Michael Foot: A Portrait 
by Simon Hoggart and David Leigh.
Hodder, 216 pp., £8.95, September 1981, 0 340 27600 2
Show More
Show More

Has Labour ever had a decent leader? Has not the conjunction of circumstance always ensured that the right man in the right place at the right time was, ineluctably, the wrong man? Or has there, perhaps, never been a ‘right’ man (or woman): is it in the nature of British working-class politics that those who come to the fore are always those who, as the saying goes, could scarcely organise a piss-up in a brewery? The Edwardian pioneers had no settled leader (the SDP has sound scriptural precedent here): Keir Hardie’s talents were other than those of a Parliamentary chairman; Arthur Henderson was dull; Ramsay MacDonald was both great orator and skilled tactician, though his critics within the Party were numerous well before the First World War broke out. During that war, a number of Labour men served in government (not, of course, MacDonald, whose view that the war was the product of a misguided foreign policy, but could scarcely be brought to a stop overnight, was not always well understood by out-and-out pacifists or out-and-out opponents of capitalism). The war brought Labour to the forefront of national politics, but the first post-war election deprived it of its best-known figures. Willie Adamson, a former Fifeshire miner, happened to be around and so became Chairman of the Parliamentary Party. In 1922 MacDonald, Philip Snowden, his great rival in the Parliamentary opposition to the war effort, and the Clydeside contingent were returned to a Parliament in which Labour was now indisputably the main opposition party. A chairmanship contest was held between MacDonald and J.R. Clynes, who, serving as a competent minister in the Lloyd George war coalition, had at that time been tipped by the Observer as a future Labour prime minister. MacDonald was elected chairman and leader, as the press at the time, and Robert Mackenzie much later, stressed. MacDonald had the charisma, he had the contacts with the Left, and he profited from the general disenchantment with the war and those associated with it. That said, it is impossible to see the worthy Clynes as a ‘lost leader’ who would somehow have averted the humiliations of 1931.

Without doubt, MacDonald did what he did in 1931 from the highest motives. His failure was, first, while in government to develop an economic policy independent of prevailing orthodoxy (a tall order!), and, second, to foresee that once he formed his National Government he would be a prisoner of the Tories and an agent in Labour’s massive electoral defeat. Yet who else was there? One of the daftest products of some dubious recent historiography has been Mosley the Labour Messiah: Mosley was a sadistic buffoon and could never have been tolerated even by the long-suffering Labour Party. John Wheatley was the intellectual and organising genius behind the Clydesiders, but you have only to watch the surviving newsreels to see why Maxton had to be the leader of that group, and you only have to study Maxton’s confused utterances to see how he could never have been other than the lovable outsider.

Two Parliamentary survivors of 1931 were Lansbury and Attlee: ergo, first one, then the other, became party leader. Simply through losing his seat in 1931 Herbert Morrison slipped out of the running. The post-war Attlee Government missed a golden opportunity to restructure British society: nothing is more certain than that Morrison would have done no better. So the wearisome catalogue continues with Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan: all men of considerable, and different, talents but hardly characterised by resounding political success; that Gaitskell was never prime minister seems hardly to weigh more or less than Wilson’s achievement in holding the prime ministership for longer than anyone else this century. Death seems to have struck with unfair force: Bevan surely would have become leader, and one of real distinction; Bevin, on the other hand, has always been lauded by those social democrats who do not believe it is necessary to talk proper to be a social democrat; Gaitskell may well have been mellowing in his last months. Yet unless (as many Tories, indeed, believe) God is a Tory, one can only see the special cruelty of death as pointing up Labour’s chronic shortage of convincing leadership candidates.

Arguably, the class and educational structure of this country does not in any case favour the evolution of high political talent: certainly it does not favour the creation of potential Labour prime ministers. Labour leaders, it is true, are subject to pressures and stresses which, in general, do not affect Conservative leaders. Who wants to be prime minister anyway? Amis got near to l’homme moyen sensuel with Ronnie Appleyard: ‘fame and money, with a giant’s helping of sex thrown in, were all he was after.’ Save that most Britons are rather more moyen and probably considerably less sensuel. The drives which impel men towards political leadership are not necessarily the drives most compatible with caring for the underprivileged or reconstructing society. While in practice all most Labour prime ministers achieve is to keep society going (just) with a greater or lesser number of significant reforms thrown in, sections, and, as is so often pointed out, the most active sections, of their following expect a great deal more. It is a tribute to the coherence and self-confident culture of the British working class that it has produced trade-union leaders who for clear-sighted and articulate service of the interests of their members outshine any in the world. Yet working-class figures in the political leadership of the Labour Party have remained remarkably few. It has always been too easy for Oxford Union debaters, having decided that Labour is the right vehicle for their sympathies and ambitions, to enter directly into the upper circles of the Party.

Hoggart and Leigh define Michael Foot’s class position in various ways, usually involving that much abused label ‘middle class’. Grandfather was a carpenter and undertaker, who made enough money to build a mission hall and see his son, Michael Foot’s father, established as a solicitor, and then as a famous Liberal MP. His sons, after the First World War, went to public schools and Oxbridge and ‘won entry into a political élite’. ‘Castle Foot’ was now Pencrebar, built in 1849 by the Horn-don family, the local squires: ‘it had 20 bed-rooms and six and a half acres of lawns and shrubberies’ – on the lawns Isaac Foot ‘held a succession of Liberal garden parties’. Michael’s winning of a Wadham scholarship was ‘perhaps a demonstration of the intimacy of the élite to which he belonged, a world where the children of politicians, even radical politicians, slipped in easily and moved about confidently’. By the Thirties, he could be defined as one of ‘the children of the British intellectual establishment’. Grandfather, then, moved from the fringes of the upper working class and lower middle class into the successful provincial middle class. Father moved into the upper middle class, and his sons, including Michael, have, in fact, been socialised, in the traditional English way, into the upper class – if that term is to be used with any real meaning and if the term ‘middle class’ is not to be used undiscriminatingly for everybody who is not working-class. Undoubtedly Michael and his brothers have ‘clung hard to the idea that they belonged to another England, a biblical, moralistic, self-taught, Methodist England’. But radicalism, of various sorts, has always been a prerogative of sections of the English upper class. Hoggart and Leigh switch between citing the big noshups enjoyed by leaders of the Left – ‘I am totally opposed to the idea that the Social Democrats should have all the best claret,’ says Woy’s namesake Clive – and insisting on the ‘unassuming personal habits’ of Foot and his wife Jill Craigie. The £6,000 redundancy payment (Sixties values) which Foot got from the Daily Herald came in handy for buying the ‘roomy Victorian villa’ in Hampstead.

Sharp detail and apt quotation abound in Hoggart and Leigh’s ‘portrait’, a very good example of a particular genre of political biography. As they say themselves, ‘biography is not always the same as history.’ At the trivial level, a certain sloppiness is probably inevitable in this form of instant biography. ‘Men like Ron Lemin, an electrician at the huge naval dockyard, remembered him [Hore-Belisha] at the 1935 hustings’ means ‘The only person we could find who remembered anything of Hore-Belisha [and it turns out not to be much] was one Ron Lemin.’ More serious is the use of ‘later’: ‘Later he [Foot] wrote of the show trials: “How deeply the left craved to give the benefit of all the doubts to Moscow!” ’ With a man as old as Foot ‘later’ could refer to any of several quite distinct eras in his subsequent life. Most serious (as, of course, the authors would be the first to admit) is the absence of overall historical perspective. Here is a rare attempt at a broad historical judgment:

Both sides exaggerate, of course. It is disingenuous for the Bevanites to pretend that Bevan was acting purely from socialist principle. There is plenty of evidence that he could be offensively egotistical, as well as a brilliant and kindly charmer. Equally, Gaitskell had a paranoid streak and tended to imagine serpentine left-wing conspiracies where none existed.

Get it? There was much to be said on both sides. More, the concrete achievements (and there were concrete achievements) of the Labour Governments of 1945-51 and 1964-70 are left out altogether, since, of course, Foot was not involved in them. In fact, a study of the way in which the important legislation of the post-war Attlee Government was shaped by the mood of consensus engendered by such upper-class politicians as Dalton, Cripps and Attlee himself is very relevant in examining the very middle-of-the-road position which, despite all the frantic rhetoric, Foot himself really occupies. Merely irritating is the authors’ repeated citation of the pronouncements of Mr A.J.P. Taylor – not so much, one fears, because they regard the historian as infallible (which he nearly is), but because they hope to keep on the sunniest side of the kindly critic.

During the First World War there had been a divide between what were, as always, rather simplistically referred to as the ‘pro-war’ and ‘anti-war’ factions. In the Twenties there had been a sort of left opposition to MacDonald. In the gathering world crisis of the Thirties there was a strong left-wing movement, and the ‘Red Squire’, Sir Stafford Cripps, was expelled from the Party. But Hoggart and Leigh are right to stress that internecine strife took on a new dimension in the 1950s. What had changed was that, through the war experience, the trade unions had become, as Churchill put it, a fourth estate; and Labour itself had become a governing party. The spoils of office, the potentialities of power, were now at stake. The 1951 Election marked a turning-point in British politics, as well as being a demonstration of the vagaries of the British political system and a portent of the penalties exacted from parties which give up, and of the prizes awarded to parties which scrape into office and stay there. Labour polled more votes than ever before, and it also polled more votes than the Conservatives. Yet in the succeeding decade, while the Conservatives steadily consolidated their position as an apparently competent governing party, Labour in frustration, and without one strong, credible leader, increasingly presented an image of warring unfitness to govern. There was an undue predominance of right-wingers on the National Executive Committee, and the Gaitskellite leadership, forgetting the important role the Left had always had in the Party, seemed bent on hounding left-wingers into the wilderness. The bitterness was intense and Denis Healey, and all others identified as right-wingers, reap the whirlwind today. Some commentators touted the notion of a political realignment in which Labour would be a centre, potential governing, party and the Left would split off to form a party in which consciences could remain pure, uncontaminated by the risk of power. Right-wingers who reasoned thus forgot how much the Left had contributed, not just through generating enthusiasm at local level, but through producing such highly effective Cabinet Ministers as John Wheatley and Aneurin Bevan. It may be that that realignment, in slightly different form, is now with us. There is no need necessarily to lament the so-called two-party system: for long periods, including the inter-war years, it had scarcely worked anyway. It is not, in my view, utterly out of the question to envisage, at some time in the future, Labour and SDP members in the same government.

If the SDP, as yet, has no clearly defined leader, Michael Foot, we all know, was indisputably elected leader of the Labour Party in November 1980. There is an honourable tradition, in many European countries as well as Britain, of the man of letters in politics. Yet I believe that there are grounds for arguing, till the advent of Ronald Reagan at least, that in the circumstances of our modern age, a background in journalism has been just about the most useless one any politician could have Foot was an outstanding journalist. He wrote an academic work of distinction about the role of Jonathan Swift in the politics of his day, The Pen and the Sword. In the Fifties he became a top TV personality on, first, In the News and then Free Speech. In a passage which makes one cringe (for Foot, not for the authors) we read of how Beaverbrook ordered Foot to memorise the Sunday papers and then deliver a lecture to Beaverbrook’s guests on their contents. Is memory of this sort not perhaps a delusive talent? It may be the over-reliance on this talent in earlier years, combined with its collapse in later ones, which lies behind the awful speeches which are an embarrassment to anyone who respects the orderly sequence of thought and the controlled use of language. Yet when the oratory clearly aroused the enthusiasm of large audiences, it is perhaps pedantic to complain, particularly since Foot always had a mastery of that mysterious gentlemen’s debating club, the House of Commons. The authors suggest that at times in his oratory Foot gets so carried away that he hardly really knows what he is saying. They also make one particularly apt judgment: ‘He has always overestimated his ability to persuade; he is much better at inspiring the converted than getting people to change their minds.’ To that one can add the Daily Mail’s comment from 1960, when Foot inherited Nye Bevan’s seat of Ebbw Vale: the Mail referred to Foot’s ‘wild, questing eyes, his straying hair and his perpetually undone overcoat’. He looks, their reporter continued, ‘like a man who has just discovered that he has lost his ticket’. Foot is clearly a great guy, warm, passionate, generous, immensely talented, and very human. He was evidently extremely reluctant to stand for the leadership in 1980; he has not sought place and preferment in the way that many lesser men have so assiduously done. So we come again to the constellation of circumstances which, once more, in defiance of any more abstract judgment, produced Labour’s leader. Foot believes in the Labour Party and believes that even a compromising and inadequate Labour government is always better than the Conservative alternative: but large sections of the Labour Party believed in Foot as the incorruptible inheritor of the role of Nye Bevan. In 1970 Foot decided to stand for election to the Shadow Cabinet, and came sixth. Foot proved such a source of strength to Harold Wilson that in January 1972 he was promoted to Shadow Leader of the House with special responsibilities for fighting the Government over the Common Market. After Labour’s return to power in October 1974, Foot was first Employment Secretary under Wilson, then Leader of the House of Commons under Callaghan. Foot in office exhibited all the qualities of the well-bred Englishman. He conciliated, he compromised, he fudged: but he also played a key part in establishing the Social Contract, which must, in our current era of severe depression and hyperinflation, seem like a model of how to conduct industrial relations and an employment policy. Eventually Callaghan, perhaps misadvised by Foot, tried vaingloriously to carry on too long, and his government collapsed into defeat. ‘However,’ Hoggart and Leigh neatly point out,

Foot, as much through good luck as good judgment, had left himself in an extraordinarily powerful position. His willingness to meet the needs of the moment, his unremitting hard work and his total loyalty to the Callaghan government had won him the trust and affection of the Party’s right wing. But it had not lost him the friendship and even the love of a good many left-wingers. It was undoubtedly this combination which enabled him to win the leadership election in November 1980, and which brought genuine pleasure in his victory even to those who did not vote for him.

However, Foot needed persuading, and his campaign needed organising. Much of the work was done by one of the most scintillating figures in the present-day Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, who was in large measure motivated by his intense hatred for everything he believes Denis Healey to stand for. What a tragedy! It is not likely to happen, but in these times when human lives are again being ruined by the pernicious quackery which claims that high unemployment is the nasty medicine necessary for eventual economic health, and when resurgent racism, anti-semitism and Fascism are in evidence abroad and at home, how marvellous if the Party could in fact be led by two men who, in their different ways, speak with the voices of the British people, and not with those of establishments or élites: Denis Healey and Neil Kinnock.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences