Up the Garden Path

R.W. Johnson

  • Michael Foot: A Life by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Harper, 568 pp, £25.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 717826 1

One day in 1993, I found myself on a bus in Oxford with Michael Foot. He looked shambolic even by my standards – donkey jacket, stick, long hair all over the place. But nobody minded. You don’t often see leading politicians on a bus and passenger after passenger came up to say hello. He smiled and was the soul of friendliness. As he stood up to get off he half-stumbled and six or seven people rushed to help him. As soon as he’d gone I heard the same words over and over: ‘What a dear old man.’ I’ve never heard such spontaneous warmth evoked by a politician, but my guess is that I was one of the few people on the bus who’d actually voted for him ten years earlier, and I’d done it with some exasperation.

Kenneth Morgan’s over-long biography brings back all these feelings. Part of the problem is Morgan himself. He has written a long list of books about Wales, the Labour Party, Lloyd George, Wales, Jim Callaghan, Wales, the Labour Party, and just occasionally, to spice things up, about the Labour Party and Wales. He is not just fascinated by this little world but sentimental about it. Take Michael Foot’s marriage to Jill Craigie. Although Craigie wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea – not Barbara Castle’s, for a start – she was clearly a wonderful partner for Foot, but Morgan can’t stop there: ‘The Labour Party cherishes its great partnerships – Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Douglas and Margaret Cole, the Callaghans, the Kinnocks, the Blairs. In this pantheon the touchingly loyal team of Michael and Jill may confidently be placed.’ ‘Michael and Jill’: how cosy.

It seems unfair to bracket Glenys Kinnock, say, with Beatrice Webb and Margaret Cole, both of whom were serious intellectuals, and I can’t get used to the idea of a pantheon that includes Cherie Blair, with or without her lifestyle adviser. Or Jim Callaghan, that dire waxwork who embodied the terrible fate of the old dreams of social democracy: Tom Nairn’s phrase about ‘the full medicine pill misery’ of having to ‘behold the gartered Callaghan’ swims back to mind. A similar unease overcomes me each time Morgan writes of the gale of derision directed at Foot’s Worzel Gummidge appearance and how this was meant as a reproach to Craigie. I dress quite badly myself, but I can’t see that it is my wife’s fault.

But Foot, too, is part of the problem. We learn all about his enviable West Country Liberal background and his admirable bibliophile father, Isaac Foot, but intellectually the key experience comes at Oxford, where Foot was president of the Union (always a bad sign, it means hundreds of hours wasted in undergraduate rhetoric and sleeve-tugging, and usually goes with a 2.2). As an undergraduate reading PPE, Foot couldn’t abide anything analytical – economics, philosophy or Lewis Namier’s structural analysis of 18th-century politics. (Morgan approvingly quotes Foot’s friend A.J.P. Taylor criticising Namier for ‘taking the mind out of history’ without allowing for the fact that what Taylor found hard to bear was knowing that Namier had changed the study of political history for ever, in a way he himself never could.) Given that socialism originates in a critique of capitalism and is concerned with imposing a new set of economic arrangements on society, a complete ignorance of, and lack of interest in, economics might have been thought a fairly crippling disability for a socialist but, as with so many in the Labour Party, including his great hero, Aneurin Bevan, Foot’s socialism owed more to Methodism than to Marx. The result, as Morgan points out, is a pulpit preacher used to preaching only to the converted. Preachers never get the chance to do much else, but politicians are supposed to try and spread their creed.

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