Michael Foot’s Fathers

D.A.N. Jones

  • My Life with Nye by Jennie Lee
    Cape, 277 pp, £8.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 224 01785 3
  • Debts of Honour by Michael Foot
    Davis-Poynter, 240 pp, £9.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 7067 6243 6

If Jennie Lee, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot had achieved Cabinet rank together in the 1960s, the United Kingdom would be in better shape now. ‘That is my truth,’ as Bevan used to say. ‘Now tell me yours.’

What have they in common, though, this leftist Gang of Three, the Englishman, the Welshman and the Scot, Bevan, his wife and his friend, all from such different backgrounds? They have similar opinions, of course: but what of their human and moral nature, their style of writing and speaking? It may be worth noting that all three are childless and parentful: all three have been devoted to Protestant Christian parents and have (to my regret) firmly rejected the faith of their fathers.

Jennie Lee’s new book, My Life with Nye, is a valuable personal footnote to Foot’s public life of Bevan, adding some of the private matter which Bevan’s widow may publish, at this date – matter which it would have been improper for Bevan’s friend to print in the 1960s. The first part of her book is light-hearted; the later chapters reflect the pain of life – and she writes, more than once: ‘I prayed again to the God in whom I did not believe.’ She prints an alarming letter to her husband, about ‘desolation and nihilism of spirit’, adding: ‘Thank God I held on to enough sanity not to send that lettter.’ The reader may feel, quite seriously, that he is intruding upon private grief – but the grief is closely associated with a large public matter, the question of nuclear weapons. It was in this period, the late 1950s, so Jennie Lee tells us, that Foot and Bevan quarrelled deeply about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. ‘So tense was the strain on their relationship that they almost came to blows. Michael’s gifted wife, Jill Craigie, was the peacemaker. She also helped me to understand that however harsh the strains on Nye and myself, Michael and she were almost at breaking-point ...’

To the Bevan and Foot couples, ‘defence policy’ has never been merely a matter of party points and parliamentary victories. It demands a spiritual recognition (in Jennie Lee’s words) ‘of the yawning hell opened up at our feet by all that nuclear warfare could mean’. So large an argument is bound to add a new bitterness to the often agreeable pugnacities of adversary politics. ‘The stomach ulcer that killed Nye was brought on by tension and repression,’ writes Jennie Lee:

Even now the old bitterness wells up inside me when I recall the depth of his sadness during the hysterical attacks on him by some anti-bomb warriors who ought to have known better. Of course they were not all like that. Michael Foot and Nye, for instance, quarrelled violently. But there was no poison in the blows they rained on one another.

This, I suggest, is where rhetoric proves its virtue. As used by men like Bevan or Foot – or Churchill, come to that – it is the equivalent of fighting by Queensberry rules. There are some who do not like Mr Foot’s style of rhetoric, as instanced in his sonorously-titled book of essays, Debts of Honour: it is felt that he exaggerates his likings and his enmities, that he ought not to announce that his wife’s room is ‘a shrine dedicated to the cause of women’s rights’, that his father must have been ‘the happiest man who ever lived’, that Foot loved Lord Beaverbrook ‘not merely as a friend but as a second father’, that Bertrand Russell ‘became one of the chief glories of our nation and people, and I defy anyone who loves the English language and the English heritage to think of him without a glow of patriotism ... ’

‘What the hell has that got to do with it?’ howls Christopher Hitchens in a New Statesman philippic against Foot. Hitchens would rather examine Russell coolly, drily, as an international philosopher and political thinker. But Foot’s rich, exaggerative style does, undeniably, mirror his subject’s. Russell did, after all, write: ‘Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess ... ’

There is a time to be very dry and a time to let it all hang out, especially if you wish to argue without wounding. Foot tells the tale of Russell receiving the Order of Merit from George VI – who remarked: ‘You have sometimes behaved in a way which would not do if generally adopted.’ Russell wanted to reply: ‘Like your brother!’ But that would have been hitting below the belt. Instead he replied, very drily: ‘How a man should behave depends upon his profession. A postman, for instance, should knock at all the doors in a street at which he has letters to deliver; but if anyone else knocked on all doors, he would be considered a public nuisance.’ The dry general statements of philosophical discourse offer a means for taking some of the heat out of an argument while disseminating the light – and so do the exaggerations of rhetoric, the laudatory epitaphs, the ferocious denunciations.

In the 1960s, when I was working for Tribune, I went to Michael Foot’s office, to be denounced. He was in charge of the paper, that week, as Dick Clements was on holiday. I had written a front-page piece, headed ‘White as Leprosy’, about a Tory project for harassing blacks; and, for good measure, I had criticised two Labour MPs, Lena Jeger and Roy Hattersley. I felt that Mrs Jeger had supported the policy I favoured with a silly argument and that Roy Hattersley supported it with too little enthusiasm.

Foot was staring out of window, disconsolate that he had to urge me to censor my work. Turning his head, almost shyly, he said: ‘We don’t want to attack our friends.’

‘Oh, but I think we do,’ I replied, sitting down comfortably. He tried sweet reason, man-to-man argument, but I was obstinate. So he switched gear – and denounced me, rhetorically. It was the argumentum ad hominem, the tu quoque, an account of the good work that Hattersley and Mrs Jeger had done on behalf of better race relations – and the repeated refrain he thundered was: ‘And what have you done?’

The denunciation echoed through the thin-walled Tribune offices (none of your thick-doored New Statesman plotting rooms!) and one of the secretaries offered me consolation, afterwards, remarking: ‘He’s kept your headline.’ But I needed no consolation, having thoroughly enjoyed the way the man had made his sound points: I felt like the Tory front bench – or perhaps like Widmerpool having received a banana in the face, from the First XI. It would have been pleasing to say (as Churchill said to Bevan after his maiden speech): ‘Permit me to congratulate you. It is so seldom that we hear a real debating speech nowadays.’

We may well feel that Michael Foot, whether denouncing or laudatory, is inclined to overstatement, that in Debts of Honour, he exaggerates the Leftness and rightness of Swift and Defoe, Disraeli and Beaverbrook: but these essays should be read as debating speeches, countering, for instance, Lord Blake’s disparagement of Disraeli, supporting Bewick’s joyful exaggeration of Hazlitt’s merits – ‘the Prose Shakespeare of our time’. Foot delights us (as Hazlitt and Priestley do) with his delight in great men of the past – and great women, too: until I read Foot’s essays on the Duchess of Marlborough, Defoe and Paine, I had no idea that the author was so strong a feminist.

In the essays about his contemporaries, he is emulating Hazlitt’s collection of profiles, The Spirit of the Age. There is Isaac Foot, of course, the father whom he knows to have resembled both Hazlitt’s father and Isaac D’Israeli; besides Beaverbrook and Russell, we are reminded – in fact, educated – about the rather neglected Brailsford and Silone (respectively, ‘the Knight-Errant of Socialism’ and ‘the New Machiavelli’), about Vicky, the cartoonist, and two delightful eccentrics, Randolph Churchill and Bonar Thompson, the Hyde Park orator. No one in the Labour Movement disparages Michael Foot as an ‘intellectual’ (the way Crossman and Crosland were disparaged): he is seen rather as everyone’s favourite English master who can win us to new reading, to new ideas of tradition, to the modernity of the past.

Bevan, surprisingly, had a similar ability. Michael was brought up in Isaac Foot’s great library, he went to a university – so did Jennie Lee – but Bevan had to make his own discoveries among books and writers. One of his discoveries is a South American philosopher called Rodo, impressively quoted in My Life with Nye and in Foot’s life of Bevan. This sort of statesman needs and appreciates philosophers. Barbara Castle, gleefully broadcasting about Foot’s recent assumption of Labour Party leadership, announced: ‘Michael will be setting his decisions within a philosophic context – which appeals to the soul of the Labour Party.’ It was almost the same with Churchill. Jennie Lee recalls that Churchill, after praising her maiden speech, lent her an American book about economics, hoping to change her philosophy. The bookish will be inclined to seek out Churchill’s man, Garrett, as well as Bevan’s, Rodo.

Jennie Lee is interesting about the relationship between Bevan and Churchill. She reprints a cartoon of the two of them sitting in the Commons, smiling upon each other, as two giants among pygmies. Neither Mrs Churchill nor Jennie Lee liked their husbands going out to see their hoodlum friend, Max Beaverbrook (though Jennie Lee liked working with him, when it came to the crunch, in the Ministry of Aircraft Production). Michael Foot defends his own friendship with Beaverbrook, most spiritedly, in his essay, ‘The Case for Beelzebub’. But to call Beaverbrook his ‘second father’ seems bold. It depends on one’s philosophy about fathers. John McGrath’s first play was called A Man Has Two Fathers – based on the idea that a man with a worthy, authoritative father must find a roguish, wastrel father as well.

There is a book by Tangye Lean called The Napoleonists – about the kind of man who, for good reasons (like Hazlitt’s) or bad, leans over backwards to praise a foreign potentate, a king-over-the-water, a Napoleon, a Stalin or even a Hitler. Such a man is often the son of a worthy, religious and left-wing father; the son cannot rebel against him easily, because the father is himself a rebel against authorities. So the son rebels yet more strongly against the English Establishment, the Court of St James, as substitute for a tyrant father, and then overpraises a foreign potentate, as an alternative father.

It is a pretty theory. I remembered it when talking with Malcolm Muggeridge recently about Kim Philby. Muggeridge was asserting that Philby’s treason had no philosophical or rational basis, but was merely a response to an anti-Establishment father. When I mentioned Tangye Lean’s theory about the ‘psychological type’, Muggeridge said: ‘Like me !’ He was thinking of his own father, a Labour councillor, and (I suppose) of his own criticism of the monarchy, his own youthful readiness to applaud Moscow Communism.

Can we fit Michael Foot – son of much-loved Isaac, pious and left-wing – into Tangye Lean’s pattern? We know Michael Foot’s irreverence toward what some of us call due ceremony and others pomp and flummery. (In fact, on a wall of Buckingham Palace, a mural by Topolski portrays Michael Foot expressing scepticism at a coronation.) But where is Foot’s Napoleon, his king-over-the-water, his diabolical alternative father? Beaverbrook of New Brunswick fits the bill rather well, if the Tangye Lean theory takes your fancy.

This is ‘reductionism’. We might play a similar game with Michael Foot’s taste for Disraeli, explaining it away as fellow-feeling for a rebellious and literary young politician with a bookish father called Isaac, or as a mirror of scruffy Hazlitt taking a delight in dandies (Brummell, Janus Weathercock).

Can we see a touch of agreeable dandyism about Bevan and Jennie Lee in the Thirties? As young MPs they seem très chic, presque snob: the miners’ children move among actors, artists, bohemians, like characters in a film series starring Loy and Powell, or Hepburn and Tracey. Photographs carry the message no less than Jennie Lee’s anecdotes: she reminds us of Jessie Matthews. The Bevans do not come over as bumpkins, but more like an Empsonian pastoral of working-class people behaving the way aristocrats should, the best people using the best language, with no money and high hopes.