First published in Canvas: 4th October 2011
Question: What should one wear to a Remembrance Sunday parade? Answer: Certainly suit and a tie; donkey jacket optional; weather conditions depending!
Ask the average politics student to recall the career of Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, and they will, if they respond at all, likely tell you one of two things. 1) That he led the Labour Party to a historic defeat at the 1983 election with a manifesto deemed ‘the longest suicide note in history.’ 2) That he wore a donkey jacket to a Remembrance Sunday parade.
This is unfortunate on two accounts: 1) the manifesto was no more left wing than the previous two Labour had produced, and included many policies subsequently adopted by governments. 2) The public have rarely, if ever, looked towards politicians for advice on what to wear. More frustratingly, it also confirms the popular conception of the public as rarely permitting any one person to have even two traits. Margaret Thatcher was the ‘Iron Lady,’ John Major, a ‘boring man’ and Gordon Brown a ‘clunking fist.’
As political history is written by the winners, it is not surprising that Foot has been relegated to the status of idle mockery. This is also unfortunate, because of all the leaders of the Labour Party in the post war era it was Foot represented most clearly the socialist and egalitarian principles on which the party had been founded. Though the 1983 election was an overwhelming victory for free market economics, it is foolish to assume, as did so many satirists, that his appeals to socialism were falling on deaf ears.
Foot was a man of genuine intellectual capacity; who read voraciously and quoted the great political satirists of the 17th and 18th century in polite conversation. He was unique amongst his political peers for his impassioned speeches on the issues of unilateralism and unemployment. He served as leader at a time of great uncertainty in British politics, and fought valiantly to hold the Labour Party together at a time when it was in serious danger of irrevocable fragmentation. His vision: that the Labour Party could deliver a positive vision for the country through collective action.
His formative political experiences occurred in Liverpool, where he had worked as a shipping clerk during the Great Depression. He joined the Labour Party in 1934. ‘For the first time in my life, I saw what true poverty meant.’ he wrote in 1983, ‘I saw it in the back streets. I saw it as the most fearful curse which could befall our people – breaking a man’s faith in his craft, breaking a woman’s right to her own life, breaking whole families, turning children against their parents and parents against their children.’
Foot saw a continuity in Conservative Party rhetoric which only served to entrench poverty in communities, while institutionalised class snobbery served to codify a quasi religious belief in ‘keeping the masses down. ‘Sometimes over the past years, I could close my eyes and imagine I was listening to Neville Chamberlain reciting the Thatcher fairy-tale or demon tale. Nothing can be done. The unemployed must wait in their ever-lengthening queues until private enterprise, in God’s good time, offers them ‘a real job.’
The economic and social collapse of the late 1970s had a cruel and profound effect upon British politics. For a time, Britain appeared lost. The post war consensus built by Clement Attlee and the Labour party had been undermined by recession, and as a result, various ideological factions were fighting to fill the void. The Conservative Party rallied around a return to classical liberalism, and slowly purged its moderate ‘One Nation,’ faction.
The Labour Party however, found itself in more pressing circumstances. The Labour left, led by Tony Benn, embraced Trotskyism, allying itself to Militant and other entryist groups. The Labour right, led by David Owen and Shirley Williams, split to form the Social Democratic Party. Foot tried and failed to expel Militant from the Labour Party, and had little positive to say of the SDP. ‘There are long standing political truths, such as the centre ground in politics is always shifting, and that those that who are content to shift with it will suffer the proper fate of third rate adventurers, They are the politicians whose ambitions cloud their vision. They will slip and slither to their fate.’
Foot’s own socialism was fairly unique for its time. In an interview given from a 1965 edition of People to Watch, he stated: ‘I am a libertarian socialist. I believe that socialism is the way to get the most freedom for individuals.’ He was not a pacifist, and unlike many Labour Party members of the time, he had never been a communist, though he did have sympathy with the views of Marx. His political hero was Nye Bevan; the architect of the National Health Service, and like him, he believed in a belligerent and active Labour Party as the answer to the societies ills.
He was sympathetic with the views of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose article ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted,’ argued that the Labour Party had to change its outlook to address its falling voter share. Why had Labour lost so many unionists, young people, and women to other parties? The Labour Party, Foot said, should admit the false excuses for the economic and social situation, and join together. ‘If members of the Labour Party displayed so persistently in public, such little confidence in one another, how could the public, the less committed political observer, be expected to reach a different discernment?’
This was not to say that the Labour Party should adopt Thatcherism. Foot believed that the principles of the modern Conservative Party were no more than an echo of the principles which had triggered the creation of the Labour Party in the first place. ‘Thatcherism was the moral shield for the re-establishment of that older society of Victorian misery; a moral cloak that might otherwise be exposed as bare self interest – self-reliance, individual responsibility, careful housekeeping the protection of one’s own family. She was able to attack the Labour Party as the enemy of home ownership, the friend of high taxation, and the unwilling protector of savings and property.’
If Foot had a failing it was that he was simply too accommodating of his rivals to see through any meaningful reform. Elected as leader with the pressing need to hold the party together, it became difficult for him to set out his vision for Britain in a period of national decline. And though he believed that the best way to commemorate the war dead was to prevent another war, and had spent a lifetime campaigning for nuclear disarmament, the media thought obviously disagreed. When assessing the impact of the 1983 election on British society, is it best to remember the policies, rather than the trivialities of formal dress.