Britain puts left Foot forward

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The place: Ebbw Vale, a steelmaking town in the depressed South Wales valleys. The year: 1975, when the Labour Cabinet gritted its teeth and voted to shut down the town's uneconomical steelworks. The man sent to explain the decision: Michael Foot, then employment secretary in the Wilson government and popular left-wing member of Parliament for the town, now the new leader of Britain's Labour Party.

The valley, understandably, was seething with resentment. It was the very sort of anger which, during unnumbered nationwide rallies and marches since World War II, had found a willing mouthpiece in Mr. Foot's vibrant socialist rhetoric. From the "Keep Left" movement of the 1940s, through the battles against Hugh Gaitskell's centrist leadership in the 1950s, and on into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s, the radical left had warmed itself at the brazier of Mr. Foot's oratory.

This time, however, he found himself on the other end of the government's megaphone. He was the spokesman for the establishment, for once facing a crowd further left than he was.

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"What we've got to do . . ." he shouted, then paused.

". . . is get rid of you!" barked back a heckler.

It was a needling thrust, the kind politicians on the right face regularly from unruly opponents. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have ignored it. Denis Healey, the center-right shadow finance minister beaten by Mr. Foot in the Nov. 10 election, might have lashed out in kind.

But Michael Foot, for a moment, was jarred. As a sensitive listener to the plight of the underdog he could not ignore that voice from the crowd. A loyal minister, however, he could not afford to hear it.

Like so many of literature's romantic heroes, he was caught between his own longing for idealism and his party's need for pragmatic action. As he hung in a balance, the jeering crowd slipped out of his control.

The incident, briefly replayed on BBC television recently, points up the central dilemma facing the new leader: how, after a lifetime of radicalism, to assume the mantle of responsibility -- how to climb inside the old tin can of the Labour Party and press out the dents made in part by his own earlier rock-throwing.

Within minutes of his victory as party leader -- the cliffhanger vote by the 268 Labour MPs was Foot, 139, Healey, 129 -- that dilemma raised itself. After the result was announced to a stunned Parliamentary Labour Party inside Committee Room 14 at Westminster, the new leader was asked by journalists how, given his beliefs, he could play the conciliator.

Could he bind up the bruised and fractured party, appeasing an increasingly volatile right while remaining true to his long-held beliefs in unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the European Community, and widespread nationalization of industry and banks?

"I intend to combine protection of my principles with effective action," he said.

Then, with an orator's innate love of parallelism, he added, "It is no good having the principles if you do not try to make them effective in action. It is no good having effective action if you do not try to maintain the principles."

How well will he be able to square that circle?

The answers vary. To some, he is a charming, gentle, slightly shy humanitarian, surrounding himself with books, walking his dog on Hampstead Heath , writing a massive and well-received biography of his mentor (the hard-left Welshman Aneurin Bevan, whose parliamentary seat in Ebbw Vale he assumed), and always pouring forth floods of brilliant oratory.

To others, he is a dangerous and impractical sentimentalist rousing the discontented to unrealistic expectations that Britain's struggling economy cannot afford, and puppeteered by always powerful and sometimes ruthless trade union chiefs.

Barbara Castle, fellow left-winger and diarist of their days together in cabinet, thinks he can put the principles and the action together. "All the time when hard decisions had to be taken and compromises had to be made, he would be making the rank and file feel that they hadn't lost sight of society, their philosophical approach to politics," she recalls.

He was free of "the dreadful feeling of dull pragmatism," she remembers, and full of "inspiration." Abandoning official civil service briefs, he would prepare for major parliamentary speeches by walking round and round St. James's Square.

"It's this capacity of Michael's which has kept him still much-beloved," she says.

The party's right, however, takes a different view. "I think he has not looked and perhaps doesn't look, in the eyes of most people, man who would be a future prime minister," say MP William Rodgers, one of the so-called "gang of three" (with Shirley Williams and Dr. David Owen) who are said to be contemplating secession in disgust over the party's leftward drift.

Reflecting the views of recent opinion polls -- showing that Mr. Healey would have been far more successful in a general election against Mrs. Thatcher than Mr. Foot -- Mr. Rodgers favors the "heavyweight contribution" of Mr. Healey's style over the "brilliant performance" of Mr. Foot. Mr. Healey's style, he says , is "much more difficult to beat in the long run, and also, of course, it's much more effective in government."

Being "effective in government" is what the next few years are all about. Here, Mr. Foot's past performance provides some clues both to his principles and to his capacity for action.

He was born in 1913 of a fiery Methodist lay preacher, Isaac Foot, who became a Liberal MP for Plymouth. Michael Foot's just-published book, "Debts of Honour ," pays tribute to his father's flamboyance, puritanism, and "gargantuan and insatiable" appetite for reading. These qualities evidently rubbed off on his son, who reads Hazlitt and admires Oliver Cromwell. From him, too, perhaps, come the son's devotion to the institution of Parliament and his conviction that debate really does matter.

After attending a Quaker boarding school, Michael Foot went up to Oxford, became president of the Union and the Liberal Club, and soon cashed in his left-wing Liberal credentials for full-blown socialism. In 1934 he met Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, joined the staff of Bevan's left-wing paper, Tribune, in 1937, and began knitting the many-colored robe of radical politics, verbal skill, and hero worship that he has worn ever since.

During the war, taken under the wing by the conservative press baron Lord Beaverbrook in a rare friendship, he became acting editor of the Evening Standard. Then, in 1945, he moved into Parliament by winning the seat for Devonport.

Four years later he married Jill Craigie, an avowed feminist and a scriptwriter of some note. She lent her voice to those of his friends who last month pressed the reluctant deputy leader to stand in the leadership election -- or so one suspects from his quip that if he hadn't stood she would have divorced him. Ironically, while he has espoused feminist issues himself, he lost his Devonport seat in 1955 to a woman -- as Mrs. Thatcher tartly reminded him Nov. 11 during his first day in the Commons as Labour's chief Thatcher-baiter.

From 1955 on, his reputation grew as a genuine but somewhat flaky lefty, leading protest marches against the bomb, opposing the Vietnam war, and arguing against Britain's entry into the Common Market.

Then, in 1974, Prime Minister Harold Wilson offered him the post of employment secretary, and the outsider, coming in from the cold, thawed into what many observers agree was a weak and watery minister. During his reign from 1974 to 1976, he steered through Parliament the Employment Protection Act, seen by many as a flat-out repayment to his union supporters, dictated straight from the Trades Union Congress, and extending their privileges in ways that will hamper productivity.

"He has probably done more than any other politician to reduce the propensity to employ," The Economist editorializes -- fighting words in these days of British unemployment topping 2 million.

Finally, in 1976, Prime Minister James Callaghan made him leader of the House and settled on him the difficult job of managing the vote on the devolution of power to Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Never one for details, Mr. Foot nevertheless managed the larger politicking well. Ironically, however, it was over the failure of the devolution issue that the coalition supporting the Callaghan government came unglued and Mrs. Thatcher swept to power.

Two questions remain: What brought him to power, and where will he go while in office?

Some say he came in simply on an anybody-but-Healey move -- a gesture of antipathy toward a rough head-knocker who had rubbed too many parliamentarians the wrong way. Oddly, Mr. Foot's public rhetoric can also be abrasive. But in private, say those who know him, he has a soul of kindness and a perfectly honest heart. Moreover, he knows how to mediate. And in the face of one of the party's worst internecine battles, he was seen as more soothing than Mr. Healey.

"Never underestimate the passion for unity in the party," he quoted from Nye Bevan after his election, "and don't forget, it is the decent instinct of people who want to do something."

But the vote hinged on more than personal attributes. Two decisions at the October Labour Party conference -- giving the local constituency parties the right to "reselect" their MPs between elections, and setting up an electoral college to widen the franchise for electing the party leader -- took their toll at the soft center of the party.

The constituency parties are predominantly left-wing. So, it is assumed, will be the electoral college. Some MPs, fearing they might be "reselected" out before the next election, put a finger to the political wind before putting a pencil to the ballot.

Where, then, will the office of leader go under Mr. Foot's incumbency? Some see him as caretaker, shifting rapidly rightward to coax the party back together , then retiring so that someone of more substance -- Peter Shore, perhaps -- can fight the next election.

Others, however, see him as an undertaker, burying the party under a deluge of left-wing debris as powerful trade union and constituency forces arm-wrestle him into submission.

Already he has trimmed his sails on various policy issues. He refuses to be drawn out on such apparently straightforward matters as whether he will support the party conference decisions to get out of Europe and get rid of nuclear weapons.

"Over the coming weeks and months, we as a party must work out in detail the policy we're going to present to the country," he said after the election. Already the man known for his shock of overlong white hair, his fondness for black- currant-flavored sweets and radical sentiments, and his nonchalant slouch across the battered dispatch box in the House of Commons is beginning to talk like an administrator.

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