Regular readers will be aware that I’m not a great fan of politicians generally. However, there are the odd one or two who somehow manage, against all the odds, to stick to their principles and hold firm in the face of our deluded political system, and it is they who have my respect and (in some cases) even grudging admiration.
Michael Foot, whose death at the age of 96 was announced today, was one such who fell into that latter category. A left-wing politician of the old school, who – unlike today’s rabble – was an idealist and a principled man, Foot was one of those rare politicians who did genuinely manage to stick to those principles, right until the end of his long and eventful life.
Like a lot of Labour politicians and commentators of his generation, Foot came from a relatively privileged background. Born into a Liberal and non-conformist family at Plymouth in July 1913, politics were almost a part of his genetic make up; his father was twice elected MP for a Cornish constituency, his three brothers were all involved in Liberal politics, and Foot himself became a Socialist during his time studying at Oxford.
The importance of those Socialist beliefs were forcefully brought home to him after his graduation when he spent some time working as a shipping clerk in Liverpool; an experience which exposed him to the realities of contemporary poverty and the social inequalities that were part of many ordinary people’s everyday lives. It was here, in 1934, that he joined the Labour Party and determined he would stand for Parliament.
After a period as a full-time journalist during which he co-wrote the notorious bestseller and critique of the government Guilty Men, he returned to Plymouth and eventually entered Parliament in 1945 as part of that same historic Labour landslide administration that introduced the NHS.
Apart from a brief period out of Parliament, he continued as an MP (later for the Welsh constituency of Ebbw Vale, previously held by his political hero Aneurin Bevan) for 42 years until his retirement from the House in 1992 – at which point he typically refused to be ennobled and sent to the Lords, famously commenting:
“I think the House of Lords ought to be abolished and I don’t think the best way for me to abolish it is to go there myself”
Away from politics, Foot was also a prolific writer and journalist, particularly for the left-wing press. A passionate bibliophile, he read voraciously and published more than a dozen books; including the now-definitive biography of Aneurin Bevan, a number of political volumes and other biographies of HG Wells and Byron. He was as passionate and as committed to literature as he was to his politics.
His commitment to left-wing causes was strong and principled even into his later years. As a journalist and political candidate in the 1930s he had written much in opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, and in the 1950s, he was one of the founding members of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
And even as late as 2003, aged almost 90 and appalled by the possibility of another war in Iraq, he was still going strong, threatening to lead a mass trespass into Hyde Park if the famous February 15th Stop The War demo had been banned by the government from using the space for a rally.
It is interesting to note that, of the many tributes that have already been paid to Foot by politicians from all sides of the party divide and none, all have been affectionate and admiring remembrances of someone who was not only a kind and friendly man, but a talented politician, a powerful orator, a skilled writer and a true believer in his principles.
“I was very sorry to hear the news. He was a great parliamentarian and a man of his principles”
Many of those paying tribute today acknowledge that they had had their disagreements with Foot over the years, but that they still admired his talents and his principled approach to politics.
Despite being one of the few people ever to enter Parliament for sound ideological reasons, his commitment to fighting injustice, and his later unfair treatment at the hands of the tabloid press, like all politicians he did have his political faults, some more catastrophic than others.
For example, Foot’s support for the Falklands War in the early 1980s seemed a strange move for a politician who, twenty years earlier, had ended up having the Labour whip removed because of his implacable opposition to increasing defence spending.
His unlikely and affectionate friendship with the frankly reactionary media mogul Lord Beaverbrook of Express Newspapers was professionally understandable in some ways, but politically embarrassing.
And his strange 1960s alliance of diametric opposites with the notorious Enoch Powell over Labour plans to reform the House of Lords comes across at misguided at the very least.
Oh, and he also backed the Sedgefield candidacy of one A. Blair Esq…
But the real problems with Foot’s political career come when his leadership of the Labour Party is considered. It is probably true that a lesser leader than Foot would not have been able to prevent the party from completely imploding after the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’ of an election manifesto, the collapse of the Labour vote in the 1983 election itself, and the defection of the high-profile ‘Gang of Four’ to form the SDP – but he was clearly a man out of time as Labour leader.
Admittedly, I’m not actually old enough to remember Michael Foot at his political height, although I have vague childhood memories of that controversial coat of his, and of the ‘Gang of Four’ and the aftermath of the disastrous 1983 election. I knew who he was. By the time I really became interested in politics, he was on the verge of retiring from the House and was looking very old.
But the more I read, and the more I studied both politics and modern history over the years, the more I realised the importance of Michael Foot as both a radical politician and as a writer – and as a man of principle.
I may not be a party political type, and I may disdain the actions of most politicians, but I couldn’t help but to find at least some respect for a man like Michael Foot – a man who was prepared to stand up for what he believed in (whether that made him popular or not), and who was a politician not because he wanted power and glory and influence but because he wanted to make a difference to people’s lives.