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Obituary - Michael Foot: Learning the right lessons from history

Five years ago, I went to visit [the former Labour Party leader] Michael Foot, when I was writing a history of CND. He was kind, witty and utterly committed to nuclear disarmament. His vision for nuclear abolition, here and internationally, was far-sighted.

It cannot have been lost on him that many of his views, for which he had been so pilloried in the past, are now common currency at the highest levels and across the political spectrum.

We talked about his role in founding CND, and the famous 1983 general election Labour Party manifesto, which Gerald Kaufman MP called the “longest suicide note in history” because it backed unilateral disarmament.

Michael’s view was this: “We put forward an intelligent approach to CND’s issues in the manifesto. What we were proposing… would be to put forward measures not only for abolishing nuclear weapons here – and we were not departing from unilateral disarmament – but we would also be putting forward proposals for securing nuclear disarmament internationally: to open discussions on getting rid of nuclear weapons across the whole field.”

At the June 1983 general election, the Conservative Party was re-elected and the vote for Labour was reduced from 36.9% in 1979 to 28.3%.

Needless to say, the media and the right wing of the Labour Party rushed to blame Foot’s defence policy for the defeat. This myth was then used to justify pro-nuclear policies by the Labour leadership – and is still used in the same way today.

In fact, when I have debated Trident replacement in constituency Labour Party meetings over the past few years, the small minority of pro-Trident members present have wheeled out this tired old argument to justify wasting £76 billion of tax-payers’ money on a new generation of nuclear weapons. But this argument was wrong then and it is wrong now. In 1983, there were clear majorities in public opinion polls against cruise, Trident and nuclear bases in Britain.

The key factor in the Labour defeat was the split of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) from Labour, which succeeded in massively cutting the Labour vote and splitting opposition to the Tories. Although the Conservative vote fell, and they were outpolled by Labour and the SDP combined, they won the election.

This was clearly not an endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s nuclear policy. A dirty tricks campaign was also conducted against Michael Foot to undermine his campaign. A group called “The 61”, partly funded by the CIA to operate against peace movements, helped to plant derogatory stories about him in the press, producing a poster comparing him to Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938. In other words, an appeaser.

Today, polls show that a majority opposes Trident, from across the political spectrum. Senior military figures describe Trident as militarily useless. Money needs to be saved and common sense says it shouldn’t be spent on nuclear weapons which only increase the danger of nuclear proliferation and do nothing to meet the security threats that we face.

The reality is, nuclear disarmament is a vote winner, not a vote loser. To Michael Foot – my respect and great thanks to a man of principle.

Kate Hudson is the chair of CND.

      “Well over 5,000 people packed Central Hall, Westminster, and four overflow meetings in the opening round of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on February 17 [1958]...

 

      “Speaker after distinguished speaker in the Central Hall hammered home the purpose of the campaign: Britain must renounce the Bomb. In the name of Christianity (Canon Collins); in the name of common humanity (J.B. Priestley); in the name of security (Sir Stephen King-Hall); in the name of survival (Earl Russel); in the name of morality (A. J. P. Taylor); in the name of sanity (Michael Foot) Britain must abandon her policy of massive retaliation and lead the world back to the way of peace and progress.…

 

      “The insanity of [nuclear weapons] was emphasised by Michael Foot. The Government, he said, pinned its faith on massive retaliation, and threat of nuclear weapons was regarded as a primary factor in world politics.

 

      “Further, they state that they would hit back with nuclear weapons even against a conventional attack.

 

      “But they also admit it would be impossible to defend Britain against nuclear attack, thus implying that the doctrine of massive retaliation, if acted upon, would involve the destruction of this country.”

 

      (

Peace News

    , 21 February 1958, p1)