“We are not in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress.
No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves.”
Michael Foot MP, 1983
Michael Foot has been caricatured as having been an ineffective leader, as having been responsible for Labour’s election defeat in 1983 and as senile, ‘loony left’ and too naive and weak to oppose real threats. He was none of these things. He was the only leader who all the fragments of a divided party would accept at a time when all parties were divided because none had any working solution to "stagflation"; and both main parties were divided on Europe. He was intelligent, honest, blended principle with pragmatism and was as much a democrat as he was a socialist. Unlike his successors he accepted that Labour party policies were decided by votes by its' membership. He was against the appeasement of Franco’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazis when Churchill and Roosevelt were still backing the fascists as the supposed "lesser of two evils" - and he volunteered to serve in the Second World War, but he was also against wars that didn’t have to be fought. Some of the policies of the 1983 Labour manifesto were controversial - on unilateral nuclear disarmament and leaving the EU for instance - but overall it certainly wasn't any more extreme or 'ideological' than Thatcherism with its blindly ideological monetarism, but because the Murdoch press were allied to Thatcher they painted a very one sided picture which too many people accepted as fact. Thatcher would also have lost the 1983 election if it hadn't been for the Falklands war, because monetarism failed - it cut inflation but increased unemployment by 50% from 2 million to 3 million. That war was entirely avoidable (and Callaghan had avoided it in a similar situation a few years earlier) yet many voters rewarded Thatcher for her failure to avoid it, despite the many deaths and destroyed lives involved.
Foot was not to blame for the divisions in and splitting of the Labour Party, which were due to Stagflation which began under Heath
The 1983 election has been presented as a failure which was supposedly all down to Michael Foot’s leadership failures. This is hugely unfair and simplistic. The Labour party was deeply divided before Foot became leader. These divisions were the result of ‘stagflation’ (unemployment combined with inflation) which was first seen in the 1960s but became much worse under Heath’s Conservative government in 1973 after the Arab members of OPEC increased oil prices to put pressure on ‘western’ governments who backed Israel after the Arab defeat in the 1973 Israeli-Arab war. The causes of stagflation are still debated by economists. One theory is that a sudden increase in the price of a vital commodity such as oil can cause inflation of the prices of other things which at the same time leads to reduced economic growth as profit margins are cut or wiped out by increased costs for businesses.
Another is that it may be due to a governments printing more money or providing more credit (causing the value of money to fall as the supply of it increases relative to the demand – one cause of inflation as the same amount of money is now worth less than it was before) while excessive government regulation and taxation of businesses can simultaneously cause ‘stagnation’ – reduced economic growth and increased unemployment.
( My own, very amateur and partial, explanation is that it may also be the result of rapid economic growth combined with very unequal distribution of the new wealth created by that growth, so that the majority have less money to spend, leading to inflation of prices due to the increased money supply produced by growth, combined with reduced spending by most consumers, reducing demand and so causing unemployment and reduced economic growth – the counter-argument being that the wealthy will invest their extra money, providing investment to new businesses)
Like the ‘credit crisis’ the ‘stagflation’ of the 1970s was a worldwide problem. Of course, like the credit crisis, the suffering caused by it in the ‘developed’ world was fairly minor compared to the constant hunger and illness of most of the population of the ‘developing’ world, but people struggling to pay the bills were still stressed and tired – and votes would go to whoever could present a convincing solution to the crisis.
The Wilson and Callaghan (both Labour) governments of 1974 -1979 faced stagflation and didn’t know what the causes of it were, nor what the solution to it was any more than anyone else did (previously there had been recessions or inflation, but never both at once). They adopted a watered down version of Milton Friedman’s right wing theories of complete free trade and monetarism (later adopted with greater enthusiasm and even more disastrous results by Pinochet in Chile and Thatcher in Britain).
In accordance with this theory they cut public spending and went to the IMF for a loan. The IMF, as usual, attached all kinds of monetarist conditions including more public spending cuts and tax cuts. Unemployment in the UK reached an unprecedented 2 million. Thatcher’s Conservative party promised in opposition to cut unemployment. In government it made further cuts, making more public sector workers unemployed, leading to them having less money to spend, leading to private sector sales and profits falling, leading to higher unemployment in the private sector too. Unemployment would soon reach over 3 million.
The right of the Labour party blamed the trade unions and the left wing of the party and it’s Keynesian economic views and idealism for losing the 1983 election. (Keynesianism is an economic theory calling for increasing public spending and cutting taxes during recessions to get out of them, while cutting public spending and increasing taxes during economic booms to prevent unrealistic expectations of infinite growth leading to a sudden panic and crisis. Labour had become too socialist and too idealistic in their view. Keynesianism had been developed as a solution to the Great Depression of the 1930s. It worked then, but stagflation was a new problem.)
The left blamed the right of the party under Callaghan for cutting public spending, accepting the IMF’s monetarist principles and so sacking public sector workers – and refusing to accept the demands of striking trade unionists - causing many of Labour’s traditional allies and supporters to stay at home and not vote. In their view Callaghan had lost the 1979 election by not being socialist enough.
Under the right of the Labour party (reluctant monetarists) and the right of the Conservative party under Thatcher (enthusiastic monetarists) monetarism was adopted in the hope that it would end stagflation. Monetarism provided a theory to explain and control stagflation. This was all about controlling the money supply through the amount of notes printed by central banks and the interest rates they set. Unfortunately when governments tried to put the theoretical solutions into practice to try to solve stagflation the results were terrible. Where inflation was reduced it was reduced only at the cost of massively increased unemployment and reduced economic growth. The inflation part of ‘stagflation’ had been cut to nothing, but the stagnation was through the roof. The wealthiest (and in the UK some middle income earners) got better off; for the wealthiest it was an ‘economic miracle’; but the percentage of people unemployed or in poverty rocketed.
Much of the left and the right of the Labour party were now bitterly opposed to each other. Michael Foot was the only person in the Labour party who was so universally respected that every faction in the party would accept him as leader. The worst split took place under Foot’s leadership, with much of the right of the party (social democrats rather than Socialists) forming the SDP and then the SDP-Liberal Alliance with the Liberal party. However it’s unlikely that any party leader could have prevented this. Despite this the Labour party got 27.6% of the vote in the 1983 election with another 25.4% going to the Alliance. Due to the First-Past-the-Post electoral system though the Alliance’s 25.4% share of the vote got it just 23 seats (3.5% of the MPs in parliament), while the Conservatives, with 42% of the vote got 397 seats (62% of the 650 seats in parliament). So if anyone’s assigning blame for Labour losing the 1983 election the Labour MPs who began the SDP – David Owen, Shirley Williams, William Rogers and Roy Jenkins and – must take a large part of the blame. They may point to Foot taking the party too far to the left as the cause of the split, or blame the unfairness of the electoral system – and both of those claims have some truth in them, especially the second one, but they knew the 1983 election would take place on a first-past-the-post electoral system. They may have thought that Labour was now doomed by factionalism and extremism and that a new party was the only hope of holding off Thatcherism. In the event a third party in the first-past-the-post election system failed almost totally. Under a proportional system the Alliance and Labour would have got over 50% of the seats between them to the Conservatives 42% and Thatcher’s government would have been a single term one.
How voters rewarded Thatcher for failing to avoid an easily avoidable war, hundreds of deaths and thousands of ruined lives
Thatcher’s key vote-winner in the 1983 election was a wave of nationalistic jingoism over Britain’s defeat of Argentina in the completely avoidable Falklands War. The Argentine military junta was looking for a ‘patriotic’ war to distract from mass unemployment and political murders. Thatcher, with the worst poll ratings of any Prime Minister to that point, may also have been looking for a patriotic war to distract from her government having increased unemployment to 3 million in its crusade to break the trade unions and the Labour party, after promising in opposition to reduce unemployment. When the junta had made noises about the Falklands under her predecessor Callaghan the Labour government was persuaded by the Chiefs of Staff to send some destroyers to show Britain would fight if the Argentines invaded. When the same problem came up under Thatcher her government decided to withdraw the last Royal Navy ship – the HMS Endurance – from the South Atlantic, giving the Argentine military the impression that Britain wouldn’t fight for the Falklands (1) , (2).
The motive may have been a patriotic war for votes, or it may have been Thatcher’s narrow-minded obsession with cutting public spending as being a good thing in itself (her Defence Minister being chosen for his enthusiasm for spending cuts) which led to HMS Endurance being recalled to save a mere £3 million from a budget of hundreds of billions a year. Either way the decision cost 907 lives – 255 of them British, left 907 families grieving and wounded 1,845 people. Some of the wounded, like Simon Weston, who suffered severe burns in an Argentine missile attack on a British destroyer, still bear the physical and emotional scars. After many years of facial reconstruction operations and mental illness caused by seeing many of his friends and comrades burning to death Simon has partially recovered and has written several successful books on his experiences (1), (2).
If the electorate had been thinking straight Thatcher should have lost a lot of votes for her government’s incompetence or cynicism in losing so many lives totally un-necessarily. Instead many of them rewarded her for winning a war that she could have prevented.
The false caricature of Foot as naive pacifist
Michael Foot as Labour leader decided to back the war on the basis that the people of the Falkland islands wanted to be under British rule and that the Argentine invasion was unprovoked aggression and a breach of the UN charter and international law. He also condemned Thatcher for her ‘betrayal’ of the Falkland islanders in failing to signal to the junta that British forces would defend the islands.
Despite this most of the press – especially Murdoch’s ‘Sun’ Tabloid – tried to present Foot as a senile, naive, old pacifist blinded by ideology using quotes from him like “I am an inveterate peace-monger”. Foot was certainly a peace-monger when it came to avoidable wars but he was no appeaser. Once the Argentine forces invaded the Falklands he backed military action. He condemned the Chamberlain government over it’s appeasement of Hitler after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia just as loudly as Churchill did. (He also volunteered to serve in the army after Britain declared war on Germany, but was turned down due to his severe asthma.) Unlike Churchill he had also campaigned against the Baldwin government’s appeasement of Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1920s (in which British Conservatives from Chamberlain to Churchill had no criticism of the government policy of not arming the elected Republicans and anarchists while making no attempt to stop Hitler and Mussolini sending arms, troops and entire squadrons of bombers to fight for Franco’s monarchists, largely on the grounds that fascists were seen as preferable to communists. The results of the policy were to make the Republicans reliant on Stalin and the Soviet Union for arms, dividing the Republicans and ensuring a fascist victory.) At that time Roosevelt was still referring to Mussolini as "that admirable Italian gentleman" (3), (4).
Foot was also opposed to the Iraq war, though he didn’t stop supporting the Labour party over it.
Foot, like Churchill, was prepared to fight when the alternative was to appease fascist regimes bent on world conquest and with the militaries to carry their threats out; Unlike Churchill he never backed wars of choice and Empire like the Boer war though.
The false caricature of Foot as ‘loony left’ - and the reality of a principled, reasonable, educated democrat
The Murdoch press also tried to paint Foot and the Labour party under him as ‘loony left’ using invented stories, like the ones about Labour controlled councils banning singing ‘baa baa black sheep’ as racist.
On nuclear weapons he took an uncompromising position of unilateral disarmament which not even his former hero Aneurin Bevan had adopted – but with the ‘Gang of Four’ and their supporters having left the party the majority of the party supported this position. I’m one of many people who disagree with this policy (in fact it's one of the few issues that i'm closer to Thatcher's views on), but Foot never forced this policy on his party in the 1983 Labour Election Manifesto. Under his leadership all decisions on party policy were decided democratically by a majority of the members. Critics may point out that union block votes compromised internal party democracy here - and they have a point - but today under 'one member, one vote' (which, in fact, still doesn't give equal votes to all members in conference or leadership elections) votes are irrelevant, because if the party leadership dislike the result, they ignore it. The last Labour leadership election was almost Soviet style, with only one candidate - Gordon Brown - on the ballot, with party members denied the right to vote for other candidates because too few MPs supported other candidates - most MPs being largely selected due to the influence of party leaders.
Since Foot never took the power to decide party policy himself he can’t be blamed for adopting policies supported by the majority of party members, whether they lost the party votes or not (and they may actually have increased the turn-out of Labour's core voters). Nor did Foot ever lie to get support for a policy he supported, the way Blair did on Iraq.
After Kinnock replaced Foot as leader democracy died in the Labour party. Under Kinnock, Blair and Brown votes by party conference are taken as ‘non-binding’ on the party leadership – in other words if they don’t like the result of a vote they ignore it and write their own policy instead. From Kinnock on if the party leader dislikes a candidate selected by a constituency party the leader or the National Executive Committee vetoes their candidacy and imposes a candidate they chose themselves – sometimes suspending or expelling the entire constituency party if it objects. The Conservative party is barely an more democratic internally. As a result the membership of the three largest parties in the UK has fallen steadily.
There have been a lot of crocodile tears since from party leaders about ‘public apathy’ and phony ‘attempts to reconnect with the voters’, but the truth is that party leaders have centralised all decision making in their own hands. While telling party members they have a duty to campaign for the policies and principles the party stands for they completely ignore the views of their members on what policies the party should have and removed the power to choose candidates by democratic votes too; So party members have left in droves. When one of the main parties has been out of power for a long time there’s a short-lived rise in membership as people too young to know what it was like in power the last time join up, along with some degree of opportunism. After the reality that their views are not wanted where they conflict with the latest u-turn by the leadership sink in they leave again. So Labour membership rose rapidly in 1997, but is now lower than ever before.
If you have an electoral system designed to hugely over-represent two large established parties and under-represent (or not represent) anyone else - and you then combine that with the members of the big parties having no say in what the parties’ policies are – the sad but obvious result is that a large minority of people are discouraged and give up on trying to influence their country’s government or politics at all.
Under Tony Blair billionaires like Lord Sainsbury made donations to party funds, were made Lords and then cabinet ministers – just as under Cameron the Conservatives have made Lord Ashcroft a Lord for making big donations to party funds – and if they win the next election they’ll make him a government minister too. Michael Foot never let big donations from billionaires influence party policy, nor did he ignore democratic votes by the majority of party members on policy.
Foot was a pragmatist on many issues. For instance he supported the Blair and Brown governments on their introduction of a national minimum wage and successful peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.
While I concede those two things were real achievements of ‘New Labour’ in government i can’t support them. I admit that the Conservatives would be even worse than Blair or Brown have been, but Blair and Brown continued and expanded the worst policies of the Conservatives under Major . They expanded the PFIs and PPPs begun under Major (resulting in increased taxes but cuts in the number of fully trained staff in the NHS and in schools), increased public subsidies to privatised rail firms (while they pushed rail fares up at several times the rate of inflation), continued arming and backing dictatorships and human rights abusers; and lied in order to take us into a war which could only cost more lives than it saved – and increase terrorism rather than reduce it.
That only underlines the fact that Foot was far more of a pragmatist and far less of an idealist or extremist than some of his critics said he was though. The one exception was his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, but that was understandable in someone who heard live reports of the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Having said that he never abandoned his principles – and his principles were not idle intellectualism, they were about helping those who needed the help.
Foot said that “We are not in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth..”
Thatcher meanwhile missed the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan by saying “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions. He had money as well.”.
Margaret Thatcher was far more extreme and ideological in most of her policy positions than Foot ever was, but because her policies involved cutting taxes on the wealthiest, breaking the trade unions using anti-union laws and allowing Murdoch’s News International to avoid taxes in return for his newspapers’ support in elections much of the media shone a kindly light on Margaret Thatcher. Someone who wore the right clothes was forgiven for destroying the lives of thousands through an avoidable war and through a calculated policy of creating mass unemployment to drive down wages and break the trade unions and the main opposition party. Meanwhile Michael Foot, an honest, intelligent, principled, democrat was presented as if he was a senile lunatic because he wore a warm coat over his suit and black tie at the Cenotaph. Thatcher, responsible for so many needless deaths and so much suffering by the unemployed, the homeless and the opposition to Apartheid in South Africa (who she refused to help in any way and denounced as “terrorists”) was seen as a great heroine. Foot, who served both his country and the causes of democracy and equality worldwide, was looked down on as inferior for his sartorial inelegance. That is a measure of how shallow, how trivial and how confused our view of things can become when we allow manipulative alliances between media barons and politicians to distort our judgement and draw our eyes away from what’s really important. Michael Foot may have looked like he was wearing a “donkey jacket” at the cenotaph, but looking at his record and Margaret Thatcher’s there’s little doubt about which one often wore ideological blinkers that brought disaster and which one always fought to reduce the suffering of others.
(1) = Lawrence Freedman ‘The Official history of the Falklands War’
(2) = Anthony Seldon & Daniel Collings ‘Britain Under Thatcher’ , Chapter 2, page 20
(3) = Anthony Beevor ‘The Spanish Civil War’ , Chapter XI
(4) = Wolfgang Schivelbusch 'Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939' p. 31