In his Observer encomium to Paul Foot, Nick Cohen states:
[M]ost of the best investigative journalism doesn't come wrapped in a big shiny package which can be opened in a rush on Christmas morning. Foot's campaign to free the four men falsely convicted of the murder of Carl Bridgewater was the result of a relentless exposure of the flaws in the prosecution case. Year in, year out, he refused to accept that he was becoming a bit of a bore on the subject. He banged on until four broken men finally received a belated sliver of justice.
This is true. Foot's obsessiveness on this and other miscarriages of justice did an appreciable amount of good - obviously for those who had been wrongly convicted, but also for our culture in exposing the fallibility of a nominally disinterested system of criminal justice. (It has furnished an overwhelming argument against capital punishment.) But it's not only the system of criminal justice that's fallible. The Guardian's account of Foot's death included this extraordinary statement:
Among his later exposes were the miscarriages of justice including the Carl Bridgewater murder case and the execution for murder of James Hanratty.
Those cases are not the same. The case of James Hanratty and the A6 murder was not a miscarriage of justice: Hanratty was guilty as charged. We know this because the science of DNA testing has progressed to the point where what was once an intractable case can now be resolved. As the Telegraph reported two years ago:
SCIENTIFIC evidence establishes "beyond doubt" that James Hanratty was the man who committed the notorious A6 murder more than 40 years ago, the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday. Dismissing Hanratty's posthumous appeal, three judges headed by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, said there was "overwhelming proof of the safety of the conviction". Ironically, it was Hanratty's family who sought DNA tests on two items of evidence that had been preserved since the trial.
During the appeal, Hanratty's counsel conceded that, provided the possibility of contamination could be excluded, analysis of these items pointed conclusively to Hanratty having been the man who murdered Michael Gregsten, 36, a civil servant, and raped Mr Gregsten's lover, Valerie Storie, then 23.
The Hanratty campaigners now rest their case on the argument that contamination cannot be excluded, yet as a witness from the Forensic Science Service told the BBC in a Horizon documentary examining this evidence:
NARRATOR: [Scientists'] confidence stems from a simple act of logic. If James Hanratty is not the killer then where is the killer's DNA? For scientists can only find one male profile on the exhibits.
ROGER MANN: We only have one profile. That profile matches James Hanratty. If that was a contaminant, if that was due to contamination we would expect two profiles, one from James Hanratty due to the contamination and one from the original killer.
Commenting on this evidence, Paul Foot told the same programme:
I'm a complete illiterate in relation to the science of DNA, physics and so on. I know nothing about it at all. My doubts stem solely from my, a very, very clear belief that this man did not commit this murder, so if the science is saying he did commit the murder I say well that clashes with my belief that he didn't commit the murder and there must be something wrong with the science.
That is the credo of the biblical creationist confronted with geological evidence for the age of the Earth. Foot's campaign for Hanratty wasn't a passion for justice against a pitiless state machine: it was an idee fixe, impervious to evidence, that has itself devastated the lives of innocent victims. According to the Telegraph, in an accompanying report on the Court of Appeal ruling in 2002:
At the age of two, Anthony Gregsten's father had gone for ever and the boy's life would never be the same again. By the age of eight, he learned that Michael Gregsten, a 34-year-old physicist, had been shot dead, in 1961, after he and a woman friend were ambushed in their car by a gunman. Mr Gregsten knew, too, at primary school, that a man called James Hanratty had been convicted and hanged for the murder, and the shooting of his father's lover, Valerie Storie.
It was a difficult burden for any child. He was shaken to the core, however, by the publication of a book, in the early 1970s, by the journalist Paul Foot. It was entitled Who Killed Hanratty? and raised the suggestion that his mother, Janet Gregsten - who had been aware of her husband's affair with Miss Storie - had been involved in some way in setting up the attack.
Mr Gregsten, a 42-year-old furniture designer, said: "Many people lose a parent, sometimes in the most tragic circumstances. You get over it. In this case they [campaigners] dragged it out for 40 years . . . 40 years to clear the name of a man who was found guilty by a jury.
Anyone, in a long career and with a voluminous output, can make a mistake. The fact that the British justice system did wrong to those falsely accused of the Birmingham pub bombings doesn't overturn the notion of the rule of law; the fact that Foot's campaign on the Hanratty case was misconceived doesn't invalidate his other campaigns. But you would have thought Foot could at least have acknowledged his error and apologised to those harmed by it; instead he continued insisting he was right regardless of the evidence. That was not merely "becoming a bit of a bore".
At the same time as the Hanratty appeal, my friend John Sweeney, formerly of The Observer and now of the BBC, was investigating the horrifying case of Sally Clarke, wrongfully convicted for the murder of her two baby sons who had in fact both died of natural causes. Sweeney's patient inquiry and lucid argument was an important contribution to the successful campaign for Mrs Clarke's freedom. But one of the reasons I implicitly trust Sweeney's judgement on this type of issue is that in addition he knows that his inquiries have limits: he will go only so far as the evidence permits. When journalists and campaigner pursue not the evidence but their deeply-held convictions, people can get hurt.
Politics is not irrelevant to this methodological question. Foot was a longstanding public advocate for a party that in the Iraq war called for military victory for Baathist tyranny. Sweeney, on the other hand, over many years exposed the cruelties of that same regime, and showed courage, strength and indefatigability in confronting its apologists. His brilliant BBC expose of Saddam's propaganda campaign over sanctions earned him a round-robin campaign of character assassination, falsehood and abuse. I know whom I regard as the better campaigning journalist: it's the one who doesn't defend the indefensible in any circumstances, even where - especially where - his prior convictions are at stake.
Ironically for one who professed the politics of solidarity, Foot's campaigning worked better on a smaller scale - miscarriages of justice, rather than great campaigns. That's true in politics as well as the legal system. When he aimed at specific targets - Archer, Poulson - he deployed formidable research and could draw blood. At book-length it could work too. His 1969 book The Rise of Enoch Powell was powerful and original. Its particular value lay in its portrayal of Powell as the opposite of the austere and consistent statesman. Powell's demagoguery on race, Foot argued, was tailored to the chances of his own political advancement. I consider Foot's judgement was vindicated by almost everything Powell did after that, notably his call for a Labour vote in 1974 and his bizarre anti-nuclear speeches in the 1980s. The consistent thread was not free-thinking heterodoxy but a vain attempt to be seen to influence electoral outcomes once his ministerial career had imploded.
Foot's attempt to dissect not the tergiversations of a maverick but The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968) was much less successful. Two-thirds of the book consider Wilson as Prime Minister. Taking aim at the Government's abandonment of socialist principle, Foot succeeded in demonstrating his own unfamiliarity with the policy issues that the Government foundered upon, notably the run on sterling:
Perhaps the saddest personal aspect of [a speech by Wilson in July 1968] was its complete abandonment of the cheeky language with which Wilson had, on occasions, mocked the received doctrines of the Bank of England, and sterling speculators.
Foot's concern was to present Wilson as the creature of the scheming Lord Cromer, Governor of the Bank of England and guardian of financial rectitude. The reality was somewhat different. There was a perfectly sensible option available to Wilson in his discussions with Lord Cromer (and which according to Edmund Dell's The Chancellors he actually threatened), which was to float sterling, whereupon the Government's policy mix would have become internally consistent and thereby invulnerable to pressure from the currency markets. The policy that Wilson in fact adopted was inconsistent, because he was then unable to target the exchange rate while at the same time having his other policy goals (too many policy goals for the instruments available to target them). Foot's is a poor book because it scarcely begins to consider the policy debates that exercised his subject - economically the best-qualified Prime Minister ever to hold office, who produced an almost incomparably bad record in economic management (exceeded only by Heath and Barber).
The 1970s were the period of Foot's greatest activity as a propagandist for Socialist Worker. The deadening of his prose and the crudeness of his analysis are exemplified in his booklet written for the launch of the Socialist Workers' Party (a grandiose scheme of the party founder Tony Cliff, heedless of the minuscule size of the membership) from its origins in the International Socialists, Why You Should be a Socialist (1977). Here he is depicting 'Capitalism - Class and Crisis':
Go down to a Tory Party conference or listen in to a BBC current affairs programme any week and you will hear the argument for the profit system. It is that there are only a few people in our society with initiative and enterprise.... Unless we allow these people to have the maximum 'incentive', they won't use their initiative and enterprise.
Well, no, that isn't the argument - or at least, it's only a minor argument - for 'the profit system'. The argument more properly has to do with knowledge and co-ordination, not incentives, and is well known not only to economic liberals such as Friedrich von Hayek but to socialist economists as well. As one of the best of those socialist economists, Alec Nove, wrote in The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983), concerning the Soviet experience:
If millions of prices are to be fixed, whoever determines or approves them must collect information (on costs and demand) , information which needs cross-checking, in view of the possible interest of the information-providers in higher prices.... Furthermore, even if it were decided that prices should be flexibly adjusted to changes in supply-demand relationships, it would be quite impracticable to do this administratively, that is, through price control by the government and/or the planners. There would simply be far too many prices to control.
The problem that the 'profit system' (more accurately, the system of shifting relative prices) addresses is, in short, not a fabrication of Tory Party conferences. Of that problem, you will read not a word in Paul Foot's writings, and that's a fundamental omission. But at least you can attribute that to nothing more serious than the author's unwillingness to read the case of those he dismisses. It's a different matter when Foot claims:
Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, is usually painted as a tyrant. In fact he was the opposite.
By the time of a new edition of this booklet, The Case for Socialism (1990), this preposterous - and for Foot's reputation, humiliating - remark had become:
The thousands of intellectuals then and since who abused Lenin as a 'tyrant' and a 'dictator' cannot have read The State and Revolution, which again and again repeats that socialism and democracy are indivisible.
That's like saying, "Those who describe Stalin as a dictator can't have read the Soviet constitution of 1936." It is of course true that The State and Revolution envisages a post-revolutionary order without compulsion, still less repression (save for a brief period of "the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of wage slaves of yesterday"). That was not, however, the post-revolutionary order that Lenin created. It never could have been, because it envisaged a social unity in which "all take part in the administration of the state". In this vision, there was no concept of opposition; when massive opposition in fact arose, Lenin imposed a police state to crush it. I wish I could say that the means of doing so are well-known, but they aren't. Former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev has made it the work of what remains of his life to document the cruelty of the system this produced, and he has published his findings in A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Among innumerable horrifying statistics and anecdotes contained in the book, this one stands out for me:
Documents show that even after the campaign for "thinning out" [yes, that's some euphemism - OK] the concentration camps in July 1921, the camps in Tambov province still held more than 450 hostages aged one to ten.
One of the reasons this stuff is still not widely known among the general public is that wise and good men in the East, such as Yakovlev, still have to contend with the durable romantic illusions of frivolous men in the West, such as Foot. If admiration for the creator of this abominable system had been a mere idiosyncrasy on Foot's part, then some allowance might be made for it. But again and again in Foot's writings one comes across sentiments that are callous as well as shallow. In his 1989 booklet Ireland: Why Britain Must Get Out (in the short-lived Chatto CounterBlast series), he dismissed fears of a "bloodbath" in Northern Ireland after the withdrawal of British troops:
In the past, British governments, after deciding to withdraw from colonies, have not been overly squeamish about bloodbaths. When Britain left India there was a bloodbath. When Britain left the Central African Federation there was a bloodbath. Yet no one but the most oddball reactionaries argued then (or argue now) that Britain should not have left those places.
Let us, for sake of argument, accept Foot's ahistorical designation of Northern Ireland as a British colony. Let us also overlook his failure to mention that in India there was of course not only bloodshed but partition - exactly what Foot erroneously believed his proposal for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland would avoid. Even then, is it not striking how easily he accepts the prospect of loss of life to accord with his own political proposals? Does that not say something about the quality of the proposal, even if it is just that human values are incommensurable?
In his Guardian columns after 9/11 Foot kept on displaying a reactionary casuistry rather than an appreciation of the import of political violence. Exactly a week after the attacks he wrote this about suicide terrorism:
I much prefer the advice of Leon Trotsky who became a socialist largely out of hostile reaction to the individual terrorism and assassinations practised by so many rebels against Russian tsarism in his youth ... "In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish their mission."
And that, for Foot, was sufficient judgement on the issue. The notion that suicide terrorism is a moral abomination because it targets civilian life doesn't enter into it; the salient characteristic about the act of slamming aeroplanes into office blocks and killing thousands of civilians is that it imbues the masses with false consciousness.
In March 2002 Foot amplified his views on suicide terrorism:
The violence of the Israeli army and police in [the West Bank] is the violence of the oppressor, and the consequent violence of the Palestinians is the resistance of the oppressed. Anyone who favours the Israeli occupation of the areas, or the settlements, or who denies the right of violent resistance to the Palestinians is siding unequivocally with the oppressor against the oppressed.
This is a statement not of support for terrorism, but of ideological apology for it. It insidiously invokes a vapid slogan - "resistance of the oppressed" - to obfuscate a specific type of act: suicide-bombing of buses, shopping malls, discotheques and restaurants. If there is to be a territorial settlement comprising sovereign and independent states of Israel and Palestine living peacefully alongside each other, then it most certainly requires "denying the right of violent resistance" to those who target civilian life. It requires an assertion of the necessity of politics, and of politics alone.
Foot's position was not only ethically flawed but also intellectually idle. In October 2001, as Parliament voted in favour of military action in Afghanistan, Foot asserted:
Appeasement of Israel has been the lynchpin of US and British policy in the Middle East, and is obviously connected, at whatever distance, to the terrorist attacks on September 11.
At whatever distance. I must remember that formulation the next time I'm challenged on links between Saddam and al-Qaeda. It's impervious to being falsified: whatever distance you travel, you can always travel further and thereby maintain that the connection exists even if it's not been uncovered yet. For good measure, I could always claim that evidence is unnecessary because the phenomena I'm trying to establish links between are "obviously connected".
Of course there is in some sense a connection between Western policy on Israel and al-Qaeda's murderous ideology. That's because Israel is a Jewish state and al-Qaeda urges holy war on Jews. There is nothing, literally nothing, that Israel can do to meet al-Qaeda's minimal requirements, because the minimal requirement is death. But that's the point: al-Qaeda's programme is not a set of negotiable grievances but an apocalyptic pursuit of the annihilation of western civilisation. That isn't merely what al-Qaeda is accused of: it's what al-Qaeda says. As Peter Bergen explains in the first and best book to have been published about Osama bin Laden after 9/11, Holy War Inc:
Bin Laden articulates an all-encompassing world view with a much wider appeal than simple hatred of Israel. Of course, he is opposed to Israel, but he also calls for the end of US military actions against Iraq; demands the creation of a 'Muslim' nuclear weapon; claims it is a religious obligation to attack American military and civilian targets worldwide because of the continued presence of US troops in the Gulf; criticises the governments of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia for not instituting what he sees as true Islamic law; and supports a multitude of holy wars around the globe.
The unintended irony of Foot's piece is his assertion, after listing half a dozen of his own complaints about the international order:
That doesn't excuse the fanatical and suicidal terrorism of September 11. But it helps to explain it.
No, it doesn't. Foot's catechism doesn't even begin to explain Islamist terrorism, because it doesn't attempt to examine critically what the Islamists actually stand for. It's a conceptual as well as a moral evasion.
Nick Cohen concludes his commendation of Foot for beatification with a tribute to his late friend's enthusiasm for Romantic poetry:
Red Shelley, published in 1980, remains one of the finest interventions in literary criticism of our time. Shelley, another revolutionary who came from the establishment, was a comrade. Foot rescued his reputation from the critics and syllabus setters who sought to portray him as a love poet and showed him to be what he was, a poet of rebellion.
Red Shelley may rank as the worst book published on a literary subject since the war. There is a tradition of the man of letters illuminating our understanding of literature through exposition of his own insights (think of Chesterton on Browning and Dickens). Foot's work belongs instead to the tradition of the dilettante determined to wrench his literary enthusiasms to his own image. It emulates the misplaced ingenuity of Churchill's minister Duff Cooper in writing Sergeant Shakespeare, an attempt to prove from internal evidence that Shakespeare must have had extensive military experience. Foot's Shelley is "a man with revolutionary ideas" that by a remarkable coincidence turn out to be Paul Foot's ideas:
Shelley wanted the truth about repression and exploitation to go ringing through each heart and brain, so that each heart and brain would unite in action to end that repression and exploitation. So, particulanly in his later poems, he concentrated all his mastery of language, all his genius with rhyme and rhythm into translating the ideas of the revolution to the masses.
After 160 years he survives for us not as a lyric poet but as one of the most eloquent agitators of all time. That is why we must read him, learn him, teach him to our children. He will help us to communicate our contempt for the corporate despotism under which we live and our faith in the revolutionary potential of the multitude.
To say this is a misreading of Shelley is to understate the case. Foot's wider incomprehension is of poetry itself. In his political prose, Shelley explicitly rejected Foot's "ideas of the revolution". He believed in social reform by peaceful means. In his Declaration of Rights he wrote:
No man has a right to disturb the public peace by personally resisting the execution of a law, however bad. He ought to acquiesce, using at the same time the utmost powers of his reason to promote its repeal.
If we're going to play at snatching a poet's reputation to bolster modern political views, I think I'll appropriate Shelley for David Blunkett's stress on social improvement through a building of moral character. Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam both stress a moral revolution in concert with a change in the temporal order. Prometheus Unbound expresses a liberal politics of forgiveness, not revolution, and an awareness of the destructiveness of revolt. With these words Prometheus repents of the curse that he had called down on Jupiter:
It doth repent me: words are quick and vain;/ Grief for a while is blind, and so was mine./ I wish no living thing to suffer pain.
Foot's exposition of Shelley's poetical worth is as philistine in its way as the right-wing populism that decries experimental art. The value of poetry lies not in "translating ideas to the masses" but in creating worlds of imaginative experience for the reader and allowing him to explore them. Certainly poetry and other forms of literature have the power to shape our external world and influence our ideas of how that world should be ordered. But literature makes us at home in the world by explicating how things feel - the life of the mind and the emotions - as well as by explaining how the world is.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Clive James, then television critic of The Observer, watched an edition of the BBC programme Question Time and wrote about the contrast between two members of the panel:
Paul Foot sat relaxed under his re-entry vehicle hairstyle and pithily made points. The admiral [Lord Hill-Norton], burdening himself with that upper-class drawl by which near inarticulacy presumes to disguise itself as a stiff upper lip, could not convey even the simplest opinion in under five minutes and looked outraged when Robin [Day] cut him short. Yet forced to choose between the admiral's view of life and Paul Foot's most people would probably choose the admiral's, if only because it shows fewer signs of having been hatched in a cosy upper-middle-class incubator. Paul is absolutely certain that outmoded institutions must be swept away. You have to be brought up in sheltered circumstances to have that absolute certainty.
Press coverage over the past week has underlined that Paul Foot was held in high regard and affection by very many people. If he had ever managed to escape his absolute certainty borne of sheltered circumstances, presumably there would be fewer of them.
UPDATE: A correspondent quite correctly upbraids me for my hyperbolic description of the ranking of Foot's book Red Shelley. There are, of course, many bad books on literary subjects, and I was meaning to exclude the obvious crank theories such as those on the authorship of Shakespeare (on which subject my favourite of all web sites does a valiant job of refuting the literary equivalents of the UFO conspiracy theorists). Let us say merely that Red Shelley is a bad book that perpetrates anachronisms, unwarranted inferences and misinterpretations. I'll try and post a longer explanation for that judgement later in the week, as I am an enthusiast for Shelley, but note here merely that by imposing a retrospective taxonomy of Shelley's political beliefs (e.g. a misconceived attempt to explicate the poet's wavering attitude to means of social change), Foot ends up looking at the wrong bits entirely. The essence of Prometheus Unbound, for example, is not the overthrow of Jupiter by Demogorgon (and Demogorgon is not the masses), but the hymns of transcendental humanism that make up the fourth act.