Britain is the only country that shares a nuclear strategy with the United States. Britain's opposition party has voted decisively to break that bond, and Michael Foot, who has worked for unilateral disarmament during his entire political career, is the head of that party.
Americans have paid little attention to the fact that Foot -- formally the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition -- is one of the most left-wing political leaders in Western Europe. He is certainly the only potential leader of a nuclear power who advocates abolishing his country's nuclear forces; he is also the only potential prime minister of a Common Market nation who favors withdrawal from the Common Market.
For more than a generation, Britain's "special relationship" with the United States has been a central feature of the country's foreign policy. Yet Foot hasn't visited the United States since 1954, a fact he cheerfully dispenses without a hint that it might strike an American as remarkable.
Michael Foot is, in most respects, the antithesis of a modern politician. He is, by trade, a writer (author of nine books), a white-maned socialist intellectual with the bearing and disposition of a university professor who, at age 69, could be nearing comfortable retirement -- a country life with his beloved wife Jill, his memoirs and his terrier, Dizzy (short for Disraeli, the 19th-century Conservative prime minister).
Instead, Foot today rides astride the fractious cohabitation of trade unionists and grass-root radicals that dominate Labor. A gentle, rumpled, professorial type, he is a most unlikely standard bearer. Although his health is good, he told a British interviewer recently that one eye is "gone" as a result of shingles, "but I still can see perfectly well with the other."
In British political circles, it is conventional wisdom to dismiss Foot's chances of leading his party to victory when a national election is called sometime in the next 18 months.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Tories have been riding high in the polls since last spring's Falklands war. The new Social Democratic Party, in alliance with the Liberals, has skimmed off some of Labor's support among middle-class professionals repelled by the more radical features of Labor's programs. Foot's personal standing as leader, as measured in the polls, is low enough for there to be murmurings of a party coup to oust him.
But it hasn't happened and, as The Economist observed recently, Foot is still "the second most likely person to be the next prime minister of Britain." The Economist compared Foot's chances to socialist leader Francois Mitterand's in 1980. Two years later, Mitterand was elected president of France.
Foot's chances are enhanced by the fact that in Britain, a party's proportion of the total vote is irrelevant. Seats in parliament go to the winners in each individual constituency, and a constituency can be won with a 35 percent plurality in a three-way race. As a practical matter, the Laborites could come to power -- and Foot could become prime minister -- by winning the votes of 40 percent or less of the British electorate.
Q: In your keynote speech to the recent Labor Party conference, you said, "Reaganism and Thatcherism threaten the world on a scale we have not known for generations." Why do you believe Ronald Reagan represents such a threat to Britain and the world?
A: I think Reaganism represents a threat to us all. Just as Thatcherism represents a threat to us all because it is a fundamentally unsound economic theory being ruthlessly applied. What it has done here is greatly intensify the (effects) of the world depression. Undoubtedly it's added something like a million to the maybe 2 million unemployed we'd have here if it had just been left to the operation of the world slump.
In my (parliamentary) constituency, our unemployment rate is now 23, 24, 25 percent. I reckon there will be quite a number of places in the United States which will be having experiences like that over the next year or so. How long Western societies can withstand without huge political commotions, unemployment of that scale, who knows? I can think of nothing more calculated to corrode Western societies than mass unemployment. . .
Reagan's economics are inhibiting or injuring the possibility of economic recovery in many other countries. I agree with all the criticisms by Mitterand and the others against American policy. Reagan's attitude towards the Third World is also restricting the development of policy there. So as it effects the people in the United States, as it effects the people in Europe and as it effects the Third World, I think that Reagan economics are a menace to the world.
Q: The Labor Party conference voted overwhelmingly for a unilateralist nuclear policy, to do away with Britain's nuclear weapons. What do you mean by that?
A: Well, I believe that we in Britain should not proceed with the (planned deployment of U.S.) cruise or Pershing missiles. I am also opposed to proceeding with the (future purchase of U.S.) Trident (submarines and missiles). . . We want to move towards a non-nuclear defense program...
Q: And the eviction of existing American bases?
A: Yes that's right.
Q: Do you support that?
A: Well, I do indeed. But I believe that we should move to it on a sensible basis. I believe this country has the right to a nonnuclear policy. I think the more we explain it the more backing we will get in the country..
Q: In the United States it is widely accepted that the Soviet Union represents the greatest danger to security in the world. Do you accept that?
A: Well, I think they do in some respects, although I believe its a two-way business. The threat comes from the arms race itself. . .
Q: So you tend to equate the two (superpowers)?
A: I don't believe that the United States has done anything in recent times that compares with the Russian attitude towards Poland or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Although I'm strongly critical of the United States attitude towards El Salvador. I do believe that the United States contributes to the arms race just as the Soviets do. And in a sense, I think that over the past two or three years, the American attitude has contributed more fiercely to the arms race than the Soviet Union.
Michael Foot is the product of a venerable political family. His father, Isaac, a member of parliament from Cornwall, was a Methodist and Liberal non-conformist who instilled in his seven children a passion for books and a personal commitment to "fight the good fight and keep the faith." Three of his brothers -- Dingle, Hugh and John -- also made prominent public careers.
Undaunted by asthma and excema, Foot began his political career by exploiting his inherited penchant for oratory to become president of the Oxford Student Union. He was one of the organizers of the celebrated 1933 Oxford pacifist resolution that forswore under any circumstances a "fight for King and Country."
But when war came he wrote a pamphlet called "Guilty Men" denouncing pacifism. Exposure to depression-era poverty in Liverpool turned him to socialism, though he never became a Marxist.
After the war, as editor of Tribune, a perpetually broke, left-wing weekly that once had George Orwell as its literary editor, Foot was as firm in his anti-Stalinism as he was in his support for British socialism. He supported American intervention in Korea and the NATO Pact as "purely defensive." But Foot also accused the West of a "gross overestimate of Soviet strength" and said that the arms buildup was threatening Britain's economic recovery.
Q: Is there any country today, or any point in the past, that you think should serve as a model for the Britain that you envision?
A: The best example that I've seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war. Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody into a job. It wasn't so difficult then to employ people who were disabled and in difficulties and all the rest of it. We wanted to use all their efforts and we found the money to do it. We also produced, I would have thought, probably more than any other country including Germany. We mobilized better. The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it.
We also did what I think we ought to do on a far greater scale now, looking after the people who are worst hit. In the war, instead of saying because (the country) is in extreme circumstances you've got to cut the pay of the people who are worst off, they did the opposite. They increased the pensions, the social security. It was a democratic society with a common aim in which many of the class barriers were being broken down. Many of us thought we would never return to a society in which class barriers were rebuilt. Many of them have been. And many of those class barriers are the very things which have injured the community since.
Q: What do you think are the best features of British life today?
A: (After a long pause.) All over the country people live their lives primarily in democratic communities that they know they've got some control over. They've got identity with their towns and villages. Those identities are being attacked, assailed in some respects. But even so, there are still a whole range of democratic institutions which operate in this country and sustain it as a free country. People are not afraid of speaking and arguing and discussing and organizing together. They're becoming afraid now of this absolute curse that they're not going to get jobs. That's terrifying. . .
I don't want to minimize the nature of the current situation. It is because of the strength of Britain's society that we are not overwhelmed by (our present troubles.)
After years on the sidelines, Foot took a government job under Harold Wilson when Labor was returned to power in 1974. He became secretary for employment, a job in which he not surprisingly got along well with the unions but also impressed the civil servants and his cabinet colleagues with thoroughness and commitment. This was a time, he told friends, when he learned the limitations and constraints of power and the neccesities of compromise.
When Wilson resigned in 1976, Foot was persuaded by his supporters to run for leader (had he won then, he'd have become prime minister). He came in second to James Callaghan. In 1980, after Tory Margaret Thatcher had defeated Callaghan, Foot ran again and won.
The honeymoon was short. The Labor Party's factions became bitterly quarrelsome. Although Foot's election was clearly a victory for the party's left wing, shrill voices led by the ambitious Tony Benn began pressuring Foot from the left. Overtly Marixst or Trotskyite pressure groups stepped up activities in local party organizations. There were fights over control of the party apparatus and demands for more radical policies. In disgust, a score of MPs and Labor celebrities quit Labor to form the nucleus of the Social Democrats. In the Falklands war, Foot found himself in the position of limply supporting Thatcher.
Foot was increasingly portrayed as the hapless victim of a party intent on self-destruction, lacking the clout or backbone to stanch the process. In a poignant interview with The London Sunday Times, Foot quoted Byron to explain how he felt: Here's a sigh for those who love me And a smile for those who hate And whatever sky's above me Here's a heart for every fate.
But at the Labor Party conference in September, the party's annual get together, matters began to improve a bit. Benn declared complete loyalty to Foot. The Trotskyites were put on notice to get out and Foot won a warmmstanding ovation for his keynote speech. Still, 10 Downing Street is a long way off.
Q: Why after a full distinguished career as a writer, a politician, journalist, why now in what some might describe as the autumn of you. Tr life, why take on the job of reviving this country?
A: Anybody who engages in politics can't say he won't take the jobs there on offer. I don't think its possible to chuck your hand in. Politics in this country are going to be pretty exciting for the next five or six years. I think we can get a new Conservative government and if we do, they will be confirmed in their ideologies. If that happens its going to be a disastrous stay for Britain.