Thursday, 4 March 2010

Foot on the ladder

Michael Foot, who died yesterday, was a great champion of the working class. A bookish man, his working class was one that had the ideal qualities of the conceptual rather than the all too human attributes of the actual.

I recall him during a TV interview when I was a boy - so probably in the early '80s - criticising those members of the working class who rose out of their communities 'kicking the ladder away as they did so'. Conversely, he lauded those who stayed put in their communities, helping lift everyone up.

At the time, I struggled to understand the critical end of this point of view, wondering in what way the people I knew had 'kicked the ladder away' when they'd moved from their particular industrial Welsh communities to better themselves by becoming variously bus conductor, lecturer, shop worker and opera singer. At this distance, I'm struck by how the comment was a bit rich coming from someone fortunate enough to find himself already situated on the sort of elevated plane where ladders were surplus to requirements.

Foot was a socialist of principle. He was a thoroughgoing egalitarian, someone who had no qualms about levelling down if that was what was required to lay the groundwork for a more regimented and consequent levelling up (all too rare).

However, there was one quirk - perhaps an inconsistency - in his thinking which has always intrigued me. Foot was a dedicated admirer of great men, which evolved occasionally into full-blown hero worship. In this he emulated his greatest hero, William Hazlitt, who himself had a very special place in his heart for Napoleon Bonaparte. Foot put his more politically palatable contemporary Aneurin Bevan on a pedestal. More inexplicably he was also attracted to press baron Lord Beaverbrook.

To both he lent his formidable pen and his pointed rhetoric. His polemical and propagandist ability - cf. the best-selling, wartime 'The Guilty Men', which helped shape the subsequent appreciation of the politics of the 1930s, somewhat unfairly and hypocritically - was much valued. Looking at the life as a whole, he probably had more of a talent for followership than for leadership.

But isn't it remarkable how the follower of progressive doctrines based on the working of large, impersonal historical forces is so often attracted to the promethean hero? Presumably, a role for which only people with vaulting poles rather than ladders need apply.


Some footage of Foot - he's lodged in present memory as a harmless old duffer with literary tastes. In his younger days he was a dashing and sometimes devastating debater and polemicist:

H/t for the clip to Alex Massie.


Brit said...

As Tony Benn, so Michael Foot - great, admirable men who happened to have been wrong about everything.

Gaw said...

I've got a lot more time for Foot than Benn. As I posted a while ago, I share Kinger's appreciation of the latter specimen, possessing as he does significant differences:

[Tony] Benn I have run into only once, early in his career, when by a misunderstanding he arrived on my doorstep expected but not heralded by any name. The door was one of those with a glass panel affording a preview of the caller. At the first sight of the present arrival the thought flashed into my mind, 'Who is this English cunt?' The distinguishing adjective is important. There are Scottish cunts, there are even Welsh cunts, and God knows there are American cunts, but the one in question could have come from nowhere else but this green and pleasant land. Something about the set of the lips.

Other guests arrived at the same time and my silent question went unanswered for the moment. I offered drinks. Someone asked for a gin and tonic. I turned to the cunt. 'Same for you?' He reacted much as if I had said, 'Glass of baby's blood? It 's extra good today,' and somehow in that moment I knew him, recognised him from television. He settled for bitter lemon, 'with plenty of ice, ' he added firmly. (I once heard him say unequivocally, also on television, that his sole interest in life was and had always been politics, which to my mind should debar anybody from standing for Parliament. Even Ted Heath has his yacht and his choirs).

Brit said...

Heh heh. Mind you, there's plenty of evidence that Kingsley qualified for his own epithet.

Back in the day, our sixth-form politics class was taken to some sort of studenty jamboree in London - speakers included the great windbag Kinnock and various bigwig pundits. Tony Benn was the best orator by a country mile. He didn't actually say anything, but he said that nothing very convincingly.

Sophie King said...

I just heard a snippet of Foot on Radio 4 as I was driving my daughter to school. The snippet was presented as an example of Foot's mastery of rhetoric. I have to say, I thought he sounded ludicrous. He may have been a great Parliamentarian, an honourable man etc. etc. but, as Brit says, he was wrong about pretty much everything.

Recusant said...

You're right Sophie, Foot's oratory was ludicrous. Even at the time his false emphasis, contrived pauses and florid changes in pitch were more clearly to be defined as 'Oratory', than as any means of persuading an audience.

Isn't it amazing that old lefties - who would have completely and utterly buggered the country if they had succeeded in being placed in a position of power - seem to be accorded a sort of cuddly national treasure status in their dotage or upon their death?

"His intentions were noble and good", they say. I bet they were, but that doesn't really matter, does it, because the outcome would have been a disaster.

Brit said...

True, Recusant, but we can say these things because Foot was a spectacular and unprecedented failure at the polls, and because, as we agreed yesterday, consistency is overrated.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I found - as has been suggested here - both Foot and Benn to be quite "cuddly" but they were too away-with-fairies far-left for me and I gave my allegiance to the Social Democrats when they split off. I agree, I think they would have been a disaster. Re socialists idolising Boney or Beaverbrook etc, didn't Mo Mowlem champion Churchill in that Top Britons thing?

Gaw said...

Sophie: His was old-style oratory. I believe he sounded better (whilst being just as wrong) at public meetings or in the Commons.

Recusant: I've found the Foot obits (esp. the broadcast ones) ridiculously saccharine. As such they actually don't do him justice. He was something of a firebrand radical for most of his career and not that cuddly. This hasn't really come through nor has the nub of his left-wing politics on the whole. That's why I wanted to write my own appreciation (critical as it is).

Gadjo and Brit: I don't buy the cuddly Benn. And whilst I respect Foot as someone who had a certain integrity and principle I think Benn is a self-indulgent, unpleasant, hateful crackpot. Even his colleagues (especially his colleagues) would agree.

Brit said...

No I agree - too spiky and aggressive to be cuddly.