x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Michael Foot, Labour's grand old man of the Left

A passionate orator, brilliant journalist and principled MP, his 1983 party manifesto was called the longest suicide note in history.

Michael Foot and his wife Jill Craigie in Ebbw Vale, Wales, which he represented in parliament for 32 years.
Michael Foot and his wife Jill Craigie in Ebbw Vale, Wales, which he represented in parliament for 32 years.

Michael Foot was the longest-lived of any leader of a party in Britain. He was also one of its most principled, the best parliamentary speaker of his time, an exceptional journalist and author. Despite these gifts, he did not prove to be a successful leader and in 1983 he led the Labour Party to its worst electoral defeat since the 1920s.

Michael Mackintosh Foot was the fifth of eight children of a Methodist West Country Liberal family. His father was the remarkable Isaac Foot, a prosperous solicitor, bibliophile, sometime MP and Lord Mayor of Plymouth, and young Michael was one of four remarkable boys, all of whom became president of the Oxford Union, two became Life Peers and another solicitor-general. After Oxford he took his first job as a shipping clerk and was so appalled by the squalidness of Liverpool he converted to socialism and joined the Labour Party in 1934. He contested an unwinnable seat the next year and in 1937 became assistant editor of the left-wing Tribune. He would be its editor in the late 1940s and the second half of the 1950s. In the late 1930s he met the swashbuckling Canadian media tycoon Lord Beaverbrook who, remarkably, he regarded as his second father. This led to his joining Beaverbrook's Evening Standard in London, and, judged unfit to fight in the war due to asthma, he became its editor from 1942 to 1944.

He won the seat of Plymouth Devonport in 1945 which he held again in 1951, defeating the Tory candidate, his friend Randolph Churchill, son of the Prime Minister. He lost in 1955 (and again in 1959) and took the opportunity to write The Pen and the Sword, a sparkling account of an episode in the life of one of his literary heroes, Jonathan Swift. He would also write scholarly appreciations of other idols, Byron and HG Wells. He also wrote a two-volume life of his political hero, Aneurin Bevan, and, at his behest, took his seat on Bevan's death in 1960.

Principles invariably came before ambition and he was at odds with his party on Vietnam, Rhodesia and immigration. When his party abandoned the cause, he co-founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1974, he entered Harold Wilson's cabinet as employment secretary. He ended a miners' strike, struck down the Tory's Industrial Relations Act and returned privileges and powers to the unions. After Wilson's retirement he narrowly lost the Labour leadership to James Callaghan and became leader of the House and, unofficially, deputy prime minister. He proposed devolution and preserved the Liberal-Labour pact.

After Callaghan's defeat by Margaret Thatcher, Foot was elected leader. He was 67. Almost immediately he broke his ankle, which, combined with the effects of a car accident in 1963, the loss of an eye and a disinterest in his clothes or appearance, prompted the nickname Worzel Gummidge, a scarecrow in a series of children's books. As the party lurched to the left, four senior Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party. Twenty others followed. The Labour manifesto for the 1983 election was described by another party member as "the longest suicide note in history" - although the call for greater state control of banks proved prescient. While Foot took his powerful passionate oratory to meetings around the country, the Conservatives deployed slick television soundbites. Labour's 145-seat defeat was devastating; 125 candidates lost their deposits. Foot resigned the leadership.

He remained in Parliament until 1992, his passion undimmed, enjoying the freedom of the backbench, his natural element, yet supporting his protégé, Neil Kinnock. On his retirement from the Commons, consistent with his long-held view that the Lords should be abolished, he refused a peerage. Michael Foot was born on July 23, 1913 and died on March 3. In 1949, he married the filmmaker, author and feminist historian Jill Craigie, who died in 1999. They had no children.

* The National