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.