Kate Hudson’s generous tribute and Pat Arrowsmith’s more critical remarks in this issue, capture different parts of Michael Foot’s legacy, a legacy which is entangled with the history of a broad section of the British peace movement.
On the question of war, Michael Foot distinguished himself in his middle years with his resolute opposition to “Suez” – the Anglo-French assault on Egypt in 1956. 26 years later, having become leader of the Labour party, Foot took a less distinguished stand, instantly supporting the sending of a naval task force in response to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas islands.
Foot may have been led astray by the precedent of 1977, when some apparent sabre-rattling from Buenos Aires was seen off with an extremely discreet use of gunboat diplomacy by the-then Labour government, involving a nuclear hunter-killer submarine.
Whatever the reason, Foot mounted no serious challenge to Margaret Thatcher’s jingoistic adventure during the period April-June 1982. He supported the war while pleading ineffectually for greater efforts at the UN. Then, when the war ended with British victory on 14 June, Foot offered “great congratulations” to both the British forces and to prime minister Thatcher.
Looking back through the Peace News of 1982, what seems lacking then – perhaps it is just as lacking now – is a debate about what could actually have prevented or lessened the scale of the war. In particular, there is no discussion of parliamentary action.
PN’s anti-parliamentary stance even extended to not reporting or debating the result of the 1983 general election.
Just before the election (PN 2196), PN collective member Glyn Carter issued a belated apology for abstaining in the 1979 election, guiltily thinking of all the schools, hospitals and factories closed by the Conservatives.
He added: “Michael Foot’s speeches at the time [of the Falklands war] may have been notorious, but does anyone seriously believe he would have ordered the sinking of the Belgrano outside the [British-declared] exclusion zone, steaming away from the task force, only hours before the Peruvian peace plan was due to be formally agreed?”
While sceptical of Labour reformism, Glyn urged tactical anti-Conservative voting. Today the peace movement is faced for the first time in a generation with the real possibility of a hung parliament, with no party commanding an majority in the house of commons, and any coalition or partnership likely to be short-lived.
In such a situation, with instability at the centre of government, extra-parliamentary action would become even more important.