Michael Foot 29

Michael Foot is now 95 years old. He received an unexpected blaze of media mentions last weekend when polls showed Gordon Brown had overtaken him as the “Most unpopular Labour leader ever.”

I confess to a soft spot for Michael Foot. I have only ever had one conversation with him, about Byron. His biography of Byron, “The Politics of Paradise”, is one of my favourite books.

The sad thing is that Michael Foot was perhaps the most honourable man ever to lead a major political party in this country. Foot would never have dreamed of milking his MP’s allowances, or letting anyone else do so. It is totally inconceivable that Foot would have tolerated creatures like McBride and Draper around him. he was not in politics for backstabbing and smear.

The irony is that it was Foot’s innocence of the dark arts we now deplore in politicians, that led to his extreme unpopularity. He deliberately and consciously abjured the media soundbite, in favour of the well made and complete argument that did not fit in a news bulletin. He absolutely refused image makeover. I remember very well that this came to a head when he arrived at a cold Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph wearing a duffle coat. The Murdoch press went crazy, calling it a “Donkey Jacket”. It was at the tiime as big a media sensation as the MPs expenses claims are today.

For Foot, the commemoration was just that: an act of remembrance of the fallen. He had volunteered to serve immediately on the outbreak of World War 2, but been turned down because he had weak lungs. He went to pay respects to the dead of his generation, not to show himself off. If he had worn a £2,000 cashmere coat, as Tony Blair did at the Cenotaph, he would have cut a better media figure. But he would never have thought of doing so.

I have never been a supporter of Labour. For me, Foot and his generation remained infuriatingly romantic about organised labour and blind to the abuses, bullying and fundamental lack of democracy in the trades unions. The public were not so blind, and this is why Thatcher was able to hold support for a viciously over-radical programme of closing down heavy industry to deny the unions their base.

When I look at Blair, Brown, Blears, Reid, Blunkett, Smith, Hoon, Straw and the others, it is hard to believe that less than thirty years ago their party was led by somebody as genuine, kind, genial and intellectual as Michael Foot. At least he will never again be mentioned as the “Most unpopular Labour leader”.

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29 thoughts on “Michael Foot

  • subrosa

    My father, a very quiet man, met Michael Foot a few times, not through politics but on a personal business basis. He always said he was a gentleman, modest and one of the most principled men he’d ever men. High praise indeed from a man seldom paid compliments.

  • Strategist

    I don’t think it is fair to describe the trades unions as having “a fundamental lack of democracy”. Sure, there are long histories of dodgy dealing, abuses, bullying, malpractice etc, but they are precisely that, abuses of the fundamental democratic basis of trades unions.

    I don’t think it’s being infuriatingly romantic to make that distinction.

    There are also excellent examples of real democracy in action, and the unions in general are at present arguably broadly getting better at living up to their founding ideals.

    It’s also worth pointing out that unions are probably the best shot ordinary people have of raising their general working conditions and standard of living.

  • Stevie

    There are hard working and principled men and women working at ground level in trade unions, although maybe not as many now as in the past. However, there are many among the trade union leaders and managers who, like NuLabour politicians, have been taken over by greed and the need for personal gain and advancement. It is refreshing to be reminded of such an honourable person who did not see the need to sell out.

  • Strategist

    Off topic, by the way, and on to areas where I can’t challenge your expertise…

    Yesterday’s Guardian (can’t find the link, sorry) told us that the Pakistani army are saying that a lot of the “Taliban” fighters in their tribal areas are foreigners, Uzbek and Tajik Islamic extremists. Any comment on the likely veracity of that claim?

    Also, yesterday the US fired the General in charge of their war effort in Afghanistan (which periodically illegally crosses into Pakistan). Any comment on what this portends? Has he been fired for being too brutal or not being brutal enough?

  • Craig


    I think unions are much better now. But I would robustly defend my comments on how they were in the 70’s and early 80’s.

  • anticant

    The Foots are a remarkable family, and he is indeed a civilised and principled man.

    But he did take Beaverbrook’s shilling.

  • Craig

    With journalists, I firmly believe it is not who emplys you, t is whether it affects what you write.

    The Mail on Sunday has published some remarkably radical peces by me…

  • NomadUK

    Strikes me, reading Foot’s bio, that he would have made a finer PM than any of the shits that have served since he resigned.

  • Strategist

    “The Mail on Sunday has published some remarkably radical pieces by me.”

    True, Craig, but Rothermere’s tax dodging (maintaining a chateau in France he nevers visits so that he can make out he is a non-resident of Britain), as exposed in this week’s Private Eye (and Eyes passim) is far a far greater theft from the public purse than anything perpetrated by any MP.

    And we will not be reading that in the Mail on Sunday in a piece by you or anybody else.

  • anticant

    Beaverbrook kept a pretty tight rein on his editors. A blacklist of people and topics ensured that they were either never mentioned at all or only mentioned in the light he wished to shine on them.

    But he did patronise and assist the careers of many left-wingers, including Michael Foot and Tom Driberg. And, although he was a hard taskmaster he did have his political principles for which his papers campaigned – unlike Murdoch, whose sole interests seem to be power and money.

    But I doubt whether you would have found favour sith him,. Craig!

  • eddie

    Craig, but the fact is that the Labour Party led by Foot would never have been elected in a million years. Foot was an honourable man but he was a waffler (like Kinnock) and an intellectual elitist who had no connection with “normal” people. Fantasising about power is all very well, but if you want to do things you have to get elected. Whatever you think of Blair you have to accept that he was a great communicator, who also won three gerneal elections.

  • David Park

    Perhaps Foot thought, as do I, that if you have to drop your principles to get in to power, what is the point?

    Blair out-Thatchered the Tory party in many areas and won favour with middle England. ‘Labour’ was in power in name only.

  • KevinB

    Foot might have been a ‘nice man’ at the personal level but many people were disgusted by the fact that a man who seemed to have spent his entire life campaigning for peace, against nuclear weapons etc., etc, and the moment arrived when what he said actually mattered…….he transformed into a bayer for blood.

    I can remember the shock and disdain at the time……when he tried to sound more aggressive and righteously angry than Margaret Thatcher.

    You could lose faith in everything if you spent much time around an old fraud like him.

  • Vronsky

    Foot was done over by the media. I’m not sure that they have the same power nowadays – certainly anyone with his views on, for example, unilateral nuclear disarmament, would be targetted in the same way. The Scottish media have signally failed to demonise the SNP’s ‘no nukes’ policy, despite strenuous efforts from the Herald (Alf Young) in particular.

    Foot may have been the last man of principle in the Labour Party – he’s certainly the last I can think of.

    Smith was far from being the saint that media mythology has made him. The burial on Iona was particularly inappropriate.

  • JimmyGiro

    eddie wrote:

    “…an intellectual elitist who had no connection with “normal” people.”

    You see, it had nothing to do with dangling chads, there really are Bush voters after all; they were the normal people we hear so much about.

  • George Laird

    Dear Craig

    I see you have asked Fraser Nelson to put up the audio of his conversation with Michael Gove.

    You are right, the production of the tape does not guarantee 100% veracity, that is why I previously asked, was it stored electronically.

    One small tip; I would have phrased the request differently. For example, using his forename rather than surname and being a bit more circumspect.

    Finally; I see the audio is not up yet.

    Yours sincerely

    George Laird

    The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University

  • Tom Kennedy

    Your observations on Michael Foot set me thinking. Perhaps we are complicit in hypocrisy.

    We want our leaders to be honest but if they are we tear them apart. We tell ourselves we want a leader just like ourselves, but in reality we would despise such a person. So we end up with a succession of charismatic psychopaths like Blair, Clinton, Bush and now, apparently, Obama. No-one is immune to the cult of personality. The Russians got rid of Gorbachev and chose Yeltsin instead. Whatever Gorbachev’s failings he was the more honourable man.

    The media must also share responsibility for this woeful state of affairs. They whip up public indignation for trivialities, whilst misreporting, distorting, lying and selectively ignoring the truth in more important matters.

    How do we fix a system like that?

    I certainly can’t answer that one. But I think we need to go back in time somewhat to when a head of state was not afraid of the people. Everywhere we see our politicians retreat behind protective barriers, further away from the people they are meant to serve. Why is that? It’s because they no longer consider themselves to be our servants. They instead serve other interests and are afraid that we know it.

    Leadership should be a burden, entrusted to those we choose to impose it on. It should not enrich the holder, whether in office or afterwards. In an ideal world, those who actively want it should be excluded from it.

    And we certainly need to look at ourselves. We buy the newspapers, watch the TV news, and share in the superficial judgements of politicians based on appearance, mannerisms, accent and so forth. We would crucify a politican who told us, probably truthfully, that the UK has just given away our money and our children’s money to the bankers and that we will have to pay much more in tax for years to come. We will elect those who lie best to us, promising “efficiencies” instead of tax rises before the election, then sacking thousands AND raising taxes after the election. Do we have the politicians we deserve? De-serve: now there’s a word that sums up what politicians do best.

  • JimmyGiro

    Allow everyone to buy deadly weapons, and sack the police; within a week, the remaining 95% of the population will be very civilized and keen to learn how to cooperate with each other.

    The law prevents the majority of good folk from intimidating the evil minority, and thus preserves them.

    Just give us one week of anarchy, and let the natural catharsis take place.

  • writerman


    Leaving aside the thorny, complex, and ideological question about the nature of the Unions thirty years ago, where they really more corrupt, undemocratic, and unaccountable, than most other institutions in society? I wonder.

    Michael Foot, was an honourable man, how many honourable men are there in parliament today? However, he was too old for the task he faced when he bacame leader of the Labour Party. It was ten or fifteen years too late for him.

    What he had, was character, in contrast to nearly all modern politicians who only have personality. They are entertainers on a carefully defined and controlled stage. Politics is being replaced by personalities. Democracy is being replaced by a new form of totalitarianism, creeping ‘fascism’, or the corporate state. Magic is replacing rationality once more, the supernatural undermining the natural world, and our understanding of it.

  • anticant

    The UK has not just given away our money and our children’s money to the bankers.

    Gordon Brown and New Labour have.

  • Tom Kennedy

    I don’t think it matters which of the main parties are in power – they all would have done the same thing. They all rely on special interests for funding and positive publicity. If they don’t toe the line set by their paymasters they’re finished.

    Strange, isn’t it, that each one of the countries affected by the economic crisis has reached a consensus on what to do which avoids making the banks (and the very rich people behind them) swallow their losses the way we would have to when our investments tank? It’s as though the wording of the small print on their financial transactions differs from ours: “Note: the value of your investment may go up”.

  • JimmyGiro

    I put it to you Mr. Murray, that the scenario of anarchy may occur by failure to resolve the crisis of credibility of our parliament; therefore to pre-empt it is less stupid than to allow it to happen in an unpredictable fashion, as a consequence of moral paralysis.

    Note also that nature has evolved a zoo of weaponry in the animal kingdoms, and its proven longevity of natural anarchy demonstrates its own pragmatism and success. Evolution maybe blind, but is it stupid also?

  • Courtenay Barnett

    Kevin B says, “I can remember the shock and disdain at the time……when he tried to sound more aggressive and righteously angry than Margaret Thatcher.”

    And eddie says, “Craig, but the fact is that the Labour Party led by Foot would never have been elected in a million years. Foot was an honourable man but he was a waffler (like Kinnock) and an intellectual elitist who had no connection with “normal” people.”

    Square the difference and you end up with a person who tried to project the image that the electorate wanted, but was too aloof and principled to be British Prime Minister. As the Americans quite bluntly state: “Politics is a dirty game” ?” and ?” Michael Foot was of an ilk who could not conceive of getting in the dirt that is necessary if one seriously seeks the top slot. By contrast, something is said here about Maggie T and Tony B… .huh?

  • Stephen Jones

    I think KevinB has pointed out one of the reasons for Foot’s decline; that he was booby-trapped by the Falklands. His speeches against the ‘Tin-Pot Mussolini’ gave Thatcher free rein.

    But Galtieri should have realized that invading the Empire can be done if you are a freedom fighter but not when you are a vicious right-wing tyrant detested by the left world-wide.

    I still maintain the Labour Party would have done better to maintain Foot. Kinnock was totally unelectable, and exposure merely made him worst (a friend of mine described him as a typical Welsh valleys politician; lefter than anyone in the pub and then taking the cap off before the bosses).

    And in all fairness could you imagine Jenkins, or even Hattersley, tolerating the scumbags that make up most of the New Labour leadership. I don’t think Foot was alone in that respect.

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