The Vote: how it was won and how it was undermined by Paul Foot

Foot soldiers for freedom
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The Foots are the hereditary aristocracy of English dissent. Down the generations, Isaac, Dingle, Hugh, John and, of course, Michael were patrician radicals, upholding the good old causes of the progressive left. They were heirs of West Country nonconformity: Isaac was president of the Cromwell Association. But the Foots were cavaliers rather than Roundheads, especially Michael: a "sensual puritan" (as he called Bevan), passionate for Byron, Heine and the most colourful romantics, enlisting the red flame of socialist courage to light the way ahead.

Paul Foot, an investigative journalist of genius who died last July, was rather different. He chose the pen not the sword to assail his "guilty men" - corrupt tycoons, foolish judges, MI5 and the Tories of Peterloo whom he flayed in Red Shelley. His were the politics of exposure, seen in full flower in Private Eye. But whereas other Foots operated within the mainstream (despite such deviations as Bevanism or CND) Paul's activism emerged in fringe sects like the Socialist Workers' Party, the dissidence of dissent in extreme form.

Yet one of the fascinations of this book is how far his arguments are family ones. He differed from his aunt, Jill Craigie, over the suffragettes, by preferring the socialist Sylvia Pankhurst to the Tory Christabel. For all his affection, he chided Uncle Michael for allying with "drifting social reformers" when defending wage controls in the Wilson-Callaghan governments. He also implicitly challenges him over Disraeli. The greatest family argument is with grandpa Isaac since, for Paul, Oliver is not "the working-man's Cromwell" but a conservative barrier to the New Model Army's democratic demands. It was the Levellers at Putney, not their generals, who embodied people power.

Paul Foot's theme is the never-ending war between property and democracy, and how uncontrolled corporate capitalism has made an elected parliament and the franchise ultimately pointless. In early chapters, Foot traces the struggle for the vote. We start memorably on Putney Heath in October 1647, with Cromwell and Ireton arguing for oligarchic rule by men of property, but shaken rigid by Thomas Rainsborough, championing the cause of "the poorest he" in thrilling language that later inspired Nye Bevan's In Place of Fear. Property won, and Levellers went to the Tower.

There follow vignettes of the long march to democracy - Reform triumphing in 1832, Chartist revolt, further Reform victories in 1867 and 1884, and the women's suffrage crusade. It was an erratic line of descent. Tom Paine ignored the Levellers altogether while the Chartists threatened a class revolution. Even so, all six points of the People's Charter were parliamentary and political.

Foot illuminates well the tension between middle-class suffragettes and a largely male labour movement, for all the feminist sympathies of socialists like Hardie and Lansbury. Union leaders wanted universal suffrage whereas many women's leaders, including Emmeline Pankhurst, feared militants in the "great unrest" were "paralysing the community".

Votes for women in 1918 provides the book's climax. Thereafter, it is a saga of betrayal. The vote had been won during the high noon of capitalism but, from the 1920s, the economy was in crisis. Foot chronicles how Labour neither challenged nor confronted capitalism, with honourable exceptions like Lansbury, Bevan and Uncle Michael.

Union leaders were prominent in the surrender. Socialist theorists like Crosland took a blindly benign view of the future of capitalism. Historians receive brickbats or bouquets for their judgements, the present writer getting both.

Labour leaders from Gaitskell to Blair cave in. A rare encouragement for Foot was the industrial turmoil of the Seventies: Arthur Scargill and the miners' strikes led to "an unparalleled blossoming of democracy". Foot, then writing for the Socialist Worker, believed Britain was close to revolution. The 1999 Seattle riots against the WTO offered him another moment of optimism. Parliament, once humanity's last, best hope, must be "relegated to the sidelines". The heirs to the Levellers should be "resisters from below", since all strikes were good - other than those by Northern Irish Protestants.

This book memorably confirms Paul Foot's gifts as a writer. Rightly, it condemns the capitalist ethic as morally offensive and tending to extreme inequality. But his remedy of spontaneous industrial uprisings is a romantic dream. Society is not that unstable under later capitalism, especially under Paul's derided Labour governments. Working-class voters endorsed Thatcherism for selling off council houses and curbing the unions, which Foot denounces.

The book is also too insular, too English. Looking at Thomas Jefferson, say, would have illuminated pluralist capitalism in the US, where free ballots flourished alongside free markets. Bukharin is cited to condemn the capitalist state, but socialist centralism gets off lightly. Foot's passionate polemic may be contrasted with Bevan's timeless argument for evolutionary socialism. Nye's democracy is protected not by mass uprisings but by carefully "extending its boundaries". Democratic power would guarantee one freedom by adding another to it. Hence the dynamic, revolutionary energy of the vote.

Kenneth O Morgan, the biographer of Keir Hardie and James Callaghan, is now writing on Michael Foot

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