Michael Foot: A Vindication

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In the latest Look Left, OULC member Joseph Hettrick condemns the revival of allegations that former OULC member and Leader of the Opposition Michael Foot colluded with the Soviets.

(The writer of this article notes that he did not degrade himself by buying a copy of The Times to research this article; instead, he used a complimentary one in an Oxford coffee shop. He thanks the proprietors for saving him the indignity of purchasing his own copy.)

In 1924, the Daily Mail published a copy of a letter which purported to link the then Labour government with the chair of the Communist International, Zinoviev. The letter was never authenticated, found or in any way substantiated. It did serve its intended purpose however, when Labour lost a fifth of their seats in the next election. The old alliance in the print media tried the same trick again recently with Jeremy Corbyn, however it failed to stick mainly due to the profound stupidity of suggesting that a local councillor would be capable of selling state secrets to a Czech spy. Unperturbed, The Times columnist Ben MacIntyre has decided to repeat the charade of linking a Labour leader with Soviet intelligence in an upcoming book, as faithfully reported by the same newspaper in a front page spread by David Sanderson. It is based on no evidence other than the testimony of a sole ex-KGB agent. When they first tried to smear Michael Foot with this 23 years ago, when he was actually alive, they were sent home with their tails between their legs and forced to pay damages. They must think it easier to libel a dead man.

“The Soviet Union’s relationship with Foot had been evolving since the late 1940s when the future MP was heavily involved in the left-wing magazine Tribune” the article claims, which is interesting given the anti-totalitarian stance of the magazine edited by Foot, which condemned the lack of democracy in Russia and aggressive moves such as the invasion of Hungary. Ignorance of this fact is no defence. During the 1950s a certain Rupert Murdoch of Worcester College was assistant editor of Oxford University Labour Club’s newspaper The Oxford Clarion. He also ran for Secretary of the club but was defeated. Any leftist worth their salt in the 1950s would have been abreast of the work of Tribune. Perhaps Mr. Murdoch should intervene to put his employees straight. Foot was involved in the ‘Keep Left’ group of Labour MPs which urged a more involved foreign policy with the Soviet Union in an attempt to de-escalate the Cold War, but they were not uncritical of the despotism of Soviet leaders.

Throughout his life, Foot opposed dictatorship. This first manifested itself publicly with the publication of Guilty Men, the anti-appeasement tract written under the classical nom de plume of ‘Cato’ with two others. The book attacked those who had for decades cavorted with dictators and those who had failed to attend to the defence of Britain regarding aviation and the rearmament of Germany. It was not the work of a man who would sell the defensive secrets of his country to a dictatorial regime. Then came his editorship of Tribune in which the Eastern Block was attacked regularly for its abuses. Foot’s opposition to dictators manifested itself again when he was Leader of the Opposition. When, the Falklands Islands were invaded in 1982, he disappointed many of his comrades on the left and in the peace movement – and dazzlingly outflanked Margaret Thatcher in the Commons debate – by standing firm against the “act of naked, unqualified aggression carried out in the most shameful and disreputable circumstances” by an “Argentinian junta” which “tortured and imprisoned thousands of its own citizens who were fighting for their political freedom.” It was such a stirring piece of oratory that even the distinctive voice of the Prime Minister can, on audio clips of the debate, be heard hollering in support until he turned on her for her “betrayal” of the islanders. Foot was opposing dictators at a time when the Conservatives were shamelessly supporting them, Pinochet amongst others.

The Labour Party and Plymouth Argyle aside, the main interest that sustained Foot was radical literature. He was a person of immense intellect and immersed in the works of the Romantics. He wrote on his favourites Hazlitt and Swift, satirists who – like Foot – held to account those whose power was otherwise unaccountable. He wrote on Thomas Paine, the greatest advocate of the Rights of Men. When an old and physically infirm Foot took his seat holding his walking stick at a Plymouth match he was joshed by a steward as to whether he was concealing any hidden weaponry. Foot pulled from his coat a copy of John Milton. This was, he claimed, the most dangerous weapon ever produced. Milton was of course the censor of the unaccountable ‘Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’. Foot had more of Keats to him than Khrushchev. The idea that he would side with Soviet dictators rather than the British parliamentary tradition in which his Liberal MP father raised him is unthinkable. Michael Foot campaigned against joining the Common Market on account of what it would do to British Parliamentary democracy and sovereignty. If he was scared by the anti-democratic tendencies of some European civil servants, one is rather sceptical that he would sell his principles to a brutal dictatorship. By all accounts he was a man of principle; a virtue according to his friends on the left, lamented by some of his centrist comrades.

Firstly, it takes an intellectual dexterity beyond this writer to figure out how Foot would have thought that selling British nuclear technology to the Soviets would have led to the nuclear-free world he dreamed of.

The equivalent of £37,000 was, according to The Times, what it took for Foot to throw off these principles. The article claims that Foot took the money in order to prop up Tribune because no one at all would believe that Foot took the money for personal gain. However the other claim is no more realistic. The article itself cedes that Tribune received donations from capitalists such as Lord Beaverbrook, the right-wing media mogul who Foot saw as another father-figure after their time together at the Evening Standard. With this support Tribune did not need Foot to flog his values to Russian secret agents. The idea that the magazine was dying is in any case profoundly mistaken. Any biography of the likes of Roy Jenkins confirms that the so-called ‘Hampstead’ set were obsessed with the journalistic output of their rival faction. Tribune may be in dire straits in 2018 but it certainly was not in the early 1960s (the article claims that Foot ceased to be an agent by 1968). If the magazine needed funds it was high profile enough not to have to go scrabbling after illicit cash. A key piece of evidence for The Times was that when the aspersions were cast during his lifetimes, “nowhere did he deny that he had been given money by Soviet diplomats”. One can’t help but wonder if this had anything to do with the fact that the same article makes clear that “The Sunday Times argued that it did not state he was a KGB agent” only that there had been a file in Moscow with his name on it. Why would Michael Foot deny something that he was not accused of?

For the sake of argument however let us imagine that this man of principle, who had no particular need for the money, was willing to spill all to the Russian intelligence service. What could he tell them? An article in The Telegraph by Charles Moore claimed Foot would have told the Soviets which trade union leaders were sympathetic to them and also nuclear secrets. The first is nonsensical. Trade unions in which the leaders were likely to be sympathetic to Marxist-Leninism would be made up of members some, or even many, of whom would have been openly or avowedly communist. It would have been a lot cheaper and easier for everyone involved for the Russians to speak to these trade unionists directly. On the second count, the logic is that as a founder-member of CND, Foot could share nuclear secrets with the Russians. Firstly, it takes an intellectual dexterity beyond this writer to figure out how Foot would have thought that selling British nuclear technology to the Soviets would have led to the nuclear-free world he dreamed of. Secondly the supposition that a member of CND would know nuclear secrets is peculiar. Surely the role of CND (as this member understands it) is to act as a public pressure group to bring about unilateral disarmament. What secrets they are in possession of, if damaging to the case for nuclear defences, they would surely share as loudly as possible, not covertly to an intelligence service. These two preposterous explanations aside, it is impossible to fathom how the backbench rebel with no responsibility could be of any use to the Soviet Union. Unless they wanted information on the poetry of Byron, Michael Foot would have made a terrible informant.

Quite what MacIntyre hopes to achieve by mud-slinging at a corpse is unclear. Perhaps he hopes that those politically illiterate enough to conflate their Bevanites with their Bennites will use this as a stick with which to beat the current leadership of the Labour Party. If so I humbly suggest to him that there are more blatant lines of attack to use. Maybe this is a part of the jingoism that is symptomatic of a re-vivification of Cold War tropes. Whatever reason for the attacks they need to be set right. The sake of truth, virtue or historical accountability should be enough; but if not, it is right that it has been done out of personal loyalty to Foot. Those on the Bennite left are right to use their platform to defend a man who refused to purge the left of the Party when urged by others to do so. Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair are right to defend the man who started their careers in earnest. Foot will never be remembered as one of Labour’s most successful leaders. He will never be remembered as a great hero like his own idol Nye Bevan. However the debt of gratitude that the Party owes him for holding it together when there was disaffiliation to the right of him, disaffection to the left of him and a dearth of talent ahead of him demands that his legacy be defended from attacks by lickspittle journalists who lack his integrity, wit and journalistic talent.

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