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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
Michael's Foot Notes

Michael Foot at Labour's conference in 2000 with former leaders, Neil Kinnock and Lord Callaghan
Michael Foot at Labour's conference in 2000 with former leaders, Neil Kinnock and Lord Callaghan
Michael Foot was a Labour MP for 42 years, starting in the days of Clement Attlee and only leaving the House of Commons in the nineties.

On The Westminster Hour in 2002 he gave this special insight, as a politician and journalist, on the Labour leaders he worked with and observed over more than half-a-century. And there was a chance for you to question him about the men at the top.

In Foot Notes Michael Foot re-lived Labour's years in power under Prime Ministers Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Tony Blair, as well as the party's years of opposition, including his own difficult period of leadership in the 1980s, which saw the party go down to one of its worst election defeats.

He provided his verdict on them as men and as politicians, their strategy and policies.

Michael Foot's life and times
1913 Born
1945 Elected MP for Plymouth Devonport
1960 Becomes MP for Ebbw Vale in South Wales
1974 Cabinet minister for the first time, as Employment Secretary
1976 Elected Labour's deputy leader
1980 Becomes Labour leader
1983 Labour suffers disastrous election defeat and Foot quits
1992 Stands down as MP

Click here to listen to Part One of Foot Notes

Click here to listen to Part Two of Foot Notes

You had a chance to question Michael Foot on Labour's leaders from Attlee through to Tony Blair.

Read his replies below.

After the first part of Foot Notes we put a batch of your questions to Michael Foot. These are his answers:

Matthew Freeman from Australia asks: If he had survived, would Aneurin Bevan have become Labour leader and then Prime Minister?

Michael Foot replies: If he hadn't died in 1960, the position he certainly would have had if we won that (1959) election was Foreign Secretary in a Labour government - and he was much more concerned to get that just at that moment than he was in becoming Prime Minister.

If he'd been the Foreign Secretary in a new Labour government, I believe that government, in association with other people in the world, could have stopped the whole of the hydrogen bomb arms race. The bombs were being manufactured then in Britain, in Russia and America. There was an opportunity then which people across the parties understood - stopping the whole H-bomb race. I think that's what he would have done whether he'd been Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister and it's one of the reasons why it was such a terrible tragedy that he died then.

Graham D. Morris asks: Do you think that this country would have been more successful if the Attlee government, which either nationalised or kept under state control so many industries, had promoted more ideas such as the groundnut scheme and if later the state had succeeded in taking over the commanding heights of the economy with a state bank?

Michael Foot replies: One of the commanding heights they did take right at the beginning was the nationalisation of the Bank of England - that was one of the very first measures that was promised by the Government and carried through by the Government. So, in that sense, they did carry out a very important act of nationalisation at the beginning and because of that they had control over the finances of the country better than any other Government had had previously.

On the Groundnut Scheme, I think they could have gone ahead with many other schemes of that nature - both from the point of view of trying to assist the countries in Africa as well as to help the food policy here. Because that scheme failed they rather got cold feet, but I think that was a pity

Meg Ellis from Wales asks: Do you think Labour has a tendency to deify its "lost leaders" like Lansbury, Bevan, and John Smith at the expense of those who have actually achieved ultimate power and have had necessarily to be "tainted" with the exigencies of practical politics?

Michael Foot replies: Some of those mentioned were perfectly capable of dealing with practical politics. Lansbury, for example, was in the 1929 Labour government and he was pretty well the best government minister in that government and what he did in London was very fine indeed, so I don't he should be lumped as a leader who didn't do much.

As far as John Smith is concerned it's a great tragedy. He would have been a very great leader in my opinion and a leader of a great Labour government. It's a great pity that he didn't get a chance to do it - that's not a reflection on the people who are dealing with the questions now.

George McAllister from Essex asks: Which Labour Leader within your lifetime did you dislike and why?

Michael Foot replies: I've got no dislikes against any of them really! Some of them aren't as good as the others though.

Kim Gold asks: What are your views on the ramifications of the aid given to this country by the U.S, under the Lend-Lease Act 1941, and the Attlee Government's handling of the repayment of the vast sums of money - and, in your view, has it had an effect upon our sovereignty?

Michael Foot replies: Some of us were very outraged by the failure to get proper loan terms from the Americans after 1945. It was the first big issue that occurred under the Attlee government and the terms of that loan had to be negotiated by Keynes on behalf of that government. But some of us thought that the terms were so severe and awkward that we voted against them in the House of Commons and we had a damned good case because one of the terms of the loan was that within a short time they would have to make the Pound convertible with the Dollar. We thought some of those terms were wrong. Now, as a result, partly of protests about the terms of the loan, we did get much better settlement later on for the whole of Europe.

Lorraine Marshall asks: At various times in the past you were a great supporter of Tony Benn - for instance arguing with Harold Wilson that he should not be moved as Industry Secretary. But for many of us in the Labour Party that seemed to be one way traffic. Tony undermined your leadership at every turn and did enormous damage to the party. Yet he and not you is seen as the great hero of the left. How do you rate his contribution to the left in Britain?

Michael Foot replies: Now that would take a whole book to reply to that one! I don't think I could attempt that. But I had to agree with Tony Benn right at the beginning when he was saying he was not going to go along with the whole business of going to the House of Lords, so we were friends right from those times but we had many other disagreements and on many of them I naturally thought I had a better case than his. Now a bit later on, we've come into agreement on matters as well, but that's not a very full answer to the question!

Alan Higgs asks: If you had become leader of the Labour Party four years earlier than you did, do you think that your time as PM would have stopped Lady Thatcher from winning office, or was it simply that her time had come, and Labour would have lost office in any case?

Michael Foot replies: Now I know some people have said, some people even in the Labour party said, that the time had come for a Thatcher government and the economic situation was such that it would be necessary that we should move in that direction. Now I don't agree with that at all. I think the whole of the economic policies of the Thatcher government were most injurious to the country as a whole and so if we could have stopped her ever embarking on those policies it would have been much better.

If the Labour Party had have won the election in 1983, we would have never have had the mass unemployment that they tolerated - going up to nearly 3 million - also we could have started the business of stopping the nuclear arms race. The defeat for the Labour Party in the early 1980s was not only a defeat for the Labour Party but also a defeat for decency all over the world.

Finally, remembering last week's memorial meeting for Baroness Castle, Brian Delaney from the United States asks you to speak of your friendship and comradeship with Barbara Castle, as so many were greatly saddened at her passing.

We had a memorial meeting for Barbara earlier this week. All Barbara's friends were there - including the pensioners with their placards saying "No means testing" - and it was a very good celebration. I spoke at it myself and I said the people who knew Barbara best were those who also loved her the most. She holds a special place in the whole Labour movement here.

After we broadcast the second part of Foot Notes, we put a further batch of questions to Michael Foot.

Here are the questions - and his responses.

James Kenyon asks: Could the Labour party have done anything different in the 80's and 90's to stop the Tory hegemony?

Michael Foot replies: Yes, I certainly think we should have repaired our divisions earlier. We opened our wounds to the Tory party and they exploited that. If we had given much earlier assistance to Neil Kinnock when he was leader then John Smith could have built on that. If we had rallied to Neil Kinnock sooner, then we could have helped the situation.

Adam McKenna from Northern Ireland asks: Do you agree with Tony Blair's policy on the Euro, from a socialist standpoint?

Michael Foot replies: I don't think there's much difference between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the euro - they are both committed to examining the issue intelligently before we go ahead on it. I certainly agree that circumstances have greatly changed since we had the referendum on whether we should stay in the Common Market and it is very important now that we move closer towards the European Community and have a greater understanding of it because our future lies there, especially if you consider some of the developments in the United States.

Mark Flannagan asks you for an assessment of Denis Healey: Was he the best Prime Minister Labour never had?

Michael Foot replies: No I think I was! Actually I think Denis would have made a good Prime Minister too! But Jim Callaghan shouldn't be forgotten either. I still think he could have won if he'd stayed to fight in 1983.

Martin Gleeson suggests that in last week's piece, by blaming the SDP for Labour's 1983 election defeat you are guilty of "sour grapes, fermented for 20 years." How do you respond to that?

Michael Foot replies: I think it was my sweet tooth that got the better of me, when I said that!

Alan Higgs asks: Do you think that members of political parties ought to be more loyal to their beliefs than to their party, and given that the present and likely future Labour Party leaderships are virulently right-wing, should most Labour Party members leave it and seek to form a new party, which fully believes in internal party democracy, and is genuinely one of the left?

Michael Foot replies: I'm always against leaving the party - critics should always stay inside if they really want to win their argument. Leaving the party was the terrible crime committed against us by the Social Democrats. We're still on the Left, it's our party and we can still bring it back to where we want!

And two other listeners pick up on themes from last week's discussion:

John Nicholls asks about Hugh Gaitskell: After Labour's defeat at the 1959 General Election, a conference was held in Blackpool under the chairmanship of Barbara Castle, where Gaitskell proposed the abolition of Clause 4. Does Mr Foot think that Gaitskell was a Labour leader forty years ahead of his time?

Michael Foot replies: I wasn't in favour of the abolition of Clause 4, even when it did happen, because it was a perfectly proper statement of Labour's ideas and it wasn't the only part of the constitution. I think it was removed for reasons which were misleading. Clause 4 wasn't a device of the left in the Labour Party - it was devised by Sidney Webb as a way of holding the party together and I think our later leaders should have understood that better.

Kim Gold picks up on an answer to a question last week about the lend/lease aid from the USA to Britain by asking: Do think that the pressure of repaying the Lend-Lease loan has had an impact upon sovereignty? Or would you agree with what Churchill said, that the Americans we're trying to exploit the situation in order to bring about the demise of the Commonwealth, and perhaps the establishment of U.S. bases, not only in the U.K. and also within the Commonwealth. Also, how do you feel about the continued repayment of the loan, within today's climate of Anglo-American co-operation.

Michael Foot replies: I'm not so sure if Churchill did say exactly that but some people in America were in favour of ending the British empire for good reasons - especially in India - which were the same reasons which we in the Labour Party favoured. On our sovereignty, we need to stand up to the Americans on international policies when we think they're wrong but on the attitudes to empires, maybe there is something we can learn from some Americans.


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