Thursday, 4 March 2010

A Tribute to Michael Foot - A Timely Reminder To The Generation He Leaves

Yesterday was tarnished by the sad loss of Michael Foot who died aged 96. He will be remembered primarily as the former leader of the Labour Party who led them into the most divisive and polarised election in modern history, the 1983 election - just as Thatcher’s Britain was beginning to unravel and divide the opinions of the country. Similarly he will be remembered as an anti-establishment figure, particularly as the pioneer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament movement. But what he represented in British politics was much more remarkable. As the campaign trail intensifies heading towards the May 2010 election, his legacy can best be understood and appreciated against its backdrop.

Firstly, Michael Foot was by many perceptions a considered intellectual. He was a voracious reader, an Oxford graduate, and a well respected thinker, writer and essayist - the type of man who throughout history would have been leading his movement from behind a desk with his ideas, than from the front. The crossover of intellectuals into politics has always been a difficult path to breach. At the fall of the USSR, when Solzhenitsyn returned from his exile in America, a field worker asked him if he was running for office in the new Russia. He smiled and explained that he was a writer, and considered the petty backstabbing and squabbling of politics as beneath his capabilities. In this respect, Donald MacIntyre of the BBC is still asking “was Michael Foot an intellectual who should have never soiled his hands with political office”? But unlike many talented artists and writers, Michael Foot harboured a deep passion to change politics. He lacked the pomposity of many artists, writers and intellectuals in his character, one which sees most maintain a strict separation from the establishment. Contrarily, Foot found himself ‘at home’ speaking in Parliament fighting hard for the changes he wanted to see.

This was no doubt exemplified in the 1983 election. His electoral manifesto considered “the longest suicide note in history”, contained amongst other things, a widespread platform to nationalise Britain’s heavy industries. Margaret Thatcher was only a year prior polled as the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history, battling widespread unemployment, repeated unworkable policies and an unpopular raising of taxes in economic recession. Whilst the Falklands conflict without doubt rebranded Thatcher as a capable war leader, it was seen as Labour’s greatest chance to moderate itself and seize power. But rather than compensate on his ideals, and even those further on the radical left, Foot stayed strong to his own values and convictions ultimately at the expense of political power. A sobering thought, in an age where opposition parties offer three soft electoral policies a year, and leaders start the day wishing to not offend the ‘middle voter’ and maintain the centre ground at all costs.

Another thing which set Michael Foot apart was his sheer dedication to politics. In total, Foot was active as MP for 42 years, during which time he worked as editor of several publications (including the London Evening Standard), continued his penchant for essaying, led his parliamentary party and started several campaigns to change policy (most notably CND). Again, this career of political dedication to beliefs is almost unheard of in the contemporary era; we could quite conceivably see Obama and Cameron leading the next decade, both of whom came on to their respective scenes with less than five years political experience, both emphasising the drastic need for change (and often without providing the key details). The days of Michael Foot and real passion for ideals and debate, over hollow rhetoric and political opportunism, seem to have bowed out with his political career.

A comment on the blog of my former politics lecturer simply reads; “Back in the 80s when he was leader of the Labour party, I got on a doubledecker bus in London and saw this white-haired oldish man sat in front of me in a duffle coat. Further on, he got up to get off, it was only then that I realised that it was Michael Foot on his own”. What are the chances of that happening in the modern age? A politician using public transport, not suffocated by political aides advising him to smile, pick up and cuddle the nearest baby. Riding on a bus to get somewhere, without contacting the media beforehand or organising a press circus to meet him as he got off. In the era when John Prescott, as Transport Minister, had two Jaguars and a chauffeur to get him about. In the era when Boris Johnson will ride a bike to work to be seen as eco friendly (and have a car and civil servants carry his work). This was a principled politician of deep integrity, so far removed from the spin and hollowness of politics; it is almost hard to remember how honest and straight-forward a leading party figure could be.

It is not surprising then that Michael Foot’s passing away has attracted such warm tributes from politicians from all over the political spectrum. Least not his arch-nemeses Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell, who have praised his integrity and commitment to his ideals, his making of politics about debating the issues. It is perhaps fitting that its timing; in the run up to the 2010 election, comes at a time when politicians are happier to avoid debating the issues, keen to stay as central and inoffensive as possible, more preoccupied with managing the press and carefully constructing their media images than committing to change the country for their vision of ‘the better’. So rest in peace Michael Foot; a man and leader everyone involved in the upcoming election could learn from.


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