The hypocrisy of the British media can still surprise. Look at the warmth with which they bade farewell to Michael Foot when he died last week, after they had vilified him while he was leader of the Labour Party between 1980 and 1983.
Foot was treated even worse than Tony Benn, then the leader of the hard Labour left, was during the same period. The press feared Benn, while they simply despised Foot. Of course, as we have seen in Benn’s case, old socialists can become transformed into national treasures once they cease to be a threat.
Since Foot died, there has been much talk about his qualities as an orator. Certainly he could be powerful and sometimes very funny—as he was in the no confidence debate that brought down James Callaghan’s Labour government in April 1979. But I remember two speeches of Foot’s that leave me regarding him with less affection.
One was his speech as leader of the opposition when the House of Commons debated the Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands on 3 April 1982. Facing Margaret Thatcher’s reeling government, Foot led the chorus for war.
As Anthony Barnett pointed out at the time, Foot’s was “the voice of moral imperialism”. He demanded that Thatcher “prove by deeds…the claim of our country to be the defender of people’s freedom throughout the world”.
Foot’s performance that day highlighted a crucial feature of Labourism, whether of the left or of the right. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argue in The Labour Party: a Marxist History, “Labour tries to combine” nation and class “by channelling working class struggle through the institutions of the national state”.
But when a conflict develops between the two, nation always trumps class. Foot’s deep-seated nationalism helps to explain his friendship with Enoch Powell, the father of racist politics in contemporary Britain.
The second speech was at the Labour Party conference on 30 September 1975. Three months earlier, Harold Wilson’s Labour government had put controls on pay that would lead to the biggest fall in real wages Britain experienced during the 20th century—worse than anything that happened during the Great Depression or under Thatcher.
Foot was the champion of the Labour left, but also secretary of state for employment. He made the decisive speech that quelled opposition to the pay controls—legitimised by the “Social Contract” between the government and the unions—by invoking “the red flame of socialist courage”.
This speech also explains why Foot is not an irrelevant figure, contrary to the media coverage that, while praising him, has portrayed him as belonging to a bygone age.
Foot explained to the conference that Britain had been hit by an “economic hurricane”—the global crisis of 1974-5. This had made it “impossible” for Labour to implement the left wing programme that it had adopted in opposition in 1973. Instead it moved to revive British capitalism by shifting income from wages to profits.
Interestingly Gordon Brown has also described the present crisis as an “economic hurricane”. This metaphor has the advantage of representing crises and the suffering they cause as natural events, beyond human agency or control.
But there is another contemporary social democratic politician whose plight is much closer to that of Wilson and Foot in 1975. George Papandreou won the Greek parliamentary elections last October on a programme of higher wages, social spending and green investments.
Last week, to appease the financial markets, Papandreou’s cabinet approved a package of cuts amounting to 1.5 percent of national income. It includes freezing pensions and scrapping low-paid workers’ Easter and Christmas bonuses.
True to form, Papandreou said these measures were needed to avert “catastrophe”. In reality, it is what he’s doing that is the catastrophe. The Social Contract, so eloquently defended by Foot, paved the way for Thatcher. What fresh monstrosity are today’s social democrats preparing us for?