Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What we have lost

Michael Foot represented an older better Labour Party. It was one which produced dazzling orators of his type - Foot's hero was that other leftwing firebrand, Aneuran Bevan. It was one which did have a healthy relationship with its constituency, the tough-minded British working class. And it was a Labour Party of all its parts, left and right, of ordinary working people, proud gritty Catholic trade union men who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, of Hampstead intellectuals, New Jerusalem utopians, of Gaitskell's fight and fight and fight to save the party that he loved and Mikardo's bird which couldn't fly just on its right wing and more than the sum of them.

Of course the party wasn't perfect; it was riven with internal strife, racism and other unpleasant prejudices in the 70s and 80s, it did lose its head and heart to self-destructive witchhunts and its election manifestos were frequently ignored by the leadership. And Michael Foot wasn't perfect either - who is? - as Peter Tatchell has noted in a fair and graceful comment on his passing:

“Michael Foot was wrong to condemn my advocacy of extra-parliamentary protests and to initially block my endorsement as parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey. But this error of judgment, under pressure from SDP turncoats, does not diminish his stature as one of the most outstanding British socialists and democrats of the twentieth century.
“He had the grace to later apologise to me - an apology that I accepted. I have never waivered in my view that Michael Foot was a great humanist and humanitarian, and a true champion of social justice and human rights.
“Sadly, Michael became Labour leader too late in life. He was at his peak in the 1940s and 1950s, and would have been an even better Labour Prime Minister than Clement Attlee. A brilliant orator, who was equalled by few other politicians anywhere in the world, his speeches were magical and inspirational.”

But yet this party, this great movement of ours, did achieve glorious things, of which the crowning accomplishment was the creation of the welfare state by Atlee's postwar government. Michael Foot, Bevan's knight errant who'd slammed Chamberlain's appeasment policy in the 30s entered parliament in 1945, one a new crop of exciting radical Labour MPs and a staunch anti-fascist. As employment secretary he would be at the centre of the Wilson governments' thrusting technocratic drives in the 1970s. A stint as leader of the commons between 1976 and 1979 followed before he became Labour leader in 1980.

He had a devil of a job holding the party together in that era but somehow he managed it, which people should remember rather than the inevitable election defeat in 1983. Smart alec journalists made mock of his sartorial tastes, especially his famous donkey-jacketed appearance at the cenotaph but which politican would have the originality and independence of mind to do such a thing now? Contemporary politicians have all rolled off the same conveyor belt with their Folletted designer jackets in earth tones and artlessly collar-unbuttoned shirts and all intone vacuous soundbites in Estuary English tones. They look the same, sound the same and do much the same.
Michael Foot belonged to a golden generation, he and the red queen, Barbara Castle - did they or didn't they? - Tony Benn and pipe-in-hand Harold Wilson. Now only Benn remains together with Marcia Falkender and the spellbinding Mary Wilson (I saw her interviewed on television a few years ago and have never quite got over it; were I a poet I would have rushed to my pen and paper to compose lyrical verses celebrating her ineffablely serene elegance). And the party chugs along, after a fashion but it seems to have lost its ability to thrill.
Michael Foot embodied the Labour Party's soul. He may be gone but it's spirit goes marching on.


Blogger neprimerimye said...

I feel that it is worth noting that the so called Welfare State, the creation of the strikebreaking 1945-51 government, would have been developed whatever the political complexion of their parliament. Labour has the right to the full fruits of its labour not just crumbs.

3/03/2010 9:50 AM  

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