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Review of Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot (3)


The great majority of Foot's books are focused on personalities rather than political topics and of his major personal studies only the biography of Aneurin Bevan is sharply focused on the socialist tradition. The Bevan biography is undoubtedly Foot's most important contribution to political literature and it is written with a fairly clear political purpose. Nye Bevan stands as the incorruptible socialist tribune facing a succession of compromisers, appeasers and pragmatists, who include Ernest Bevin, Arthur Deakin (Bevin's successor as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union) and Hugh Gaitskell. This is why we could have done with more about the relations between Foot and Denis Healey, the former communist turned Gaitskellite who eventually found himself standing with Foot in opposition to the rank and file revolt led by Tony Benn.

Morgan, professional historian that he is, is sceptical about the Bevan biography: "It is a polemic, and hopelessly one-sided." He recommends John Campbell's later biography as a more balanced account and suggests that the line between Bevan and Bevin was not as clearcut as Foot would have us believe. Bevan, he says, was willing to work under Gaitskell. He was "a kind of more ideological Ernie Bevin. But this could not be gleaned by reading Foot's account." Foot's polemic did, however, have a clear political purpose which I would regard ­- and I suspect, reading between the lines, that Morgan would agree ­- as positively harmful to the intellectual wellbeing of the British Labour tradition.

Most obviously, it had the effect, which Bevan certainly would not have wished, of discrediting Bevin. Ernest Bevin, as the creator of the TGWU and through his work as Minister of Labour, when he largely organised the internal life of the country during the war, helped to prepare the way for the radical achievements of the Labour government after 1945 and then for the years following, dominated by the consensus that went under the name of "Butskellism" ­ a "centre ground" in politics that was several miles to the left of what goes under the name of centre ground today. Bevan's role, leaving aside his period in government, was to goad this process along from the left. Foot's contribution was to aid the process of its destruction, admittedly at a time when preserving it would have been very difficult and would have required the skills of another Bevin. The closest we came to that ­- and it was not very close ­- was Edward Heath.


Butskellism, an amalgam of the names of the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, and the leading Tory theorist, RA Butler, reflected a conviction on the part of both Conservative and Labour governments that the most substantial social power in the state was the trade union movement and that the economy had to be organised in the interest of the working class, which meant in the first instance that it had to provide security ­- security of employment, security of housing and of health and a secure existence outside work. This entailed a sort of class collaboration and as such was painful for a liberal romantic such as Foot, with his head full of John Ball and the peasants' revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists, whose "eternal enemies were Tories, landlords, generals and industrial capitalists of all descriptions", to quote Morgan, who calls it a "simple-minded populist picture". He goes on to say that it "was complicated by other factors, notably a deep patriotic pride in English liberties and institutions", but this was not, under the circumstances, very helpful.

Butskellism had been rendered relatively easy in the early 1950s by the strength of the British economy in relation to the rest of Europe, but by the time the Labour Party was back in power in the 1960s Britain was under heavy pressure from what another school of economic thought would call the bracing winds of competition. The Butskellite consensus relied on an unwritten agreement that neither side, management or unions, would push too hard. In the more difficult circumstances of the 1960s, however, elements within the trade unions, conscious of their power, were tempted to test the limits of the possible. The management side, at least if my own memory of the period serves me well, were still inhibited.


In these circumstances the unwritten agreement which underpinned Butskellism was breaking up. What was required was to strengthen it with what it still lacked ­- the force of law. It was in the socialist interest that the state should be able to intervene in industrial relations and that of course was widely recognised outside Britain. The person who understood this most clearly inside Britain was Barbara Castle, an old friend of Foot's from the days of Stafford Cripps's Socialist League before the war, who was also, with Foot, among the supporters of Nye Bevan in the 1940s and 50s. The title of her white paper outlining the need for an industrial relations act, In Place of Strife, was a conscious echo of Bevan's In Place of Fear.

In Place of Strife provoked great opposition from within the trade union movement and, in parliament, from a group that included Michael Foot, which evoked the principle of "free collective bargaining", which, at the time, seemed to favour labour, which was still the stronger side. But it did not and could not take account of the economy as a whole, which only the government, or possibly the trade union movement considered as a whole ­- the TUC ­- could see. Free collective bargaining without state involvement in conditions of straitened resources could only eventually have the effect of setting parts of the working class against each other.

In Place of Strife had been in part a response to the government's failure to secure a prices and incomes policy, proposed in 1966. Morgan quotes Harold Wilson: "Without an effective policy of this kind there would be literally no other choice than to restrict the level of jobs to that at which workers will not ask for wage increases or, if they did so ask, employers would not be able to pay them." Those of us who lived through the period of wage-push inflation in the 1970s followed by the unemployment-generating efficiency drive of the Thatcher years will read that as a prophecy.


Morgan, from what I have called a broadly "Butskellite" political perspective, which I share, disapproves of Foot's opposition to the principles of incomes policy and industrial relations law. He also, in a passage I have already quoted, expresses surprise at his lack of interest in the third pillar of what might have been a viable socialist policy for the 1970s: "He had surprisingly little to say about workers' control or industrial democratisation, down to the 1976 Bullock Report." In fact he tells us that Foot, in cabinet in 1975, opposed the setting up of a commission of inquiry into the question of industrial democracy. The commission was chaired by Sir Alan Bullock, author of the great biography of Ernest Bevin.

The Bullock Report was in the event torpedoed by the opposition of the unions themselves and their supporters in parliament, despite the enthusiasm of Jack Jones, Foot's best friend among the trade union leadership. Notwithstanding Jones's position, Foot had recognised from the start that the unions would oppose industrial democracy. Had they been willing to endorse it it would have signalled a huge shift in British working class culture ­- a willingness to face up to and assume responsibility for helping to resolve the problems of management. There was much sneering at the time at the worker participation schemes set up in Germany after the war. But the British working class is now living under the domination of a completely unrestrained managerial class and the situation of German workers does not look too bad by comparison.

As minister of employment in the 1970s Foot's main task was to dismantle the industrial relations legislation imposed ­- along lines not dissimilar from Barbara Castle's ­- by Edward Heath. But he knew as well as anyone that some form of incomes restraint was necessary. The hope was that by strengthening the hand of the unions in free collective bargaining the government could persuade them, out of gratitude, to restrain themselves voluntarily. It was a rather forlorn hope but we can take Morgan's word for it that the surprising extent to which it did succeed was largely down to Michael Foot. Eventually, however, the government was forced to introduce an incomes policy with an element of compulsion. Foot defended this at party conference with one of his most famous speeches, quoting Joseph Conrad on the need to face typhoons frontally and evoking "the red flame of socialist courage". Barbara Castle tells us that she was almost reduced to tears by its "emotional voltage". She may have had another reason. Had it been made a few years earlier it might have saved the British Labour movement.