Thursday, April 27, 2006

Michael Foot: the last, lost, Labour leader

Interview with Michael Foot, first published in the Scotsman, 20 October, 2004, by Alastair McKay
The voice is like a wayward trumpet, wavering between The Last Post and What a Wonderful World. It comes down the telephone, loud and tremulous. I have asked Michael Foot whether it would be possible to meet to discuss his book of essays. “Ah yes!” he says. “Yes indeed! I would like to talk about two things; Donald Dewar, who lived in the flat at the top of my house for many years, and John Smith.” Both, he says suddenly, are sadly missed.
Foot’s mentor, Aneurin Bevan, once said that a leader of the Labour party had to be “a kind of desiccated calculating machine”. Foot’s stewardship of the party, from 1980, to their disastrous defeat in 1983, has never been viewed as a triumph of calculation, least of all by Foot, who was 66 when he became leader, and pleaded with Jim Callaghan to stay on. Under Foot’s watch, the Gang of Four – David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins – left to form the SDP. There were other reasons for the 1983 defeat: the Falklands war, a leader who was not telegenic; a manifesto described by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”, which included a commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament; and a vicious campaign to ridicule Foot. Famously, he was condemned for wearing a donkey jacket to the Remembrance Day ceremony in 1982, though his coat was actually a dark green number by Herbie Frogg of Jermyn Street.
In the 21 years since Foot was Labour leader, much has changed. The party has had three leaders, Kinnock, Smith and Blair, and seems as secure in government as the Conservatives did under Thatcher. In an odd shift of karma the Tories seem to have inherited the problems that disqualified Labour from power; whittling through leaders, arguing about Europe, and finding their progress checked by the demands of fundamentalists.
But there are signs, too, that Labour is at a crossroads. Blair’s revolution is mired in Iraq, and his ideology lacks the coherence to be termed an “-ism”. Now that the PM has acknowledged his political mortality, the tectonic plates are shifting again. At one level, this is a question of careers. At another it is a battle for Labour’s soul.
At the age of 92, Foot takes the long view. He sits at the dining room table of his Hampstead home, surrounded by mementoes. On the wall is a framed set of portraits of his father, Isaac, a Liberal MP.
“He was anti-drink, anti the brewers. They tried to get him out because he was their most furious opponent.”
Attached to the frame is a photo of Michael’s nephew, the radical journalist Paul Foot, who died in July. Nearby is a glamorous picture of Michael’s wife, the filmmaker Jill Craigie, who died in 1999. “Good Scottish name. Half-Scottish and half-Russian she was.”
Foot wears jumbo cords and a green sweat shirt. He has lost the sight in one eye, but his undulating style of oratory remains intact. He can fall silent for over a minute, as if sifting a Rolodex of possibilities. Some of the pauses are wistful, and he has a set of verbal punctuations – “but there you are”, “come to that later” – which keep him in command. Sometimes a pocket of air will shoot out – hmmph! – halfway between a laugh and a sigh.
His house keys hang around his neck from a silver chain. His keyring advertises a whisky: Scottish Leader.
“My mother was Scottish,” Foot says. “She was called Mackintosh. She was very proud of her Scottish upbringing. She claimed to be descended from William Wallace. I know quite a lot of other Scots did too.”
On the table in front of Foot is a booklet about John Smith. He reaches for his mug of honey and lemon, gulps, and exhales softly. “Now, right! Where would you like to start?”
Starting at the beginning would take too long, so I ask about his former lodger, Donald Dewar. The two became friends in 1978 when Foot, as leader of the House, went to support Dewar’s by-election campaign in Garscadden, only to be greeted by anti-abortion protestors waving banners proclaiming him a murderer: Foot had allowed parliamentary time for an abortion bill.
“I was very much in favour of that bill, and so was my wife, Jill. She was a strong supporter of women’s rights. She felt very strongly that women should have the right to decide these things and that men should be very careful when they tried to lay down the law.”
Dewar moved in after winning the by-election. Foot’s estimates of how long he stayed vary from four years to 14. It was a while, anyway: “As Jill said, he was a very good lodger because he hardly used any of our facilities.”
Though Dewar came from a different wing of the party, “he was a very good, interesting companion. He could be very despondent about the Labour party’s chances, you know. Until we actually did come back, I don’t think he thought we were going to. Nonetheless he was a very wise old head.”
Foot saw Dewar in Edinburgh in 2000, when he visited the book festival, and found him wounded by the hostility of the newspapers. Dewar’s death, two months later, was a terrible shock. “The last speech that Donald made at the party conference was a pretty good speech. We didn’t have any idea that this was going to happen to him. As happened to John Smith before. I’m not quite sure which was the worse tragedy.”
Smith has been on Foot’s mind recently. He was recently interviewed for a biography of the late Labour leader, and has been reflecting on the time they spent working together on the original home rule bill, the fall of which brought down the Callaghan government.
“With devolution, John Smith proved himself a very skilful parliamentary operator. Chiefly, because people believed what he said. He had great abilities as a debater, and that combined with his character made him a formidable figure.”
He pauses to take a sip of his hot drink. “Non-alcoholic, I tell you!”
There are a few false starts: “If. Uh, the uh…” Shaking his head, he composes himself.
“Now! If we come to the death of John Smith. We all thought he was recovering. We thought he was going to be better, and I think he did too.”
There was, Foot says, no better advocate of devolution than Smith. Foot was in favour of it because Keir Hardie always supported home rule: “If we’d called it that it might have been better.”
Foot’s attempts to introduce devolution were lost when 40% of Scottish voters failed to back it in the referendum of 1979. Foot wanted to push on with an amended proposal which the SNP would have been unable to oppose, but the PM, Jim Callaghan, had seen enough.
Asked about the performance of the Scottish parliament, Foot professes cautious optimism.
“Devolution has saved Scotland from one or two of the worst things they’ve done in England, on the tuition fees, on the Health Service, and on old people.”
He tells me a story of how, not long before she died, Jill was in hospital, and the news came through that MSP Susan Deacon had been defending abortion law in the parliament. “She was putting the whole case, and in a Scottish accent. I said to Jill: ‘Look, that’s progress’. She laughed, and said: ‘Yes it is’.”
Foot’s support for devolution is also grounded in the views of Nye Bevan, the Labour minister who founded the National Health Service. In setting up a national service, Bevan was aware, Foot says, that he was removing the democratic rights of people at a local level. “He was a real strong democrat, and he said: ‘We’ve got to restore democracy in the health service’. I’ve always thought devolution would do that: you would have a more direct democratic control over the health service. I still think that can happen, and is happening. As far I can see, in Scotland you are retaining some of the best things in the health service that might have been lost otherwise. It’s going to be good for England if you have a health service that’s maintained there better.
“It won’t be the first time that England has to catch up with Scotland and Wales.”
Clearly, Foot is aware that in saying this, he is placing himself in opposition to Tony Blair and Alan Milburn’s plan to reform the public services from the “radical centre”.
Invited to speculate on how things might have been different under a John Smith premiership, Foot allows himself a full minute of contemplation before speaking.
“Sometimes Tony Blair seems to behave as if he wants to offend the deepest instincts in the Labour movement. Well, I think that’s a great mistake. So I do think it could have been better if John Smith had led. We would have had a better Labour government, and one which would have carried better the full scale of reforms in our public life which need to occur.”
His most damning criticism of Blair is in foreign policy. He welcomes Gordon Brown’s contributions to international development, but feels that the government needs to pay more attention to disarmament.
“Instead of going for the war with Iraq they should have been restoring the policy of stopping the building of nuclear weapons. There are people in the Labour party who understand these matters very well. Robin Cook understands this, and resigned on these matters. It would be very much better if he was brought back.”
If the question is ignored, Foot offers a dark prospectus. “We’ll blow the world to pieces.”
History’s verdict on Foot will have to wait, but he bristles at the suggestion of his biographer, Mervyn Jones, that he was “more of a roaming guerrilla fighter than a leader”.
True, he says, Labour suffered a terrible result under his leadership, but it came at a time when the party was in mortal danger. The Gang of Four left, but others – among them Denis Healey, John Smith and Roy Hattersley – did not. “We kept in the party not only these people who agreed with me on the bomb, we also kept people who, on the question of Europe, held very strong views on the other side. If it hadn’t been for them there would never have been a re-created party. The ones who did leave – I pleaded with them not to. Shirley Williams, I pleaded with her not to go. And the other chaps. They all ended up in the House of Lords! Who made them Lords? The Tories!
“They got their reward. They don’t mention that very often.”
The Uncollected Michael Foot is published by Politico’s, £9.99

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