The great British parliamentarian and journalist Michael Foot died last week aged 96. He was a Labour MP for ten years from 1945 and then another 32 years from 1960 and led the party to defeat in the 1983 post-Falklands poll as Margaret Thatcher won her second election. While often flayed in the media for his leadership woes and his poor dress sense (his duffel coat wearing at the 1981 Cenotaph memorial service infamously mislabelled by the right-wing press as a “donkey jacket”), Foot held the party together during one of its lowest ebbs and was a great servant to British democracy. (1982 photo of Michael Foot by Jane Bown)
Michael Mackintosh Foot was born and raised in the south-western city of Plymouth, the fifth of seven children of a Scottish mother and Isaac Foot the former mayor of Plymouth. He was schooled there and in a Quaker school in Reading before graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He graduated in 1934 at the height of the depression and took a job as a shipping clerk in Birkenhead on Merseyside. Foot was shocked by the scale of unemployment he found in Liverpool and it was enough to shake him out of his erstwhile Liberal views and become a socialist.
In 1935 he joined the Labour Party and contested the Welsh seat of Monmouth but lost. He worked for the New Statesman and then was one of the first journalists on the weekly magazine Tribune when it was set up in 1937. Aneurin Bevan recommended him to Lord Beaverbrook to work on the Evening Standard and he eventually became editor in 1942. Under the pseudonym of “Cato”, he also co-authored a book about Chamberlain’s appeasement policy called “Guilty Men” which became a surprise bestseller. His own chronic asthma prevented him from signing up in the war.
Although Foot would continue as a distinguished journalist throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a new career beckoned at the end of the war. He went back to his home town Plymouth and contested the 1945 election which he won as Labour under Clement Atlee ended Churchill’s rule. He held it again in 1950 and 1951 but was a shock loser in 1955 as the Tories increased their majority by 60 seats under Anthony Eden. In 1960 he returned to Wales and contested and won the Ebbw Vale by-election made vacant by his mentor Aneurin Bevan’s death.
After barely a year back in parliament then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell expelled Foot from the parliamentary party after he led a rebellion against the leadership over defence spending. Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1963 and the ascension of Harold Wilson paved the way for Foot’s return to the party. Foot turned down a role in the Wilson ministry in 1964 preferring to offer criticism from the back bench on matters such as wage restraint, Vietnam and Rhodesia.
After Wilson’s defeat in 1970 the party moved leftwards and arrived at a rapprochement with Foot. When Labour was re-elected in 1974, Foot finally accepted a cabinet position as Secretary of State for Employment. He lost the leadership battle to James Callaghan in 1976 but was elected deputy leader and it was his job to somehow keep the Lib-Lab pact going as the government tottered towards the end of its reign. After the “winter of discontent” in 1979 Labour was put out of its misery by Thatcher, Callaghan resigned and Foot finally had the top job, aged 67.
His immediate task of uniting the badly fractured party was made more difficult by the defection of the Gang of Four to create the Social Democratic Party. With media support and favourable polling, the SDP looked as if it could overtake Labour as the alternative party of power to the Tories, who themselves were in strife as Thatcher’s early policy reforms showed no signs of bringing rewards.
The 1982 Falklands Crisis restored Thatcher’s lead in the polls, Labour’s vote fell by three million and she won the 1983 election with an increased parliamentary majority of 144 seats. Though Labour only polled two percent greater than the combined SDP/Liberal vote, Britain’s first-past-the-post system meant they still took 203 seats to the Alliance’s 23. The scale of the defeat was enough to sink Foot. Harold Wilson’s press secretary Gerald Kaufman famously described Foot’s anti-nuclear, anti-European election manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". Foot went to the back benches and finally retired from parliament at the 1992 election.
All throughout his life, Foot remained a fervent member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a possible relic from his Quaker education. He was also passionate about the arts and music and a lifelong fan of Plymouth Argyle FC. Neil Kinnock, who followed him as Labour leader, called him “a resolute humanist with profound faith in the ability of free men and women using free institutions to secure irreversible advances in standards of living and liberty for every country and community”.
Although some opinion polls have nominated him the worst Labour leader in history, it is likely no-one else would have done better with the poisoned chalice he was handed in 1979. As well as the Jenkins-inspired ructions on the right, the Militant Tendency was making great strides on the far left while Tony Benn remained a major destabilising influence within the party. As the Guardian said in its obituary, the ultimate judgment may well be he performed the vital service of holding his party together when it was dangerously polarised between Healey and Tony Benn.
Foot was an eloquent parliamentarian with friends across the political spectrum. Enoch Powell loved him because he spoke beautiful English. Foot was well-read, eloquent, devoted to literature and regularly quoted Swift, Disraeli, Hazlitt and Byron. As a student of history, he might have enjoyed the irony of how Labour’s current problems mirror many of his own in the late 1970s. He might also have told them not to despair despite their current problems. As Foot was only too aware, all things must pass.