Thursday, March 4, 2010

Britain's Left Foot

It's an interesting coincidence that, at this time when the U.K.'s Labor Party might be on the verge of being voted out of power, a man who had a major role in events that followed the last previous ouster of Labor, has died. Michael Foot, who was that party's leader from 1980 to 1983, died yesterday at the age of 96.

Foot was originally elected to the House of Commons in 1945. That was the long-delayed general election that followed the end of World War II in the European theater. A mere two months after London crowds had raised delirious cheers to Prime Minister Winston Churchill on V-E Day, the country gave a landslide defeat to Churchill's Conservative Party. Labor, led by Clement Attlee, had a mandate to implement socialism in the U.K.

Foot was at the forefront of that change. He was a protege of Aneurin Bevan, who, as Minister of Health in Attlee's government, oversaw the creation of the National Health Service, one of many activities that the government took over from the private sector during the late 1940s.

Foot served in the Cabinet under two later Labor prime ministers, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. But he didn't fit in very well with those leaders who were of a more pragmatic bent.

When Callaghan resigned as party leader in 1980, the year after the Conservatives, by then led by Margaret Thatcher, had won a general election, a showdown came about between heavyweight contenders from Labor's leftist and moderate wings. Those candidates, Foot and Denis Healey, respectively, opposed each other in the vote for leader of the Labor Party.

Healey had been Britain's finance minister (chancellor of the exchequer) under Wilson and Callaghan. That put him in the unenviable position of dealing with the economic effects of three decades of socialism. On his watch, the U.K. was reduced to virtual Third World status, when the country needed to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

Foot won that contest for the party leadership, which guaranteed that, for some period of time, at least, Labor would quixotically continue on a hard-left path. In 1981, that led a group of prominent Labor moderates (excluding Healey) to leave Labor and form a new party, the Social Democrats. They later merged with the Liberal Party, to form the party now called the Liberal Democrats.

Gerald Kaufman is a Labor politician who, despite having served for several decades in the House of Commons, is no more than a footnote in British political history. But he achieved an immortality of sorts, when he uttered a soundbite that is still widely quoted. He called his party's 1983 general election manifesto (the equivalent of an American party platform) the "longest suicide note in history." Foot fought that election campaign on the basis of extreme-left positions on nuclear disarmament, European integration, and socialism.

The Conservatives won a landslide victory in 1983, winning a House of Commons majority that was about as large as the majority Labor had won in 1945. Those two years can be seen as bookends around the period of British socialism. Thatcher's government privatized many of the industries that had been nationalized by Attlee's government. (The National Health Service is the main exception.)

Foot resigned as leader in 1983 (although he remained in the House until 1992). He was succeeded by Neil Kinnock, who began the process of moving Labor back toward the center. At the general elections of 1987 and 1992, Kinnock managed to shrink the massive Conservative majority of 1983, but not to return his party to power. It would take more radical surgery on Labor's policy positions, including an explicit repudiation of nationalized industry, for Tony Blair, who became leader in 1994, to put the party back in government. That was achieved at the general election of 1997.

If, as the polls predict (although they are volatile), Labor loses the general election that will be held later this year, it seems highly doubtful that that party will take another lurch to the left, as it did 31 years ago.

Foot's obituarists point out that, whether or not one agrees with him on the substance of policy, he was a refreshing throwback to an era that predated political consultants. Obviously, his image, and his rhetoric, were not vetted by consultants and focus groups. That era is probably gone forever.

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