Magazine article The Spectator

Defeat and Betrayal

Magazine article The Spectator

Defeat and Betrayal

Article excerpt

Defeat and betrayal THE VOTE: How IT WAS WON AND HOW IT WAS UNDERMINED by Paul Foot Viking, £25, pp. 505, ISBN 067091536X

When Paul Foot died last July, he was more widely and deeply mourned than any other journalist for years past, apart perhaps from his great friend Auberon Waugh. Born in 1937, he was a contemporary of the gang who founded Private Eye (and whose mortality rate has been frightening: few of the original group made it to 70, and many not even to 60). Although he wrote over the years for many papers, he always returned as if by instinct to Private Eye.

He occupied a special place there, the proverbial piano player in the brothel. When anyone complained about the spiteful tittle-tattle or mean-spirited jokes (which is of course what people buy the magazine for), 'Footnotes' could be held up in reply. He was a genuine investigative-cum-campaigning reporter, who could master complex documents - he would have hated to be told it, but he would have made a good barrister - and see through official obfuscation.

To say that he had bees in his bonnet would be an understatement: there was a swarm of them, and some of the cases he took up proved worthier than others. We need someone like Foot to expose miscarriages of justice, as he certainly did with the Carl Bridgwater case, although he does not in the end appear to have been right (whatever one thinks about capital punishment) in supposing that James Hanratty was falsely convicted. But in any case it was his personality as much as his work which gave him that unique position. Bron Waugh described how the Eye gang loved and revered Paul, to the point where they were like schoolgirls competing for his affection and esteem. He was indeed an unusually likeable and honourable man, with a capacity for ecumenical friendship which overrode his zealous commitment as a Trotskyist revolutionary socialist.

At his death Foot left behind the manuscript of the large book now published, a testament to his life's engagement, and to his disillusionment. Universal franchise had been hard won, but as Foot noticed, this did not seem to have produced a classless society or Marx's Kingdom of Freedom. In an attempt to explain what went wrong, Foot takes us through 400 years of English history.

From the time of the Civil War, the Putney debates and the Levellers' movement saw the early stirrings of the equalitarian idea, and he tells the story engagingly, even if his account is not always novel, or necessarily right. A view of the Civil War (or 'English Revolution') as class conflict had its first outing at the hands of Christopher Hill more than 60 years ago, but has not worn well, and Foot's version would not, I think, get high marks from many scholarly historians today.

After a ringside account of the polemical duel between Burke and Paine, in which he passionately takes Paine's side, Foot reaches the age of parliamentary reform and the Chartists, where his theme of defeat and betrayal begins. His belief that the Chartists failed is surely arguable: although none of their six demands was met immediately when made in the 1840s, all but one had been (alas including the payment of MPs, which has had such a sorry unintended result in the creation of a new class of mediocre professional politician) within little more than 60 years, not so long as history goes. The only one which has not been granted to this day is annual parliaments, and it's about time it was brought back as a radical - or perhaps Tory - cause: this would do more than anything else to revitalise our inert political culture.

As Foot points out irritably, very few of the higher classes at this time favoured universal suffrage or even a large extension of the franchise. When Daniel O'Connell, greatest of all Irish leaders, demanded in 1830 that 'every man of proper age and proper capacity should have the right of voting' it was both opportunistic and uncharacteristic, and he soon changed his mind. …

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