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”.