Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot

has died at the age of 96.

The harsh truth is that the circumstances where he became Labour leader should never have come about: the ideal scenario, as I have said so often, would have been for Heath to win in February 1974 (which he was several different whiskers away from doing), Tory moderation to be vindicated and neoliberalism within the party held back, and Labour to reform but crucially without going neoliberal, ready to govern the country in the 1980s, perhaps with Shirley Williams becoming the first female PM in about 1979. Among many other things, this would most likely have prevented Murdoch from rising to his current dominance, because he built his empire largely on working-class readers in the second half of the '70s shifting from the Daily Mirror to The Sun because they felt alienated and no longer really represented by the unions, and had the unions not been given the chance to take the piss, many fewer people would have felt the Mirror no longer spoke for them.

Foot made the best of the worst possible situation - it has often been said that he was imposed on a disintegrating party partially by centrists who wanted an excuse to form the SDP, wilfully unaware that the first-past-the-post system made such a breakaway effectively unworkable. It is a great tragedy of British history that Labour was so divided at a pre-Falklands moment when it was enjoying massive public support - in contrast to Thatcher's early unpopularity - and could still have fundamentally reset the national agenda, had it been united. I would not have wished his situation - leading Labour just at the time when his strengths (intellectual debate and public meetings) had decisively declined in importance, and the crude tabloidisation of the British political sphere was really beginning to change everything - on my worst enemy.

For all the faults of time and chance which led to 1983, he was a great man on every possible level. It is one of those rare deaths, like that of Robin Davies, that - however many times you'd imagined it - leaves you feeling more spiritually alone, isolated and bereft than you'd ever thought possible. If I feel separated from something I know so well I find it hard to believe I never really experienced it, I cannot begin to imagine how those who lived through the battles where he was constantly so prominent are feeling. Many may feel a sense of victory, but at least as many will, I think, feel that bit more alone than they did a week ago. Sometimes, the passing of time affects us most when its effects have been held back the longest.


  1. You didn't happen to see Michael Gove speaking warmly of him on the Daily Politics yesterday, did you?

  2. No but I wouldn't be surprised. Michael Foot, like Tony Benn, was praised and admired across the board as "a great parliamentarian", "a great thinker" etc., but only in his last couple of decades of life when his views had been safely neutralised and no longer represented any kind of threat to entrenched power.

  3. Well, I think Foot is praised across the political spectrum, more because he himself was not ideologically rigid in his enthusiasms. That seemed a large part of what Gove was crediting him for. For example, a few years back I was reading a book of Foot's essays - I forget the title now - which included a not uncritical but largely admiring piece on Enoch Powell! That's a long way from, for example, ILE leftism, which entails that if you use the word, "Tory" and don't immediately follow it with "fascist", you are viewed with suspicion. ;-)

  4. Well, there are elements of ILX which I feel are too quick to jump to conclusions - I share Marcello Carlin's preference for current black pop over almost all other current pop, but I wouldn't say that anyone who didn't share those tastes was racist, because if I was I would have to condemn certain aspects of Old Labour, which believed in a canonical idea of "betterment" (Hoggart, etc.) as on a par with the BNP, and I know how wrong that would be ... some of the strongest opponents of Nazism had a contempt for American popular culture of the day on a par with that of the Nazis themselves, just for different reasons, and this is what the ILX tendency always misses; you cannot make blanket assumptions about people's politics based on their cultural tastes (yes, I know I've done that many times, and *sometimes* it makes sense, i.e. Jim Davidson/ELP, but more often it doesn't). Nonetheless I think the current Tory party should be viewed with the deepest and profoundest suspicion, and I think the ILX attitude to it is on the whole correct, though sometimes for the wrong reasons (Etonian-dominated governments are not *de facto* bad - those of 1951-64 accepted a strong public sector, building council houses etc. because the old principle of noblesse oblige fitted well with the Attlee settlement ... it becomes more dangerous and worrying when both those tendencies have pretty much died out).

    I'd be interested to see how Foot defended Powell. Maybe because Powell was a parliamentarian and intellectual, perhaps also because of his opposition to US dominance?

  5. Well, it's been a while since I read it. I do recall that Foot only addressed Rivers of Blood near the end of the piece. A bit of Googling leads me to conclude the book was probably "Loyalists and Loners". I have no idea as to its availability though.

    Also, dimissing dislikers of current black pop as racist isn't just wrong because it condemns "certain aspects of Old Labour", it's wrong because it's a preposterous conclusion to draw in any event. Contemporary R 'n' B isn't to everyone's taste, simple as that. To automatically conclude that there's some bigotry or pathology behind a simple aesthetic taste - as some of the more moronic, thuggish ILXers have done on occasion - is beyond laughable.

  6. I would agree. Aesthetics, for the most part, are just that. They are a game where we can put aside our deepest political convictions and play with cultural reference points according to what takes our fancy ... or doesn't. You get Peter Hitchens fanboys invoking Gabriel-era Genesis, but I love those albums as well - they're like 'Jerusalem' or Powell & Pressburger in that respect, they can mean whatever you want them to.

    But at the same time I think of a particular kneejerk reactionary on another forum, who talks of "Harriet Harperson" *completely* without irony, who tends to stick to the whitest forms of rock (prog and isolated bursts of metal). Also, I think white pop, as we used to know it, is pretty much dead: what Pulp or the Manics or Belle & Sebastian were about in the 90s has pretty much ceased to reproduce as far as I can sense it (strange how the culture that produced The Kooks, Jamie T and Florence Welch has played such a crucial role in the erosion both of the culture I felt such ties to in the mid-90s though I only discovered it as it was already fading, *and* of the old bourgeois culture I grew up on the tantalising fringes of). I don't think I could ever feel the same *personal ties* to a hip-hop or grime track to *quite* as involved an extent as I do to Pulp's "David's Last Summer" ... but I recognise that that song comes from a culture that is gone, and hip-hop and grime come from living cultures, and in the end if you abandon the living, you might as well be dead. I have a real respect for Marcello Carlin's feeling for music and life, and regret my erstwhile conservative outbursts which led him to fall out with me, and I would defend most of his comments on ILX - better to have lived one day as a lion than one hundred years etc etc etc.

    But, yes, in most cases aesthetics are what they are, and musical/cultural tastes considered progressive by Leftist orthodoxy certainly don't guarantee similar political views (c.f. Eric Clapton most obviously). My own preference for current black pop over other current pop isn't really because I think it's more politically sound - I'm well aware that much of it is intensely aggressive-individualist and not culturally attuned to collective endeavour, i.e. the antithesis of what I still defiantly believe - but because I think it's *better*.

    And I would have no problem with describing D*m P*ss*nt*no (google-proof for obvious reasons) as moronic and thuggish :).

  7. One of the few things Powell indisputably got right was his comment - when justifying his fatal intervention in the February 1974 election encouraging a Labour vote over the European issue - that many Old Labour diehards were "really quite good Tories". He'd obviously met my mum.

  8. Please try to avoid casual rudeness, David.

    I stopped posting, of my own volition, to ILx some nine months ago. My view, however, as is expressed pretty clearly on ILx and elsewhere, is not that people who dislike current black pop are racist but that people who dismiss current black pop without listening to or engaging with it on any meaningful (or meaningless?) level do so, I would suggest, for emotional, historical and aesthetic reasons which I suspect have a basis in racism. I'm happy to discuss this on an evidential basis if anyone is interested.

    Unfortunately language is the only tool that we have with which to communicate and therefore words, and the way we use them, are important.

  9. Thanks. I did feel frustrated in this thread. I sort of gave in as usual - years of frustrated "debates" on and off the net have done that to me - but it is all a matter of subtlety and degree; there is, as you say, all the difference in the world between a reasoned and well-argued dislike of something you have investigated and don't get on with, which *is* a matter of taste and nothing more, and a kneejerk, unthinking reaction against something you have no experience of and are not prepared to genuinely experience in order to judge it, which is something more unsettling entirely. I'm not sure whether David is still around, but if he is I've never believed that this sort of unthinking dismissal is usually a conscious, thought-out thing developed through back copies of Spearhead, rather that it is - as mentioned here - a culturally embedded thing, in this country mainly to do with Britain's colonial history and the belief handed down through generations that "we" were The Rightful Rulers, that is so deep in some people's minds they don't often know it's there. Doesn't mean it isn't, though.

    Of course I had other problems with ILX - I always found P*ss*nt*no's belief that a consensual respect for the forms traditionally considered to be "high culture" only ever existed in Tory environments to be profoundly simplistic and false (I make no comment on whether this respect was right or wrong, but if you say that you're pretty much writing the old mining communities out of history, not to mention my own upbringing - and my mum may be prepared to *mix* in Tory environments in a way I am not, but she is deeply committed to social justice and equality, and I have my own indulgences that wouldn't fit with my politics in a million fucking years, and I was too harsh when I said that). But more generally I don't think me and ILX ever agreed (which is not in itself a criticism), not in terms of actual *opinions* but in terms of the way we preferred to discuss things and come at things, certainly after the first few years ... I should have realised that long before I did. I wish we had been able to get on with each other better. But I can get on with many more people much better now. It just takes a fuck of a lot longer with my condition.

  10. My language was perhaps a bit aggressive above, but I stick by my general point. Nobilliards, I don't think the distinction you make is a very meaningful one. Knee-jerk dismissal of certain things is a part of most people's aesthetic life. We all do it really. Think of all the knee-jerk "anti-rockism" that predominated on ILx for a while. ("I think the Flaming Lips are shit and Ashanti is great. Give me a medal!" and so on.) Am I to claim that such people are culturally self-loathing inverted racists? It would be no more absurd than what you're suggesting. I just find this politicised way of analysing aesthetic opinions so ridiculously puritanical and censorious, and if it were brought out of the rarefied atmosphere of ILx, and in to the real world, it would be rightly laughed out of shop. In some ways, it weakens the argument against real racism to get bogged down in such nit-picking fastidiousness. And anyway, I know it's not true, because the opposite isn't true either. There are people I know who are big fans of hip-hop, who also smugly and liberally fling around racial slurs.

  11. I've already stated that I'm well aware that the Jim Davidson/ELP/Motown thing doesn't apply in most cases - in yer actual 70s racists were quite often into ska, and most folk fans were (and are) impeccably left-liberal. I think anyone who knows basic pop-cultural and wider history knows that, and I agree that if you start suggesting that pop-cultural tastes that differ from your own are an evil on a par with actual racial attacks and genuine bigotry you are merely trivialising the latter.

    But I don't think it's necessarily wrong to speculate that, in some cases, people might have a set of assumptions and stereotypes somewhere deep inside them - the result of underlying tendencies (and, in the case of post-imperial Britain and especially England, frustrations) in the culture around them - which might affect their aesthetic judgements. I'm not suggesting those tendencies would also make them beat people up for looking a bit foreign. I can't speak for nobilliards, but that's all I've been speculating.

  12. Well, I think that's fair enough, but if that's "all" you're speculating, then you're perhaps granting the matter undue primacy. Perhaps also, Robin, you might do well to reflect on some of your own prejudices. For example, I'm Irish*, and a while back I seem to recall you extrapolating the general shitness of Irish people on the basis of, I don't know, the fact you don't like some songs in the Irish chart and found some of our TV presenters obnoxious.** I'm open to correction on the specific content of your diatribe, but that seemed to be the general gist. This is much more ugly than if, for example, you had a knee-jerk hatred of Irish traditional music, which I wouldn't give flying fuck about. And nor incidentally would I ascribe to you some leftover colonial mindset on account of it.

    I guess this fits in with a broader point that we ALL have our tendencies towards bigotry and false assumptions, and the best we can do is rein them in as much as is possible when we recognise their existence, but that's a whole other can of quite sticky worms.

    *Being Irish, my observations of people's reactions to music are based mostly on experiences in Ireland. We were never a colonial power, so your psychological reading doesn't fit in that instance.

    **I scanned the Run Away Home archives for it, but perhaps you wisely decided to delete it.

  13. That was nasty, ill-founded, reactionary shit and I never really believed it even as I was posting it - I was just too fucked up at the time to care. I sort of wanted to challenge Tom May's slight romanticisation, but it was really me kneejerking about the fact that I find it hard to relate to or feel any connection with my (Irish-born) father. No defence for it at all, other than my tendency to speak before I think (much reduced now, thankfully).

    I did indeed delete those posts - I went through the RAH archive in 2008, realised that much of what I had posted there was false and wholly unpresentative ("do I know you from somewhere?", basically) and there was a heavy purge. Several other misconceived entries only survived because interesting and valuable things were said and points made in the comments sections. I was only occasionally my true self on that blog.

    That may only have been three or four years ago, but I feel an almost unrecognisably different person from what I was then. I feel much *fuller* now, much more genuinely human (rather than human as a second language as I was for so long), and much more sensuous, or at least potentially so. Much more evolved and reasoned and tolerant and conscious of what I'm actually saying.

    Racial kneejerking indeed exists in many places for many reasons. It should be obvious that my remarks about the legacy of empire and a resultant sense of superiority can only apply to former powers (they may also be a factor in the idea that there can or should be such a thing as "l'exception francaise"). I still think Tom's comments back in '06 were flawed - he almost seemed to be thinking, as a certain sort of avowedly partisan British Marxist used to during the Troubles, that the Irish were almost *incapable* of kneejerk prejudice - but the difference is that now I could challenge them through debate, not through stupid insults which even at the time I sort of knew within were unworthy of me.

    Or maybe it was just (only being partially flippant here) that we all lost our grasp on what was good and right in the winter of '06/'07. Those endless sickly westerly winds and storms aren't good for *anyone*, least of all me.

  14. "he almost seemed to be thinking, as a certain sort of avowedly partisan British Marxist used to during the Troubles, that the Irish were almost *incapable* of kneejerk prejudice"

    LOL. He should come visit us some time. Self-flagellating British leftists on the subject of Ireland do exasperate me at times. (I avoided that recent Bobby Sands film for said reason.)

    I'm glad for the retraction of your previous comments.

  15. 'Knee-jerk dismissal of certain things is a part of most people's aesthetic life. We all do it really.'

    I wonder if this is partially to do with the nature of mass-media that we feel that we have consumed things when we haven't? In an odd sense sometimes we don't know how little we know about some movements even if we know more than we'd want to?

    For example i never intentionally listen to Radio 1 and don't have a TV, but I know a bit about modern pop through newspapers/billboards radios in shops/ flashes of music videos/ the radio when I visit people.

    I think this is also a wider political process which is especially pernicious in mainstream journalism. A lot of journalists are woefully ignorant about geography, yet they feel they can make comments on national leaders/ economies based on what they think they know.