Thursday, March 04, 2010

Michael Foot: Greatness marred by misjudgements

There seems little to add to the reams of material that has appeared both in print and on the airwaves about the death of Michael Foot. He was undeniably a great parliamentary figure and his death moreorless severs the only remaining link with the days in which politicians were expected to command the House of Commons by the power of their oratory rather than command the news media by the succinctness of their soundbites. As Tony Blair said yesterday, he was as far removed as it is possible to be from the techniques of modern politics, and maybe that is no bad thing to have inscribed on your tombstone.

Nevertheless....I have to say I have been struck by the degree of sentimentality in some of the tributes, notably from Lord Kinnock, about Foot's contribution to the Labour Party in the period after the 1979 defeat. To listen to some of what has been said, anyone would think he saved the party during that grim period. The truth was he actually came close to destroying it.

In my view, Foot would have gone down as an immeasurably greater man had he not succumbed to the vain belief in 1980 that only he could succeed in uniting the party.

Of course, he not only failed to unite it - the Gang of Four split off to form the SDP shortly after his election as leader - but the programme around which Foot subsequently united the remainder of the party was one which was so out-of-kilter with the prevailing wind in British politics at the time that it resulted in Labour's worst election defeat since its arrival as a major political force.

The harsh truth was that Foot should never have become leader of the Labour Party ahead of Denis Healey and, in so doing, he robbed the party of the only leader who would have been capable of stopping Thatcherism in its tracks.

Had Healey succeeded Jim Callaghan, the split in the party would probably still have occurred, but it would almost certainly have occurred from the opposite end of the party spectrum, with the hard-left heading off into well-earned irrelevance.

Labour under Healey would have been in genuine contention for power at the 1983 and 1987 elections and would certainly have returned to office earlier than it ultimately did.

More significantly in terms of present-day politics, it would also not have been necessary for the party to ditch its entire Croslandite social democratic tradition as it ended up doing under Tony Blair in its desperation to return to power after four successive election defeats, and to retain it at all costs thereafter.

Any political career inevitably contains its share of misjudgements, and Foot made one other which I would like to mention here - namely colluding with Enoch Powell to scupper Harold Wilson's modest plans to reform the House of Lords in 1968.

This act of ideological purism - Foot wanted the Lords abolished, not democratised - resulted in the Second Chamber going unreformed for another thirty years, and the survival into the 21st century of a legislature defined in part by heredity.

As someone with more than a superficial knowledge of political history, Foot should have taken the long view, and realised that parliamentary reform in this country has only ever proceeded by increments.

For the man whose accession to the party leadership inadvertently begat New Labour, it goes down as another example of unintended - but not entirely unforseeable - political consequences.

free web site hit counter

1 comment:

Robert said...

we begat labour, sorry new labour because we all sat back and allowed two or three creeps to take it from us.