That world of soapbox speeches, ideology and reckless tactical gambits may be gone forever, on both sides of the House. But an agenda dominated by policy wonk reports, tax domicile issues and expenses scandals - and the total absence of scholarship, poetry and rhetoric - does feel somehow feeble by comparison.But isn’t all this romantic tosh? The entire point of Foot’s Guilty Men was to point out that there were precious few “great giants” of the 1930s - that it was, in Auden’s words, a “low, dishonest decade.“
Indeed, there was little that was heroic about Foot’s age generally - which is partly why he himself so often rebelled against it. The 1950s was a decade of bland Bustskellism, when few big issues divided the two parties. Much worse still, it was a time when politicians tolerated appalling racism and homophobia; what was heroic about presiding over a law that hounded Alan Turing to death?
Foot’s contemporaries Boothby and Driberg were massively more corrupt than any expenses-grubbing MP today - and this is not to mention Stonehouse, Profumo or the Lavender List. And, I hope, no MP today would crassly pander to the worst racism of the mob as Enoch Powell did.
I fear Paul is also mistaken to think there was a time when politics was dominated by higher concerns. The 1964-70 Labour government was obsessed with what we now know to be an utterly trivial matter, that of sterling’s exchange rate. And Ted Heath earned himself the nickname “the Grocer” in part because his election campaign concentrated on food prices. Compared to all that, it is the Blairite age of liberal interventionism that seems heroic - for good or bad - not Foot’s era.
Indeed, we might go further, and claim that even the positive aspect of Foot’s age - that it produced “conviction politicians” such as himself rather than focus group fetishists and marketing men - has a dark side. Conviction and rhetoric can easily shade into self-indulgent posturing. And listening to focus groups can be a way of respecting voters’ concerns.
I suspect, then, that there never has been an “heroic age” in politics. Our ruling class has always contained a large streak of ignobility, stupidity and grubbiness. And it always will.