Monday, 8 March 2010

Michael Foot: A political class that outlived its mission

Sunset for Socialism?

Michael Foot, former Labour Party leader [1980-83], who died last Wednesday [3rd, March] reflected the fundamental folly of the tradition of parliamentary socialism. He is a better example of this parliamentary foolishness than the much abused northern MP James Purnell [see previous post]. In Michael Foot we have had what appears to be a sincere socialist parliamentarian, who I saw in the late 1950s at a Labour Party Conference in Blackpool with his finger wagging from the rostrum at Hugh Gaitskell and the Labour leadership on the platform, denouncing their retreats in the socialist program. He was for decades the star orator of the left-wing rebels in parliament and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; a rebel who argued that 'You can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink!' In the end Foot, the Honorary Member for Ebbw Vale (or Blaenau Gwent) from 1960, accepted first his appointment as Secretary of State for Employment in the government of Harold Wilson in 1974 and during the Falklands war, as leader of the Labour Party, he seemed to dither between first calling for resistance to Argentine aggression then emphasising the need to work for a peace settlement with the Junta.

James Purnell, MP for Hyde & Stalybridge and former Minister for Work & Pensions, as we now know is standing down at the coming General Election [see previous post] and, like Michael Foot, has been a bit of a career politician. The 40-year-old Purnell has said he does not want to spend all his life in 'front line politics'. Over two weeks ago, following Purnell's decision to stand down, The Financial Times in an editorial regretted this saying he had been unusual in that he had been a Minister 'interested in ideas'. He may well be 'interested in ideas' but in his utterances it's hard to find any coherent philosophy. In his looks there is something of the hotel bedroom about him: something rootless and slightly insincere.

But is there a contrast between a 'sincere' Michael Foot and James Purnell MP, who some see as an opportunist; is it right to portray this as a distinction between left and right-wing Labour? I remember Foot in the late 1980s, in a Radio4 talk with AJP Taylor, the historian, and the broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, and at the time a keen Foot fan said to me: 'Thatcher could never fit in with such company'. Maybe not, and Purnell, or even Tony Blair, would always seem like Cheap Jacks when measured against the intellectual skills of a Michael Foot. Yet George Orwell in a letter the novelist Julian Symons in 1948, wrote, commenting on the Labour party paper Tribune that: 'The evil genius of the paper has I think been Crossman, who influences it through Foot & Fyvel.' Orwell then went on to argue that: 'I really think I prefer the Zilliacus lot, since after all they do have a policy, i.e. to appease Russia.' Orwell's point here is to suggest that the Labour left, including Michael Foot, were really rather mealy-mouthed opportunists willing to make anti-American squeals on Foreign Policy to appeal to the far left, while in essence supporting the Labour Government on major matters such as conscription.

In retrospect it seems to me that Blair by inventing the concept of 'New Labour' in the 1990s performed a work of genius at a time when in reality the Labour Party was well past its sell-by date. Consider a movement like the Labour Party that began with the likes of Keir Hardy only to end up with prominent men such as Peter Mandelson and James Purnell. Progressive movements often start off with fresh dynamic characters such as Sun Yat Sen or Gandhi and conclude with something less savoury. Remember the words of Tony Blair on the first day of his election win in 1997: 'A New Dawn has broken!' He could only use that kind of terminology in the context of a virtual reality trick that portrayed 'New Labour' as something actually 'new'. In reality it was nothing of the sort but more a sordid sham to cover up the fact that, in terms of the Labour Party, we are not at the dawn of something but rather at its sunset. It seems to me that we are looking at a political class that has increasingly outlived its mission and this description of the political arena may go beyond the Labour Party.

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