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.
Sixty years ago, the world was still a very damaged and fragile place, despite the fact that World War Two had been over for five years and reconstruction was already beginning. Britain had effectively become a bankrupt ex-superpower as a result of the conflict, and the devastation of this world war was still fresh in the collective memory of all those who had lived through it, whether as soldier or civilian.
In cities and towns across the country, bomb sites still scarred the urban environment; acting as a constant daily reminder of the Luftwaffe’s concerted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bomb Britain into submission. Many people were still homeless or living in temporary housing.
Food and other essential items were either still rationed or very scarce, resulting in the continuation of the wartime black market in desirable goods and foodstuffs like chocolate or butter. Emotions were still raw; families all over Britain and beyond still mourning the loss of loved ones killed in battle or amid the destruction of the home front. Recovery was a slow process.
And sixty years ago, in the midst of all this, the author of one of the most important and remarkable novels of modern times died. A year earlier, in 1949, this novel had been published, initially to confused and sometimes hostile reviews. Its author was an unusual man who had lived an unusual life, but who had been, at the time of publication and although still only in his forties, dying of advanced TB on a damp and remote Scottish island.
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me” – Martin Niemoller.
Martin Niemoller was a controversial figure, whose motives and actions are still debated by historians, theologians and political theorists to this day. But his words (above) ring as true today as they did in the 1940s. Like many Lutheran pastors (and other religious leaders) in 1930s Germany, Niemoller was an anti-communist who opposed the democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic and its associated ‘decadence’, welcoming the Nazi accession to power in 1933 even to the extent of apparently having official meetings with Adolf Hitler.