Britain puts left Foot forward
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.