Of all the many tributes to Michael Foot it was David Cameron who hit the nail on the head. He was, Cameron said, ‘almost the last link to a more heroic age in politics’. In appearance, and demeanour, Foot resembled an Old Testament prophet. An impression which, in later life, his shock of white hair, the passion of his delivery and the magnificence of his rhetoric served only to enhance. Born a year before the outbreak of World War One into a prominent West Country Liberal family and brought up in a world of erudition, radical politics and puritanical Methodism, he was also, as one of his obituarists remarked, brought up to believe that to vote Tory was the ultimate sin.
He cut his political teeth in an age when crowds were addressed from soapboxes and at mass meetings. Indeed the mass meeting was still alive and well in the Liberal strongholds of the West Country as late as 1970, as I discovered when in the general election of that year I fought Jeremy Thorpe in North Devon. By then Foot was long gone, to the valleys of South Wales, where a way with words is also appreciated.
A short spell working as a clerk for a shipping company in Liverpool in the 1930s turned him into a socialist and drove him from the Liberals into the arms of the Labour Party. By the late 1930s he had found a calling more suited to his talents, as a journalist on Tribune. It was here that he met Aneurin Bevan, who was to become his friend and mentor for the next 20 years. Bevan introduced him to Lord Beaverbrook, thereby cementing one of several unlikely alliances that characterised Foot’s long life. He later said of Beaverbrook: ‘I loved him, not merely as a friend, but as a second father.’ Beaverbrook, though in most respects a reactionary and, until rather late in the day, an Appeaser, was not above employing radical young journalists and Foot became a leader writer on the Evening Standard and, in due course, the paper’s editor. By 1940 with Beaverbrook a member of the war cabinet, the ideological gap between proprietor and his young protégé temporarily narrowed.
In 1945 Foot was swept into Parliament, representing his home town of Plymouth, as part of the great Labour landslide and so began, with a short intermission after he lost his seat in the mid-1950s, a parliamentary career which lasted more than 40 years. Foot’s four decades in Parliament divide roughly into Foot the Rebel, from 1945 to 1970, and Foot the Respectable in the years after 1970 when he was gradually absorbed into the uneasy embrace of the Labour establishment, a phase that culminated in his election as party leader in 1980 and the disastrous election defeat of 1983.
As Foot the Rebel, he was a thorn in the side of successive Labour governments. No sooner had he been elected in 1945 than he voted against the terms of a badly needed American loan; he went on to demand more nationalisation, more socialist purity, criticising Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, for being too pro-American and for his stance on Palestine. Unlike many on the left, however, he was not under any illusion about the nature of Stalin’s Russia and he had no difficulty supporting the foundation of Nato. In the 1950s, when Labour was once more in opposition, Foot threw in his lot with Bevan and the Bevanites. Defeated in 1955 he re-entered Parliament in 1960, winning the ultra safe seat of Ebbw Vale in the by-election that followed Bevan’s death (he would later write a magnificent two-volume biography of his friend). Within a year he had been suspended from the whip for voting against the defence estimates in protest against spending on nuclear weapons.
By the 1960s, he was the undisputed leader of the parliamentary left, by far the most effective critic of the Wilson governments, featuring prominently in rebellions over incomes policy, trade-union reform and, above all, the Vietnam War and winning widespread admiration for the splendour of his oratory. This, for example, was his assault on the Tories for their eerie silence during a debate on reform of the House of Lords: ‘Look at them, these unlikely novices for a new Trappist order, these bashful, tiptoeing ghosts, these pale effigies of what were once sentient, palpable human specimens, these unlarynxed wraiths, these ectoplasmic apparitions, these sphinx-like sentinels at our debates – why are they here?’
With the Labour defeat in 1970 and his election to the shadow cabinet Foot began to accept the responsibilities that came with office. When Wilson returned to power in February 1974, Foot found himself – for the first time in his life – inside the tent. He proved to be a surprisingly successful secretary of state for employment and subsequent leader of the house in a government clinging to power by its fingertips. With the fall of the Callaghan government, however, all the old ideological disputes and personal rivalries, never far below the surface in the postwar Labour Party, resurfaced. Against the odds, Foot emerged as a compromise candidate for party leader and, remarkably, he won.
Sadly, he proved to be a hopeless leader. By now he was a prisoner of the right, for ever being pressed to dissociate himself from positions which he might earlier have advocated with enthusiasm. The lowest point was reached in December 1981 when he publicly condemned the choice of Peter Tatchell as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, thereby ensuring the loss of one of Labour’s safest seats. Then came the Falklands War, when he managed to get himself into the impossible position of supporting the sending of the fleet, but not its use. He also found himself tangling with old friends on the left. By now I was editor of Tribune and we didn’t have to dig very deep into our archives to find examples of a younger Michael Foot taking positions diametrically opposed to those he was now having to defend, if not advocate. It was an unhappy time and the conclusion was inevitable: Labour’s greatest defeat since 1935. But no one really blamed him for the defeat: there were many other factors.
As a parliamentarian, he was a romantic, erring on the side of caution, even conservatism, when it came to reform. In the 1960s, he combined with Enoch Powell to mount an epic resistance to Lords reform on the grounds that he was interested only in abolition (Powell, of course, wanted to leave the Lords unchanged). In the 1980s he opposed the creation of departmental select committees, arguably one of the most successful reforms of recent years, on the grounds that they would detract from the importance of the chamber. But despite the compromises and disappointments of office, he remained to the end of his life a humanist, a believer in liberty, a fierce opponent of oppression in all its guises, who inspired generations of idealists.