On April 3, 1982, the then leader of the opposition, Michael Foot, gave what has been rightly identified as one of the great speeches in the House of Commons during the last century.
“I must tell the House that the Falkland Islands and their dependencies remain British territory. No aggression and no invasion can alter that simple fact. It is the Government’s objective to see that the islands are freed from occupation and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment.”
Foot then went on to allude to the idea that perhaps Thatcher would go easy on the Argentines given what he ascribed to the Tories as a lack of will to take on right-wing dictatorships.
We all know what happened next. Thatcher didn’t go easy on the junta run out of Buenos Aires and in fact defended the Falklands. It was part of what helped the Tories win a larger majority in the 1983 general election (although, Labour splitting also was a boost).
Given the comparisons being made by many, mostly on the right of British politics, between Foot and Corbyn and more over how 2015 could be like 1979, and 2020 like 1983, it’s worth doing a breakdown of the parallels between the two men. If Corbyn became Labour leader, he would be a very similar age to Foot when he took over (Foot was 67 when became leader; Corbyn would be 66). Both men are considered to be definitively on the left of the Labour Party. But when you look deeper at both of them, an interesting thing emerges. Foot was actually not as left-wing nor as radical as Corbyn in many key respects.
First off, there is the military intervention thing, which shouldn’t really be a left-right issue but has oddly, post-Blair, become one. Foot passionately argued for intervention in the Balkans conflict in the early-90s; it’s very hard to imagine Corbyn making the case for the west intervening anywhere in the world (surely that would be tantamount to colonialism in his mind). Foot could work with the right of Labour quite productively, as seen during his time as Employment Secretary under Wilson. Jeremy meanwhile, has always shunned any connection with even the centre of Labour. When Foot became Labour leader, the party was split between the Healey led right and the Bennite ultras who wanted to “cleanse” the party of anyone who didn’t fit in with their concept of the Labour movement and its purpose (sound familiar?). Foot meanwhile was actually the compromise candidate in 1980, the one who was meant to keep the party together. In 2015, Corbyn represents the hard left with no room for compromise, undoubtably.
Despite Foot being seen as the centre way within the Labour Party of his era, the party still got crushed at the 1983 election. This all happened, let us recall, at a time when I would argue Britain was in many respects a much more left-wing country than it is today. Another thing worth noting about the Foot period: in the build up to ’83, whether or not the Tories were going to win was a forgone conclusion; it was whether Labour or the SDP-Liberal Alliance would form the official opposition that was a debating point. Labour very handily retained their place as the opposition, winning over eight times as many seats as the Alliance thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post.
One wonders if even such a thing as that may be beyond Jeremy Corbyn at the next general election, should he become Labour leader on September 12th.
David Warren says
Very interesting analysis.
Michael Foot is a political giant compared with Corbyn, Coming from a Liberal family he was for many years the voice of the old Tribunite Labour left.
Wilson cleverly brought him into government in 1974 and after finishing runner up to Callaghan in the 1976 leadership election he served as deputy leader for four years.
He was actually reluctant to stand for leader in 1980 and Peter Shore was for a brief period seen as the anti Healey candidate.
Foot stood and won but struggled vainly to keep a party wracked by division together.
Corbyn emerged as a young left winger around that time and was elected in Islington in 1983 unseating his predecessor who had joined the SDP.
Since then he has been the ultimate protest politician.
Andrew Sheldon says
I read a book by Paul Foot, the son of Michael Foot I suspect, which was quality research. The problem with the left is that they just cannot be trusted with facts. Why?
a. Few are honest enough with facts, not to be selective
b. None of them possess the analytical skills to be honest.
A good leftist is simply one who lacks ambition. But then they only offer a sanction for those ‘bad boys’ who do. There is no winning with leftist extortion; and that leaves us only with left libertarians who are just immature people who have yet to discover analytical thinking through consequences or science. Having done all that research, you might wonder why Paul didn’t stumble upon more coherent values. Having researched books, I dare say he just was too tired to think. His book was well-researched.
Morgan Rigg says
“I read a book by Paul Foot, the son of Michael Foot I suspect”
Nephew, not son. Michael Foot never had any children.
John Harrison says
I remember that speech in 1982, when I was 17 and we were crowded around the radio on a Saturday. It was at that moment that I realised we were going to war. It was spine-tingling stuff and that it came from the lampooned Michael Foot made it even more powerful. I have never bought into the general negative view of Foot because – at that moment – he was a true national leader.
Jeremy Corbyn, you are no Michael Foot
Steve Peers says
Very interesting, but who would challenge Labour as the second largest party in 2020 already? This assumes that either the LibDems rebound quickly from their toxification and/or that a new centre-left party, and perhaps therefore a new alliance, is formed by Labour defectors who still live in the real world. I wonder if the changed voting system for Labour leaders is a factor – Corbyn couldn’t possibly win (as Foot did) in a poll of Labour MPs, since he only got 35 nominations by means of a sympathy vote. The better comparison (which many are making) is perhaps with IDS, who couldn’t survive as Tory leader since he was not the first choice of Tory MPs. My guess is that the bulk of Labour MPs will hang around and keep pressure on Corbyn to quit after a couple of years of poor local election, by-election and opinion poll results, a la IDS.
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