IT was a memorable night, albeit largely for reasons that fall considerably short of pleasantness. On June 9, 1983, I sat my last university exam. It happened to be election day in Britain, and late that evening two Indian friends and I congregated to watch the results trickle in.
There wasn’t a hope in hell of Margaret Thatcher’s government being turfed out, as it richly deserved to be; the only suspense revolved around the size of its new majority. Two of us were consequently determined to drown our sorrows; the third, whose dormitory room we had commandeered for the purpose, happened to be a devout Muslim, had insisted that we bring along our own tumblers.
In the event, there was no dearth of sorrows to drown, and as seat after seat fell to the Tories, we despondently drifted off to sleep, waking up a few hours later to discover that the scale of the devastation was even worse than we had feared. It had been decades since the Labour Party had suffered such a stinging defeat.
I’m not sure whether it struck us at the time that we were witnessing one of Labour’s darkest hours from the very place – Oxford’s Wadham College – where the party’s leader, Michael Foot, had been a promising student about half a century earlier.
Foot, who died last week at the ripe old age of 96, was quite possibly the most decent person to have led a major British political party; not surprisingly, in the rough and tumble of modern politics, this admirable trait – manifested, inter alia, in a remarkable lack of personal ambition – did him little good.
Foot’s reputation has a highly principled socialist – which remained more or less intact during his years in government in the 1970s, first under Harold Wilson and then as deputy prime minister to Jim Callaghan – inevitably meant that as opposition leader he would constantly be under attack, particularly from the Tory press.
The right-wing tabloids were unrelentingly vicious in the years leading up to the 1983 election, portraying him as a batty old man and harping on his resemblance to children’s television character Worzel Gummidge, a living scarecrow. He was pilloried for attending the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in 1981 in what was described as a “donkey jacket”, the implication being that he was somehow disrespecting the memory of Britain’s war dead by turning up in unconventional attire.
The suggestion that he somehow fell short of the mark in the patriotism department was utterly absurd: if anything, Foot was rather hidebound in this respect. He was among the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and described himself as an “inveterate peace-monger”, yet he unequivocally supported Margaret Thatcher’s despatch of a British task force to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
This wasn’t an instance of hypocrisy: Foot was consistent in his belief that fascist aggression must be resisted, and back in 1940 had been the primary author of a popular polemical tract titled Guilty Men, which took to task Nazi appeasers among the British establishment. In 1982, Argentina’s military dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, reminded him of Benito Mussolini. (Unlike Thatcher, he held Chile’s Augusto Pinochet in equal contempt.) In the 1990s, similar impulses drove him to support Nato intervention in the former Yugoslavia.
It’s worth noting, though, that Foot was in favour of the South Atlantic task force being used initially to pressure Argentina into peacefully withdrawing from the Falklands/Malvinas instead of initiating hostilities right away. And he probably hadn’t bargained for the ugly wave of jingoism unleashed by the South Atlantic war, which by common consensus greatly facilitated Thatcher’s electoral triumph the following year.
However, ructions within the Labour Party contributed in no uncertain terms to its poor showing. Despite his best efforts, Foot was unable to prevent a bunch of high-profile right-wingers – the Gang of Four, as they were called at the time – from staging a dramatic exit to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which attracted a swath of other Labour MPs and, in 1983, damagingly split the anti-Tory vote.
As many of the tributes last week noted, it is to Foot’s credit that he was able to sustain Labour’s viability as a broad church. Given his indisputable credentials as a left-winger, he did this partly by allowing the right to have its way, creating the impression that he was effectively the prisoner of forces that despised much of what he stood for.
This weakness – or pragmatism, depending on your point of view – contributed to the impression that Labour’s biggest flaw circa 1983 lay in its socialist agenda itself (the party’s unwieldy manifesto that year was described by leading right-wing MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”), rather than its inability to project it coherently, paving the way for a steady drift rightwards – and its eventual return to power under a leader whom Thatcher was happy to anoint as a worthy heir on the economic front.
On that night of mourning in June 1983, not one but two future Labour prime ministers entered parliament for the first time. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were effusive in their praise of Foot last week, as were many of his former adversaries, recalling his principled idealism as well as the wit and erudition that contributed to his towering stature as a parliamentary orator. Notwithstanding his unforgettable description of Norman Tebbit as “a semi house-trained polecat”, Foot rarely had a harsh word to say about anyone and never publicly criticized Blair or Brown – although, despite his physical frailty, he insisted on speaking at the unprecedentedly large anti-war rally in London in the run-up to the military assault on Iraq.
Reciprocally, the affection he inspired was never restricted to ideological soulmates: decades ago, he counted Lord Beaverbrook and Enoch Powell among his friends. As a radical activist, journalist, writer and an unfashionably forthright politician, there is much in Foot’s biography that dims the significance of Labour’s 1983 nadir, even if it cannot be entirely wished away.