Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Michael Foot - a life woven into Labour history
Obituary for the Daily Record 04/03/10
Michael Foot, one of the great figures of the 20th century Labour movement, has died at the age of 96.
A lifelong campaigner for peace and socialism, Michael Foot led the Labour Party for three years in the early 1980s during one of the most turbulent periods in its history.
A natural left-wing rebel, he was more at home campaigning for causes he held dear that trying to control an "unleadable" Labour party in the 80s. But although he failed terribly in the electoral cauldron his plain, unfashionable refusal to compromise his principles drew respect from across the political spectrum.
Against an ascendant Margaret Thatcher Foot's Labour party lurched leftwards and senior figures broke away to form their own party, the SDP. His Plymouth connection ensured he supported the Falklands War, against his party's instincts, and he suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1983 election and quit as leader shortly afterwards.
But he lived to see his protege Neil Kinnock take on the hard left and witnessed the transformation of the Labour party into an three-term election winning machine under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The Prime Minister led the tributes, describing Foot as a “man of deep principle and passionate idealism”. Mr Brown said: “He was an indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs and whether people agreed with him or not they admired his character and his steadfastness.
“The respect he earned over a long life of service means that, across our country today, people, no matter their political views, will mourn the passing of a great and compassionate man.”
Foot died shortly before 7am at his home in Hampstead, north London. He had been ill for some time and had been receiving 24-hour care.
Born into a Liberal West Country family in 1914, one of four talented brothers, Foot’s life was woven into the history of the left in the 20th Century.
After witnessing poverty in Liverpool he joined Labour in the 1930s and worked as a journalist for left-wing journals the New Statesman and Tribune. He knew George Orwell, supported Republican Spain against rising European Fascism and decried Tory appeasement of Hitler.
Excused from war service he co-wrote “The Guilty Men”, attacking Chamberlain and the Tories before being appointed editor of the Evening Standard by the publishing magnate and fellow mischief maker, Lord Beaverbrook, in 1942.
He entered Parliament in 1945 in Clement Atlee’s Labour landslide. He held Nye Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service and subject of one of his many biographies, as his hero.
With his tremendous oratory skill Foot went on to become a great hero of the left himself, championing nuclear disarmament as a founding member of CND. He met with the Soviet leadership at the height of the Cold War and campaigned against British membership of the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum.
Tony Benn, his cabinet colleague and occasional nemesis,said: “He was one of the great figures of the Labour movement. I know he did not win the election, but the fact that he became leader and fought the election puts him in the top list of figures in the history of the party.
Foot first became MP for Plymouth Devonport in 1945 - which explains his demand for a taskforce to sail for the Falklands that Saturday morning parliament convened to debate the crisis - and went to become MP for Ebbw Vale and Blaenau Gwent. He was employment secretary under Harold Wilson and went on to become leader of the Commons between 1976 and the 1979 general election.
At heart he was a writer more than a politician and his passion for books, and for
Plymouth Argyle, never dimmed as old age took its toll
His election as leader in 1980, following Labour’s defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, saw the Labour almost torn apart by infighting, the SDP split and infiltration by Trotskyist Militants.
Gerald Kaufman famously described the 1983 party manifesto“the longest suicide note in history” and Foot was forced to quit as leader when Labour suffered its heaviest election defeat in 50 years, with just 27% of the vote.
Baroness Thatcher, who faced Mr Foot in many fiery clashes across the despatch box in the House of Commons, said she was “very sorry to her the news” of his death. In a statement released by her office, Lady Thatcher said: “He was a great Parliamentarian and a man of high principles.”
Lord Healey, who served as Foot’s deputy, also paid tribute. He said: “I was a great admirer of Michael’s. He was a brilliant speaker. Although we disagreed very much over policy, I was very glad to serve under him as deputy leader. I don’t think he should be remembered only for the 1983 election defeat, because he made a tremendous contribution to the Labour Party when its future was on a knife edge.”
Despite his brilliance as a speaker and his undoubted intelligence Foot did not possess the cruel instinct required for leadership. His shambolic, academic appearance, combined with the party's self-destructive mood rendered him unelectable.
The right wing press savaged Foot as party leader. He was viciously traduced for wearing what was described as a donkey jacket at a Cenotaph remembrance ceremony. It was, in fact, a fairly smart car coat and his wife Jill Craigie was deeply upset by the smear. Later, he successfully sued the Sunday Times over allegations that he had been a KGB agent.
Although his appearance might have been mocked, his command of an audience inside and outside the Commons was famed. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Simply to mention his name is to be taken back to an era when every politician needed to be an orator and command an audience.”
He was succeeded as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock, who took on the hard left and sowed the seeds of New Labour. Lord Kinnock, hailed him as a man of “courage and generosity of spirit and action” who saved the party's soul.
Lord Kinnock said : “He was letting himself into purgatory in becoming leader of the Labour Party in its darkest, grimmest hour. But if he hadn’t done it, I don’t think Labour would have survived as a political force, It was Michael’s courage and utter commitment to the cause of the party which enabled the party to continue in recognisable existence and to fight and win another day.”
Exhibiting the kind of solidarity the old Labour party inherited from the communist movement Foot never once criticised the three-term Labour government while Tony Blair was in office.
Though he might have disagreed profoundly with Blair he once told a dinner guest, no leader of the Labour party can do any wrong.
John Prescott said Foot was “the heart of our movement” and Alastair Campbell, whose wife Fiona Millar was a family friend of the Foots, said he should also be remembered as a “lovely man”.
He said: “Fiona went with Neil Kinnock to see him recently. She came away sensing he did not have that long to live. But at least he was still in his own home, the one he shared for so long with his wife Jill Craigie, and still surrounded by his books and his memories.”
Conservative leader David Cameron said Foot was a “very intelligent, witty, amusing and thoughtful man” adding: “ I’m obviously not old enough to have been in the House of Commons at the same time, but reading some of his speeches, (they) were incredibly powerful.”
First Minister Alex Salmond said he was held in highest regard across the political spectrum over many decades. “Michael Foot was a man of enormous principle, with a political career founded on a passion and commitment to the party and causes he loved. He was a remarkable and dedicated man My thoughts are with his many friends, colleagues and family. Michael Foot will be greatly missed, and his memory treasured by his party and the country.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described Michael Foot as a great parliamentarian, a great intellectual and a great idealist. “He always stood up for what he believed in, even if that meant inviting unpopularity at times. His intellectual integrity is an example to everyone in politics.”