Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Michael Foot, 1913-2010. R.I.P.

Michael Foot, leader of Britain's Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died today after a lengthy illness. He was 96.

Foot had the unenviable task of being leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition during the early years of Margaret Thatcher. While the Tories quickly became unpopular many Britons still had unpleasant memories of the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan leading up to the winter of discontent.

No sooner that Foot succeeded Callaghan than four prominent Labour MPs (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) defected and formed the Social Democratic Party (now known as the Liberal Democratic Party.) Foot's leadership culminated with the disastorous 1983 general election. The Labour Manifesto consisted of planks such as the nationalization of all industry, unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (granted he did have support from some Tories on that front.) While that might appear straight out of the Obama playbook a generation ago it cost Labour 51 seats. It was Labour's worst electoral showing in half a century.

With Thatcher's triumph in the Falklands and Britain's economy in recovery fellow Labour MP Gerald Kaufman referred to the Labour platform as "the longest suicide note in history." Foot resigned the party leadership following election and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock who continued Labour's journey in the wilderness.

Yet it would be foolish to dismiss him as mere foil for Thatcher. Despite Foot's radicalism he came across as an affable human being who came by his opinions honestly. Although he was an avowed socialist he rejected Soviet communism and was outspoken against Soviet repression in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He served as a parliamentarian for more than four decades. His eloquence and integrity earned him the respect of friend and foe alike.

A journalist by trade, Foot wrote biographies about Jonathan Swift, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and Aneurin Bevan (the man who established Britain's National Health Service). He was a lover of both Plymouth Argyle (a football club) and poetry.

Socialism in Britain has come a long way since Foot led the Labour Party and I'm afraid not for the better. It's probably just as well he won't witness what will come to pass.

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