On the day that the man whom the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, calls “the greatest threat to life on this planet” descended on his city, Michael Foot, probably the best prime minister Britain never had, told me, “You Indians are better at saving the world than we are.”
As E.M. Forster said of Constantine Cavafy, Foot also stands at a slight angle to the universe. At 90, his great will imprisoned in a painfully frail body, he is the last of those British stalwarts whom Krishna Menon drew into his India League and whose upstairs restaurant in the Strand continued to serve a decent curry for a modest price well into the Sixties. But while Fenner Brockway, another of India’s Labour Party champions, is remembered for flaunting a Gandhi cap in the House of Commons, Foot became notorious in some circles for allegedly condoning Indira Gandhi’s emergency. He was supposed to have described it as a much-needed smack of firm government. His denial is vehement. “Where you got that from I don’t know but I said no such thing.” What he did do, and recalls with pride, was to insist on calling on Mrs Gandhi in the teeth of objections by his friend and colleague, Richard Crossman, then British foreign secretary, the mandarins of the foreign office and the British high commissioner in New Delhi.
Responding to George Fernandes’s fate, Socialist International also disapproved. Foot was then employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s government. Nearly 30 years later, he remains unapologetic about defying the fashionable orthodoxy of the time.
His three-hour tete-a-tete with Mrs Gandhi served a useful purpose, he says. It forced her to face up to concerns like Sanjay’s birth control measures, the expulsion of foreign correspondents and Fernandes’s incarceration, that few others brought up with her. “She didn’t lose her temper. She didn’t give satisfactory replies but didn’t refuse to talk either, as everyone had said she would.”
Above all, she gave the lie to those jeremiahs who had been singing a dirge for democracy. She assured Foot she had no intention of extending the emergency. “Of course, we will hold elections,” she said, “and we’ll win them.” Foot’s aside that she was probably convinced she would does not alter his conviction that the 1977 election was a momentous event. “No exercise in the whole history of democratic politics can compare with it.” He is more eulogistic than James Callaghan whose measured praise for Mrs Gandhi’s decision (while Morarji Desai looked as if he had bitten on a bitter lemon) provided Congress candidates from Kashmir to Kanyakumari with campaign material.
When Mrs Gandhi paid the price of democracy with defeat, Foot admired — and still admires — the manner of her acceptance of the verdict. He took her to Ebbw Vale, his Welsh constituency inherited from Aneurin Bevan, friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, and was impressed by her determination to recapture the situation.
To start with, India was a scoop, not a cause, for Foot. His is a distinguished family — the BBC joked when he was a minister and brother Dingle attorney general that another Foot would make a yard — and his father, Isaac Foot, was a Liberal member of parliament. He was also a member of the Round Table conference though he never visited India. In 1931 the 17-year-old Michael was dining with his father at the National Liberal Club on the night the Royal Commission on India finalized its report. Sitting for the entrance examination for Wadham College, Oxford, two days later, he was asked what he thought the constitutional proposals were likely to be. He knew what they were.
Harold Laski and H.N. Brailsford, the journalist, fanned his interest. So did H.G. Wells who had two claims on his loyalty. He thought British performance in India shocking and shameful and he recognized the grim shape of things to come right at the beginning of the nuclear debate. Menon followed, linking the fight against fascism in Europe with the fight against imperialism. “Your enemies are our enemies” he was saying when Foot first climbed those stairs in the Strand to find Menon drinking endless cups of tea. He still doesn’t know if the Camden councillor, Penguin editor and Indian high commissioner who put United Nations security council members to sleep with his lengthy discourses and was a thorn in America’s side, ever consumed any solids. “Krishna was a tremendous influence on me. I read everything on India….” His first encounter with Nehru was on a Spanish civil war platform.
Perhaps criticism of the United States of America was also a bond, albeit subliminal. Foot found Mrs Gandhi virulently anti-American. She spoke of the American Central Intelligence Agency and what it had done in Chile. She didn’t want to share Salvador Allende’s fate. “We don’t want that to happen either”, he assured her. They were kindred spirits at one level.
There is a link here with Foot’s opposition to George W. Bush’s visit to Britain. He was there at the protest demonstrations in the spirit. Earlier, he was there in the flesh to object to Britain following America’s lead in invading Iraq. He might almost have penned the condemnation in his beloved Tribune, the Labour Party journal which he edited in the Thirties and to which Nehru contributed articles, of Tony Blair “acting as President Bush’s Sepoy wherever he chooses to go next”. Foot’s opposition has to do with regime change and security, those twin pillars of neo-con strategy, though he would die a million deaths rather than interpret either in the way Bush does.
For the ideal regime change, Foot returns to India where the vote is all-powerful. The democracy that he says has saved India and can save the world — echoes of the younger Pitt after Napoleon’s exile — is not the governance that Paul Bremer is trying to foist on conquered Iraqis. The best guarantee of security is not American militarism but a return to Wells’s 1914 proposal for a global conference to ban nuclear weapons.
He blames India’s recent record — which makes him “very sad” — on inexcusable India-Pakistan competition, imitation of the superpowers and the limitations of the world order. But no British statesman can match the consistent anti-nuclear record of Nehru, Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv has a special place in his, and also, apparently, of Mikhail Gorbachev’s, affections. The reflection that Atal Bihari Vajpayee shared their views in an earlier incarnation suggests the lingering hope that he might yet come round full circle. The Delhi declaration could have helped to purge the world of weapons of mass destruction.
Incurable romantic though he is, Foot doesn’t minimize the terrorist threat. But he agrees with Hosni Mubarak that US policy in Iraq will increase, not reduce, the menace. Mubarak took office under the shadow of death. When Foot went to Cairo in 1986, 30 years after Anthony Eden’s Suez adventure which he had opposed, the Egyptian leader spoke of the danger of assassination and the need to stop terrorists. He deserves the world’s attention.
In a shabby green jersey embroidered with Old Labour’s forgotten logo, singing “When cowards flinch and traitors sneer,/ We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here,” the author of erudite works on Byron, Wells and Jonathan Swift belongs as much to literature as to politics. The simplistic Bush cannot comprehend his compassion. “George Bush is giving his most famous imitation of Alexander Pope’s Great Anarch,” he wrote in Tribune, quoting the lines that Nirad Chaudhuri made famous in India, “Thy hand, Great Anarch, lets the curtain fall/ And universal darkness buries all.” Foot’s conclusion, “We should all be mobilised to stop him in his tracks.”
That was the call that drew thousands of protesters to London’s barricades this week. The cause was not anti-Americanism but peace, the game at which, Foot still believes India is better than the West.