the "people's war".

It had been an age of deference. After this book it was not. Foot used the fatal words of British ministers and generals against them: Chamberlain's famous claim, on the eve of Dunkirk, that Hitler "has missed the bus"; General Ironside's pronouncement: "Frankly, we could welcome an attack". Within a week, Foot laconically records, the Germans had overrun Norway.

The last time I saw Michael Foot was at a memorial meeting after the death of his nephew, the left wing journalist Paul Foot. Michael Foot had to be helped onto the stage at the Hackney Empire and you could feel the audience worrying that he might not be able to make any sense. Or stand up for long.

But he launched into an eloquent speech which included a reading from CLR James' book "The Black Jacobins": Michael and Paul Foot shared a lifelong obsession with the Haitian slave rebellion and were both fans of James' seminal piece of social history. After he'd finished he said:

"This is my copy of The Black Jacobins. It's a first edition. I lent it to Paul and he thought I'd forgotten it, but I got it back." He flicked a wry grin at the audience, full of the dead man's friends and family: "In fact he had his eye on my books, you know - but he won't be getting them now."

The joke, and the delivery brought the house down.

Michael Foot's political career mirrored that of the Labour tradition: from pacifism to anti-fascist resistance in 30s and 40s. Towards statism and Moscow influence in the 50s. Disorientation faced with the social movements of the 1960s and then schism as the shop floor replaced the House of Commons as the arena many socialists of Michael Foot's era expected to achieve their dreams within.

Freed from frontline politics after the 1983 election debacle Michael Foot continued to produce books, reviews and articles that show, clearer I think than any of his actions in power, what his project was.

Whether he's visiting CLR James in Brixton to talk about the French historian Michelet, or eulogising Nye Bevan, or Heinrich Heine, or rediscovering Hazlitt or writing the life of Byron it seems to me he is doing two things: radicalising the Labour tradition, insisting it engage with the earlier, Liberal and Radical traditions of British politics; and at the same time trying to in some way "civilise" and incorporate within the parliamentary mainstream the hard-line Marxist tradition.

That is a position so alien to today's Labour leadership - as is Foot's atheism - that people born after Michael Foot was Labour leader must today be wondering how on earth he got to be in the post.

The answer is that the central fact in British politics in the 1970s had been union militancy and shopfloor power, and that the election of Michael Foot was not simply an expression of that but a compromise with it.

Michael Foot was, like Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers: a conviction politician. After the eulogizing is over, we will begin to get articles commenting "that's where conviction politics gets you": 20 years out of office.

The thing is however, we now know where "lack of conviction politics" gets you, on all sides of politics. That world of soapbox speeches, ideology and reckless tactical gambits may be gone forever, on both sides of the House. But an agenda dominated by policy wonk reports, tax domicile issues and expenses scandals - and the total absence of scholarship, poetry and rhetoric - does feel somehow feeble by comparison.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Paul Mason

    This tribute to Michael Foot feels real... and he deserved to have that respect. Thank-you.

  • Comment number 2.

    We rejected a bedraggled, donkey jacketed but honest conviction politician in droves.

    Political parties dont forget, in the next rounds they increasingly offered up sharp suited media friendly but leveraged? individuals in some way, be it a slave to their own personal ambition or someone elses.

    What will we get next I wonder.

  • Comment number 3.

    On my first trip to London with my boyfriend of the time, we discovered we lesser folk could go in and watch what our MPs got up to in Parliament.

    There was Michael Foot on the opposition bench with his shock of white hair looking every bit the academic, listening to a debate about tin mines in Cornwall. The press gave him such a hard time for his clothes. To be honest he looked the smartest of the lot; the rest of them looked like they had slept in their suits for at least a month - shabby shirts and suits! I would have lent Michael a tenner, but not the rest; they looked like second hand car salesmen!

    Michael, he seemed more honest; you got what it said on the book cover.

    Yes, now it does feel somehow feeble by comparison.

  • Comment number 4.

    if politics is the science of government ie a debate about models of nation building then it is a science of demonstration rather than persuasion. How much role does poetry and lyrical allusions have in an art of demonstration?

    Foot might have been a nice deeply educated fellow in personal life [like a self taught professor] but in terms of politics ie the science of government i felt whenever he opened his mouth he seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

    He came from a pre TV generation of deeply educated people that also had non political hinterlands that went into politics as much as a duty 'for the common good' than personal ambition. Whose personal model of humanity was the Aristotelian 'great soul' or what what used to be called cultivating the culture of a Gentlemen.

    Aristotle is no longer taught in schools as the model of a good person. It is now despised. Today girls do not want to be ladies but pole dancers and boys do not want to be gentlemen [or knights of the road] but gang banging drug dealers whose only principle is money.

    Foot's immense education reflects the standards of his age and of his rivals. Who today thinks knowledge is important for a politician? In an age of media friendly surfaces it is the shallow and 'pretty' who become politicians. There is no room for the 'great souls' today in any form of public life?

  • Comment number 5.

    I never understood Michael Foot. That he was a decent bloke is not in question. That many around him lacked his integrity is beyond doubt. But what was he for?

    The bandwaggons were always rolling before he jumped on them: even in 1940. His much vaunted oratory was lesser than a good Sunday speech in Hyde Park. His leadership of the Labour Party was responsible for a manifesto deemed to be the longest suicide note in history. He didn't even start the Aldermaston marches.

    I have no doubt he will find his place in history as a man of letters as his education and literacy were beyond compare but he was not connected to his times so he could not be what people quite obviously wanted him to be.

    I am sorry but all I can say is that an old politician has died but even then there is a dying for us all. At least we can be certain of that equality.

  • Comment number 6.

    Michael Foot's life highlights a key issue: should socialists engage with sham democracy, i.e. parliament?

    As a socialist Michael Foot must have envisioned a classless society with people governing themselves not just voting once every four or five years for Punch or Judy.
    But how to have a labour movement ready for that time?

    A Labour Party representing the interests of the workers with members of parliament demanding reforms that improve the workers lot is one thing.
    But to actually take power & run a capitalist society & give credability to parliamentarism is surely to sell out the workers (look at today's pathetic government bailing out the bankers to save the system).
    Once in parliament, these people, who are rarely from true working class backgrounds, appear more interested in power & their place in history.

    Foot, for all his shortcomings, towers over Blair, Brown & the rest of today's Labour Party.

  • Comment number 7.

    As someone in the generation never to have experienced Michael Foot in the flesh or even on the box, this along with some other articles today bring to life a period that really seems another world.

    The cliched reporting of him on Radio 4's PM seems to start with the "longest suicide note". It was very interesting that this included two hallmarks of good leftist and rightist thinkers today, the scrapping of trident and the withdrawal from the EEC respectively. Given that the voters had bought a jingoistic and simplistic militaristic patriotism at the time, one has to wonder if it is not their fault and not Foot's.

    The other cliche was that he was not a man for the televisual age, often seemingly said with a wry smile by the BBC reporter, seems to me incredibly depressing. When you think of the politicians regularly sent on questiontime, who presumably are seen as doyennes of the televisual age, the likes of Yvette Cooper, John Reid, or Michael Gove, you have to see it as a depressing indictment of today's politics.

    Presumably, Foot would also have lacked the modern politician's ability to not answer a question, elegantly side-stepping with the underlying mantra "Have 3 things to tell the interviewer, no matter what they ask you". If this were the case, can we please have more Michael Foots?

  • Comment number 8.

    'The thing is however, we now know where "lack of conviction politics" gets you, on all sides of politics. That world of soapbox speeches, ideology and reckless tactical gambits may be gone forever, on both sides of the House. But an agenda dominated by policy wonk reports, tax domicile issues and expenses scandals - and the total absence of scholarship, poetry and rhetoric - does feel somehow feeble by comparison.'

    Maybe... but Foot was more of a journalist than a leader of people. To lead people, one needs to understand something radical about behaviour, not just rhetoric. Michael Young new something about behaviour, but Richard Herrnstein knew even more.

    Now what's remarkable is that anyone who goes down that route gets the bum's rush.... Looking into that is a worthwhile exercise.

  • Comment number 9.

    4. jauntycyclist 'Today girls do not want to be ladies but pole dancers and boys do not want to be gentlemen [or knights of the road] but gang banging drug dealers whose only principle is money.

    Foot's immense education reflects the standards of his age and of his rivals. Who today thinks knowledge is important for a politician? In an age of media friendly surfaces it is the shallow and 'pretty' who become politicians. There is no room for the 'great souls' today in any form of public life?'

    True, but all that's good for undermining an alien, regulative state. States are bad for some people's business, and if one looks carefully (and objectively at the base rates and observed frequencies) one will see a predatory, protected, group, which is both intensely nepotistic and disproportionately successful both socially and economically.

    Life - it just isn't fair.

  • Comment number 10.

    7. Joe 'If this were the case, can we please have more Michael Foots?'

    NO! You may well want governance (and 'transparency' + predictability/stability), but you are not going to get it!! It's very bad for the markets!

    Are we clear?! ;-)

  • Comment number 11.

    Of Dear: These Van Helsings have been reading too much Bram Stoker. Wasn't the USA where all the vampires from Europe went to?

  • Comment number 12.

    all the things Michael cherished....clause 4, no tuition fees, no silly adventures like Iraq, full employment, a free NHS, utilities in public ownership, and so many more all wasted on the Thatcherite tendency of NULabour, I think he died of a broken heart.....RIP, MIchael....

  • Comment number 13.

    Here's the harsh scientific truth: most people are poor becausue they are unskilled and unskillable (genetically lack the ability). 'Poor' has become a Marxist euphemism for 'not very able'. The poor have more children than the less poor, fact (all over the world too, unless population is governed by statists). The less poor limit the size of their families and put more resources into this. Over time, this results in an ageing population. Once this happens, the trouble starts, as once the elderly start dying off what is left are lots of poor people who can't look after themsleves and don't have more able people to provide essential, competent, public services for them. The poor are like children, you don't wnat to have too many of them if you know what's good for you, but alas, most people don't know what's good for them, because they think like children.....

    Sad eh? but all true. Does saying this make me a bad person?

  • Comment number 14.

    Perhaps someone can explain to me how Militant (or Foot) ever expected any of these Clause IV ideals to ever come to fruition here given that the USA was pumping so much money into an arms race, and their foreign policy was precisely to undermine this in the USSR and elsewhere (Korea and then Vietnam)? Surely all the Trotskyites would do by pushing this was bring the wrath of the USA down on Labour and thus make it easier for Thatcher's crew to get into power? The USA had been resourcing this 'Social Democracy' (anarchism or social-fascism) in Europe and elsewhere ever since the end of WWII had it not? Militant etc just helped them surely? That's why I say they are anarchists. Stalin, of course, who did nationalise the means of production etc, thought the same.

    One has to look at outcomes of behaviour as behaviour is controlled by consequences, not by intentions. Good behaviour analysts are anti-cognitivism because they know how unreliable thought is.

    Did Foot ever grasp this? His actions did not help the Labour Party. Even his wife says to him on camera that he said one thing whilst doing something else! Beware of men and women of letters (the book).

  • Comment number 15.

    #13: I wouldn't say a bad person, but you do seem to like a sweeping generalisation or two while off on a tangent.

    I'm guessing the statist demographic planning that you talk about is an allusion to China. Not sure how a one-child policy will result in anything other than a gigantic ageing population overhang followed by a generation of only-children. Strange kind of demographic utopia, but we'll see.

    "One has to look at outcomes of behaviour as behaviour is controlled by consequences, not by intentions". So what were the consequences that controlled Stalin's behaviour? Did his conditioners give him a biscuit every time he caused a famine?

  • Comment number 16.

    15. UltraTron 'I wouldn't say a bad person, but you do seem to like a sweeping generalisation or two while off on a tangent.'

    Maybe I'm stupid?

    Tangents, that maths, yes?

  • Comment number 17.

    Yawn

  • Comment number 18.

    15. UltraTron 'So what were the consequences that controlled Stalin's behaviour?'

    What are the consequences which control your behaviour?

    Incidentally, did you notice the famine we had after the Second World War which resulted in ration books? Hundreds of thousands died every year you know. It carried on into the 1950s.

  • Comment number 19.

    Funny thing is the Tories polled less overall votes in 2001 than Foot did in 1983. Taking into account Brown was forced to provide state-subsidies to the banks would that imply everyone has now become a Footite as opposed to a Thatcherite?
    If there was a left that kept up the traditions of the left instead of pandering to globalism and the financial parasites of the City of London then the world would indeed have been a different place. The tragedy was the Labour left was spineless in relation to the Labour right...

  • Comment number 20.

    My memories of Michael Foot are of a man who, when millions were facing misery and depression on the dole, he was the person that those people looked to with hope to get the Labour party into Government and to then help them get off the dole.

    He failed miserably.

    He let down millions of people by simply not grasping how politics had changed. He let down millions by, I believe, not truly understanding the hardship of millions of people and, frankly, by focussing on things such as CND when it was, to borrow a phrase from elsewhere, the economy stupid!

    I have tried not to post on here for a week now because I believe that you should not speak ill of the dead but, boy, every time I log on here and see this blog I just get angry remembering the 1980s, remembering the misery, the despair and the hope of a Labour Government in changing the lives of millions for the better... and what did we get?

    We got a man who was shambolic, who was out of touch with the real hardship in the UK and who seemed more concerned of pursuing an anti-British, anti-US pro-Soviet agenda! Yet another middle-class Englishman parachuted into the Welsh Valleys in order to get a safe seat in Parliament!

    You want to know what I think of Michael Foot - angry and terribly, terribly betrayed!

  • Comment number 21.

    Paul
    I don't get it?
    You write the most brilliant thought provoking blog ive read in an age... Sterling Panic.
    Then quickly add another sentimental one about dear old Michael Foot, who cant help us get out of this economic mess from the grave.
    Then silence?

  • Comment number 22.

    #21 Re: the elusive Mr Mason

    I wonder if Paul has been asked to lie low for a while? He's been ever so quiet since his tentative expose of Goldman Sachs a few weeks back:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2010/02/greece_spearing_the_octopus.html

    Maybe he was getting too close to the truth? I'm secretly hoping that he's actually had to go "dark" now, in order to fully investigate the massive fraud that is being perpetrated by the major banking institutions:

    http://maxkeiser.com/2010/03/12/max-keiser-warned-investors-july-2008-about-lehmans-peek-a-boo-accounting/

  • Comment number 23.

    21 ruralwoman: -

    Old Labour leaders are like the Pharohs of old - once they die all their followers are buried alive with them.

    Perhaps the reason you have not seen another blog for some time is because Paul is busy digging himself out from underneath the foundations of that enormous pyramid recenty built in the Welsh Valleys? I suspect the Wi Fi there is a tad dodgy also.

    Keep digging Paul - you know it makes sense! :-)

  • Comment number 24.

    With any luck paul is too busy at the moment putting together a well researched compelling newsnight Special piece bringing together all the elements he has investigated in the last 12 months or so into one coherent, defendable journalistic piece.

    Add up Goldmans, greece, rare earth metals, the recent climb in oil prices (driven by huge demand in China), the value of the Yuan, quantitative easing, sovereign debt in general and the viability of the EURO, the election in the uk, USA exposure to the far east's influence on its bond markets, the maturing domestic demand in the far east and elsewhere meaning they are les reliant on our consumer society to drive their development, sustainability of current interest rate levels and the price of government borrowing after QE stops.

    Put all that on a canvass project it 12 or 24 months into the future and what do you get??

    I think that would keep anyone busy for a few weeks but i doubt any such programme that did what I have described above would be allowed to broadcast it due to 'public interest issues' dressed up as a gagging order under precedent of 'national security'...in reality it would be the 'security' of the incumbent global financial, political and media elite it would be protecting, except it wont ultimately, it will just buy them abit of time.

    I am sure he will be back soon.



  • Comment number 25.

    24 Jericoa : -

    Yes, but none of that matters.

    BBC Fivelive and BBC News 24 have an estate agent on almost daily now telling us that house prices are forever rising and that all will be well in the world as long as we believe in this. Totally unbiased of course.

    All together now, we do believe in house prices, we do, we do!

    Now clap your hands twice and think of Quantative Easing Mk III.

  • Comment number 26.

    #24 So much to investigate, and so little time!

    It's the debt stupid! and it's still out there, it may have morphed, even put on a few (billion/trillion) pounds, but it's still there, lurking under the patio - unfortunately for some, the stench is getting worse:

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2010/03/wray-timmy-gate-did-geithner-help-hide-lehman-fraud.html

    "Lehman used an innovation, 'Repo 105' to hide debt. The whole Greek debt fiasco was caused by Goldman, et. al., who helped hide government debt. Whether legal or illegal, Wall Street has for many years been producing financial instruments designed to mislead shareholders, creditors, and regulators about the true financial position of its clients."

    "Worse, after aiding and abetting such deception, Goldman and other Wall Street institutions then place bets (using another nefarious innovation, credit default swaps) against their clients, wagering that they will not be able to service the debts—which are greater than the market believes them to be. Does that sound something like insider trading? How can regulators permit such actions?"

    "We have a long way to go before bank assets (and nonbank debts) are written down sufficiently to allow a real recovery. In other words, a Minsky-Fisher debt deflation is still on the cards."

  • Comment number 27.

    The question prompted by many a BBC NEWS and Newsnight piece, seems to me to be something like: what is England (or Britain/UK if you are feeling deluded and grandiose) going to produce?

    This, it seems to me, is rather an important question given that China has something of the order of 40 million working age males with an IQ of 120 and above (based on my calculations of a mean IQ of 105), and that trends would appear to indicate that they are getting more skilled/able and as do become even less so (and by our Government's policies too - and this is not just New Labour's, as it's a liberal-democratic (or Social-Democratic if you prefer) catastrophe.

    If you don't believe me, just look into what the USA education people were saying back in Spring 2007...

  • Comment number 28.

    27. 'trends would appear to indicate that they are getting more skilled/able as we become even less so'

    We can't school our way out of this. It isn't a matter of putting more fertilizer down.

  • Comment number 29.

    I notice that Kim Jong-il has just executed his finance minister for printing too much dosh and causing inflation and misery in North Korea - something for Brown, Darling and Bernanke to be aware of I feel.

  • Comment number 30.

    29. tawse57 'I notice that Kim Jong-il has just executed his finance minister for printing too much dosh and causing inflation and misery in North Korea - something for Brown, Darling and Bernanke to be aware of I feel.'

    I guess N. Korea doesn't have much time for quibbles as to whether or not something is done on purpose or not? I'd like to know more about how their decision making processes actually work wouldn't you?

    This was a major defence in the Iraq Inquiry. It was most memorably used by Lord Falconer on Question Time as to whether the invasion was a war crime, and is the last refuge of most of our politicians. In our system, it all just happens, politicians don't do anything on purpose/intentionally - unless it makes them look good, then they can't take the credit fast enough! Our system is rotten, but then it's designed to be as it makes the flow of capital easier.

  • Comment number 31.

    It was good to see on the news that Micheal Foot was seen off at Golders green Crematorium. My mother-in-law, an erstwhile Labour voter of impeccable working-class origin, was cremated there and her ashes scatterd on the gardens. I can see her and Footie enjoying a chat and a brew in the Ever After; not understanding each other at all but enjoying the good fellowship which was their common bond.

  • Comment number 32.

    ARe you going to take yourself off to investigate the tented communities of those who are losing in the US economy?

 

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