The recent death of Michael Foot, former leader of Britain’s Labour Party, inflicted upon us, or the shrinking section of the public that still pays attention to news at least, a litany of glowing eulogies for a man most people had completely forgotten about.
Foot was a ‘genuine British radical’ according to broadcaster ITN. The BBC said: “Michael Foot was one of the great political orators, for more than half his life a political rebel and a thorn in the flesh of the establishment” – an interesting choice of words from the voice of the British establishment.
His successor as party leader, Neil Kinnock, the man who finally killed-off Labour as a socialist party, wrote that Foot was “a marvellous comrade, a magnificent man, a great socialist and libertarian”, and a “supreme parliamentary democrat.”
The Economist, hardly known for its love of socialism, offered a more negative appraisal of Foot’s life in its obituary but the opinion of the hard-headed voice of capitalism softens toward the end, writing:
“He had an instinctive understanding of people. He wrote beautifully and, after overcoming a stammer, was a wonderful orator: humorous, self-deprecating, empathetic.”
David Cameron, leader of the Foot’s lifelong enemy the Conservative, Party said he was “above all an idealist, a man who was in politics for the right reasons”.
Even Foot’s old enemy, Margaret Thatcher found time to speak kind words of him: “He was a great parliamentarian and a man of high principles,” she said, and was “very sorry to hear the news” of his death.
With all of these gushing tributes, it’s easy to forget that while he was alive, Foot was ridiculed by the press and his fellow parliamentarians as a ‘loony lefty’, a boring windbag, KGB stooge and donkey jacket-wearing joke who led the Labour party to the worst defeat in its modern history in the disastrous 1983 election.
Foot was never much of a radical, truth be told. He supported wage restraint, attacked Irish political hunger strikers and cheer-led then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s pointless military adventures in the Falkands war. Still, his politics of old-fashioned Western European state socialism did represent a challenge to the neo-liberal orthodoxies then being fashioned by Thatcher and Reagan and, as such, make him an unlikely candidate for secular sainthood.
Just what is going on here, exactly?
It’s simple. Foot got old and then he died.
Insofar as the likes of Foot are a ‘thorn in the side of the establishment’ at all, the final act of life – dying – magically transubstantiates the rebel into the ‘great parliamentarian.’ The 2006 funeral of Irish Communist Party stalwart Michael O’Riordan was a gathering of the country’s great and good, including leaders of Ireland’s governing parties. Even the president and prime minister paid him tribute.
In some cases it doesn’t even require death, just age. Any politician who lives long enough will soon find themselves a model of bipartisanship, whether they like it or not. One of the curses of age, it seems, is respectability.
British Labour leftwing ‘firebrand’ Tony Benn has himself lamented that, upon retirement, he suddenly found himself being referred to as ‘father of the House of Commons’ and a ‘true parliamentarian’ and ‘great democrat’. Benn’s problem was that he knew this meant his political career was over: he was now too old to be a threat to anyone.
The death in 2009 of ‘liberal’ Democrat Ted Kennedy was described by president Obama as “passing of an extraordinary leader”. Well, they were both in the same political party… George W. Bush wasn’t, though, and he made a phone call to Kennedy’s wife upon hearing of his hospitalisation in 2008, saying “take care of my friend”. Excuse me?
Of course, Chappaquiddick was impossible to ignore but it was certainly played-down. So bizarre and global was the reaction to Kennedy popping his well-heeled clogs that Ireland’s finance minister, Brian Lenihan, prefaced his vicious slash-and-burn budget with a rambling eulogy to the man.
It’s not just the left that loses its meaning in old age and death. The death of Ronald Reagan unleashed a torrent of tears not seen since the elite-led hysteria over the death of Princess Diana. Television news journalists editorialised, newspaper columnists waxed lyrical about the Great American Hero, talking heads appeared to speak of him in hushed tones as a ‘unifier’ and ‘great communicator’.
Sane people vomited – I hope.
Brave was the commentator – if indeed there were any – who stood-up to say that Reagan presided over murderous wars, a quasi-criminal administration 138 of whom were investigated, indicated or convicted, and whose economic shock therapy didn’t so much reinvigourate the US economy as much as build a flaky and rent-seeking financial empire atop the dungheap of deindustrialisation.
It’s easy to say one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but, frankly, some corpses deserve to be defiled. Journalist Mark Ames wrote of his book, Going Postal, that it was “an attempt to dig-up Reagan’s remains, hang them upside-down from the nearest palm tree and subject him, at last, to a proper trial.” It’s hard to disagree.
The crimes of Foot are mere misdemeanours beside those of Reagan but let’s not kid ourselves that he was a great hero. Instead, let’s remember Foot and the rest as they really were, not how they’d like to be remembered. At least that would have the benefit of not only being honest, but also giving some meaning to political positions.