His life spent on fighting the good fight

The Vote
May 13, 2005

Howard Davies finds Paul Foot's family reminiscences more engrossing than his political philosophy

For more than 40 years Paul Foot was one of the hazards of British public life. Like a concealed sleeping policeman, Foot could give you a bumpy ride when you least expected it.

During my years at the Audit Commission, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, every few months I would do something - or more frequently not do something - that put me on to his radar screen. "Mr Paul Foot is on the phone," my secretary would say, her lip curling slightly.

Usually I have not found it difficult to say "no" to calls from importunate journalists, indeed it is something I rather enjoy. But Foot was special.

In the first place, his sources were excellent. There were clearly many others who, like me, found his quizzical charm hard to resist. But, just as important, his curious "distorting-mirror" take on the world was an excellent discipline for anyone who nurtured a vague suspicion that they might be unwittingly subject to a form of groupthink. Going 15 rounds on the phone with Foot was a bracing exercise. If you could defend your position to him, you felt you were probably doing all right.

It would be fair to admit, however, that he did not always take the same view. And I was impaled on the sharp end of his pen several times. Only once was I able to get my own back. We appeared together on Any Questions a year or two after the Robert Maxwell scandal had been revealed. Foot had taken the Maxwell shilling for a number of years and, I suggested, sat at his desk scanning the landscape for scandals while, behind his back, Maxwell was taking sackfuls of cash along the corridor, lifted from his employees' pension funds, without a peep from the intrepid investigator.

Foot was only quite amused at this sally, and the references to Maxwell in The Vote suggest that, even at the end of his life, he was not able to justify that phase of his career to himself.

The gestation period for this book, finished just before he died in the summer of 2004, was positively elephantine - 14 years, in fact. The publishers must long have despaired of getting a return on their advance.

Perhaps as a result of this extended pregnancy, the egg that was eventually laid is destined for the curate's cup. Although there are some fine passages, it is hard to commend it as a whole.

The first half is made up of a series of competent, if somewhat slanted and selective, essays in political history. The opener takes us through several episodes in the Putney debates of 1647. The Levellers, as one might expect, are the heroes here. The second, called "The Not So Great Reform Act", announces its verdict in the title. The third eulogises the Chartists. Then follows a surprisingly positive verdict on Disraeli, followed by a long and contentious interpretation of the suffragette movement called simply "Women".

There is little original in these essays, but they are written in Foot's typical engaging and combative style. One might imagine setting them as challenging texts for sixth-formers to knock down.

But halfway through we change gear and stutter into some far more aggressive analyses of the failure of successive governments in the 20th century to accept the consequences of the expansion of the popular vote. We begin with "Mond's manacles", in which Alfred Mond, then chairman of ICI, exerts sinister control over Ramsay MacDonald. We are then taken through a series of betrayals, by Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan and, worst of the worst, Blair - whose name Foot can barely bring himself to utter. Finally, in a curious coda, he tries to explain his own political philosophy as a member of the International Socialists, then of the Socialist Workers Party.

Trotsky has a walk-on part as the great visionary of the 20th century.

What value is added here? Not a lot, would be one reasonable answer. It is true that the Putney debates are too rarely read these days, and it is always a pleasure to explain to the French that some of the ideas they thought they invented in 1790 had been strongly and persuasively argued in a small church in south London 150 years before. But Edward Pearce did a much more amusing and better-sourced job on the 1832 Reform Act a year or so ago, and the suffragettes have been better, and perhaps more sympathetically, portrayed elsewhere.

The Vote is original only in the significance Foot attaches to the work of Engels, in particular, to which others might not give such emphasis. He is also strong on the influence of the Left Book Club and its fellow travellers. The more recent material is journalistic. Foot could never resist a conspiracy theory or a juicy piece of gossip about the intelligence services. He bases himself far too extensively on Clive Ponting's work and retained, even at the end of his life, a childlike inability to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The most interesting parts of the book are those that appear as asides to the main argument. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the internal politics of the Foot family, certainly one of the most remarkable British political dynasties. Paul was eight in 1945, and just old enough to remember the impact of the astonishing Labour victory. On election night, he was staying with his grandfather, a former Liberal MP, "in his huge house, groaning under the weight of 50,000 books" in Cornwall. Grandpa Isaac was standing for the Liberals in Tavistock while Uncle Dingle was Liberal MP for Dundee, and a certainty for re-election. Uncle John was standing for his father's old Liberal seat in Bodmin and was also favourite to be re-elected. "The only certain loser was Uncle Michael, who had abandoned the Liberal Party for Labour and was fighting, against hopeless odds, Lesley Hore-Belisha in Plymouth, Devonport, who had an impregnable majority of more than 11,000."

In the event, only Michael won. "One by one, the Liberals went down - first Dingle, then John, then the old man." Grandfather Isaac shut himself in his bedroom for five days leaving strict instructions that none of his grandchildren was allowed near him.

I could have done with more Foot family reminiscence and fewer rants about Tony Crosland and other apostates. And Foot's apologia for a life devoted to the fruitless cause of British Trotskyism is curiously banal and depressing. He quotes his guru, Geoff Ellen. When Foot confided to him, in 1975, that he had lost confidence in the coming of the revolution, in the face of Denis Healey's conversion to fiscal rectitude, Ellen said: "If the revolution doesn't come, there is nothing much we can do about that.

Whether it comes or not, there is nothing for us to do but what we are doing now, fight for it, fight for the workers and the poor." And, er, that's it.

Foot's Peter Pan charm, which made him such an engaging conversationalist, was matched by a never quite grown-up political philosophy. We miss the former, and his ability to spot disguised self-interest at a hundred paces, but the Socialist Worker has added little to the gaiety of British political life or to the progressive cause. Sadly, the same is true of The Vote .

Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Vote: How It Was Won and How it Was Undermined

Author - Paul Foot
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 506
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 670 91536 X

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