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Review of Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot (4)


What, then, is left? Desperately casting around for something of lasting substance, Morgan comes up with the following:

"His was a deeply principled attachment to parliamentary sovereignty ­ yet also a romantic conservative one. It was the sovereignty of Parliament, not the defence of socialism, which provided the basis of his passionate opposition to entry into Europe. It was Parliament which provided the framework for his socialism, in opposition to the left-wing extra-parliamentary (or, as he felt, anti-parliamentary) movements like Militant. Parliament was the foundation of the democratic socialism with which he resisted Tony Benn. Parliament should be inviolable as for centuries past ..."

But here he touches on what is, for me, a raw nerve. In the preface to his book Loyalists and Loners, Foot launches a passionate defence of the British party system. He complains about efforts to justify terrorism in "societies that can truly be called democratic". Where a parliamentary system with functioning political parties able to compete for government exists there can be no excuse for "the wanton killings of the Bader Meinhof Group or the Sikh extremists or the IRA".

I was at the time, in the 1970s and 80s, a member of a Marxist group ­- the small but intellectually very lively British and Irish Communist Organisation. It may have been a bad thing to be a member of a "left-wing extra-parliamentary (or, as he felt, anti-parliamentary)" movement of this sort, but I had a good excuse. I lived in Northern Ireland and was therefore excluded from membership of the Labour Party. Northern Ireland was, like it or not, part of the United Kingdom and at the time it was directly ruled from Westminster. But even when there had been a separate parliament at Stormont it was very much under the control of Westminster, which oversaw the budget.

My government, therefore, was Westminster and the refusal of the Labour Party to organise or contest elections in Northern Ireland meant that I could not join or vote for or against a party of government. That being the case, Northern Ireland, where the IRA was active, was not a society that could "truly be called democratic". By 1986, when Loyalists and Loners was published, Foot and other members of the Labour leadership had been bombarded with material from our little unparliamentary Marxist group explaining this elementary and obvious principle of parliamentary democracy, yet the point never seems to have got through to him. It might have been explained to him by his friend Enoch Powell, who certainly understood it, but by that time Powell seems to have felt that his loyalty to the provincial Unionist Party was more important than the need to admit the people of Northern Ireland into the wider political system under which they were governed.


That is one point that escapes Morgan's attention. There are others. I have presented Foot's biography of Bevan as being in part a polemic against the perceived continuing influence of Ernest Bevin. Foot, and indeed the Labour left in general, seem to have wanted to erase Bevin's achievement from the historical consciousness of the British Labour movement. One element in this was to smear him with the accusation of anti-Semitism because of his policy on Palestine in the period of British withdrawal and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947-8.

Here Morgan appears as a willing collaborator with Foot. He refers to Bevin's "blatantly anti-Jewish policy in Palestine" and says, without giving a source, that on the British withdrawal "the Foreign Office imagined that the various Arab armies would simply drive the Jews into the sea". Foot was at the time very sympathetic to Zionism as was, generally, the left of the Labour Party, obviously deeply affected by the sufferings of the Jews in Europe during the war. Foot's biography of Bevan offers a similar caricature of Bevin's policy and enthusiastically evokes Bevan's own enthusiasm for Zionism, including a visit to Israel when he was very impressed by his "young friend" Yigal Allon, later, in the 1960s and 70s a government minister and, briefly, Prime Minister. (Allon's earlier activities in organising the destruction of Arab villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants during the period of the Naqba are described in some detail in Ilan Pappe's recent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.)

Morgan, however, has less excuse than Foot since he is writing after the publication of the third part of Alan Bullock's biography of Ernest Bevin, which describes the evolution of his Palestine policy in detail. Very briefly, Bevin knew what was obvious to anyone who gave the matter any thought (yet rarely stated out loud) that a secure Jewish state could not be created in Palestine without a large-scale displacement of the native Arab population. It was not just a matter of numbers, though even a large-scale immigration of displaced persons from Europe would still leave a substantial Arab population in any area big enough to allow for a viable state ­ never mind the full territory of mandate Palestine, which the Zionists were demanding. As things stood most of the land in any conceivable Jewish state would still be occupied by Arabs. This was well understood by the Zionists and they knew it would necessitate a military conflict. Pappe shows that they were initially nonplussed by the apparent reluctance of the Arab population to fight.

As for military prowess and the idea that the Foreign Office expected the Jews to be pushed into the sea, all the intelligence Bevin was receiving, including indications from the Zionists themselves, suggested that the advantage lay with the Jews. The major force on the Arab side was the Arab Legion, based in Jordan, but it was under British leadership and control and confined itself to preserving the West Bank, the area that interested the British-oriented Jordanian king, Abdullah. The self-confidence of the Jewish paramilitary forces was shown by their eagerness to secure a British withdrawal, clearing the way for a direct confrontation with the Arabs.

Bevin tried to find a solution that would have prevented the ethnic cleansing of Palestine - ­ essentially a binational single state. When he failed ­- and he got no support from the Arabs themselves, unwilling to give the Jews any special legal status in the area ­- he washed his hands of the matter, handing responsibility over to the fledgling United Nations without any British recommendation as to the policy to be adopted. He could indeed be criticised for failing to provide for the protection of the Arabs and especially for allowing the British army to stand by looking on when the ethnic cleansing began. But instead he was widely reviled as an anti-Semite continuing the policy of the Nazis (when he went to New York the dockers refused to handle his baggage and he was booed when his presence was announced at a football match.) This was not a pleasant situation to be in in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It also brought the risk of a major confrontation with the United States when alliance with the US was the cornerstone of his European policy.

Morgan tells us that Foot later on, in the 1970s, began to question his support for Israel, to follow his fellow Tribune contributors and to feel that the Israelis had spoiled their own case. He objected to the Israeli occupation and settlement in the West Bank, though it is not obvious why this was worse than what was done in 1948, apart from the fact that in 1948 Israel had a "left-wing" image while throughout the 1970s it was increasingly dominated by the "right-wing" Likud party. Morgan comments, a little naively, that Israel's West Bank policy was "only beginning to be reversed in 2006".


Another area in which Morgan and Foot are in agreement on what seems to me a simplistic view of foreign affairs is the breakup of Yugoslavia. Foot and his wife, the filmmaker Jill Craigie, visited Dubrovnik, on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, in 1981 and fell in love with it, as they had previously fallen in love with Venice. They were naturally horrified by the siege and shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991-2. They saw the break-up of Yugoslavia through Croatian eyes and blamed the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic for all the wars which accompanied it.

Curiously, one of their great friends was Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a beautifully written but very pro-Serb view of Yugoslavia published in 1942 at a time when British sympathies were still very much with the anti-German Serbs. Morgan refers briefly to West but does not engage at all with the main thrust of her argument. Anyone reading her, however, would have known that Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were bound to resist incorporation into any independent Croatian or Bosnian state. And the book was based on her travels in 1937 before the persecutions that the Serbs suffered in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the war.

Very broadly, the Serbs, spread throughout the whole territory, had an interest in the unity of Yugoslavia, while other peoples ­- most obviously the Slovenes and Croats ­- had an interest in increased local autonomy. The tension between these two positions was well-established and informed the whole period of the Tito dictatorship. It was democracy that blew the system apart ­ and Serbia was a democratic country under Milosevic, with elections which were always problematic for him. The Kosovan Albanians had the vote along with everyone else but chose not to exercise it. Here, as so often, Foot, putting everything down to the personal wickedness of Slobodan Milosevic, was using all his impressive moral fervour to promote a dangerously oversimplified view of the world. In one of the essays in Loyalists and Loners, he expresses great contempt for David Owen. But Owen's Balkan Odyssey is a much more interesting account of the Yugoslav conflict than anything Foot ever wrote, and much more informative on the role of Milosevic. Owen eventually, very belatedly, came to recognise what should have been seen at the outset, that the break-up of Yugoslavia required a preferably negotiated redrawing of its internal boundaries.


"Without Foot ... there could have been no Tony Blair." Morgan's remark is obviously a little double-edged but insofar as it can be read as a compliment it means that without Foot the Labour Party would not have survived as a body capable of returning to power in 1997. This is indeed probably Foot's most substantial contribution to British political history: he saw off the challenge posed by Tony Benn, who wanted Labour's elected representatives to be strictly bound to the wishes of the party rank and file in the constituency Labour parties and as expressed in the resolutions of the annual party conference.

Had Benn succeeded he might indeed have brought about the final demise of the Labour Party, reducing it to the status of a narrow little left-wing sect. But one can never be sure. It could also have resulted in an enormous boost to popular participation, as people -­ not all of them Trotskyite entryists ­- would have felt that by joining a political party they could have some personal influence on national politics. As it is, the opposite has happened. Inner party democracy has been completely hollowed out and the parliamentary party is under no popular pressure at all other than from its own understanding of opinion polls and the views of the popular newspapers.

In these circumstances "New Labour" has broadly accepted the Thatcherite view that the economy should be dynamic and competitive and that the necessary condition for this is insecurity within the working class. This may not be as incompatible with Foot's legacy as it might appear. His socialism, as we have seen, was underpinned by a solid grounding in the free market radicalism of the nineteenth century. Bevan said of him: "Deep down, Michael is still a liberal." Morgan comments that his true cultural habitat (like Tony Benn's, he thinks) was the French Enlightenment. He was Voltaire to Benn's Rousseau.

In sum, he was an individualist: hence his insistence on the rights of individual MPs and his (in my view very honourable) defence of Enoch Powell. It is difficult to identify a leading idea running through Foot's whole career, but one possible candidate might be opposition to "corporatism", the charge (with its associations of fascism) brought against Bevin in the 1940s and Heath in the 1970s. Heath had actually proposed that the economy could be run corporately by the government, the TUC and the CBI working together on the basis of a clearly established legal framework. It may be that what Foot disliked most about such a corporate arrangement was first its entrenchment of management as a legitimate corporate interest, but more instinctively perhaps its probable dullness ­- the emphasis on security, stability, the safe pair of hands. This may also have informed his hostility to Communism in Eastern Europe. Now that we are experiencing a dynamic economy generating insecurity, especially insecurity of employment, everyday dull security is beginning to look more attractive as a political ideal.

Morgan tells us that Foot was quite comfortable with Tony Blair and with the victories of New Labour until the Iraq war in 2003. It is not easy to see why, after supporting the illegal war on Serbia, he should feel so strongly about the illegal war on Iraq, especially since I see no sign that he opposed the destruction of Iraq's civil infrastructure in 1991 or the subsequent United Nations-imposed sanctions which prevented rebuilding and gradually destroyed what there was of a modern, organised civil society. 2003 merely finished the process off by destroying the state (a state structure which preceded the period of Baathist domination and had maintained a large degree of national unity through successive putsches, war and the deliberately induced famine of the United Nations embargo). But perhaps Foot just found the crowds and the banners and the excitement of it all irresistible. Once again things were simple and clearcut. The forces of good were ranged against the forces of evil. The Liberty Tree was once again raised.

Significantly, among the very few mainstream politicians who opposed the war from its beginnings in 1990-91 ­- the moment when the post-Soviet New World Order had been announced - ­were the Butskellites, Foot's old adversaries, Edward Heath and Denis Healey, who were to my mind, much more than Michael Foot, the true representatives of a better era in British politics.