Michael Foot, 1913-2010


by Alex Massie

Generally speaking it's not good news when your election manifesto ends up being described as "the longest suicide note in history". That was Michael Foot's fate in 1983, however. Foot, who died today aged 96, now seems to belong to another age entirely. If he's remembered for Labour's disastrous defeat in 1983 in which the party came close to being beaten into third place by the fledgling SDP-Liberal Alliance, then that's less than he deserves.

As the tributes paid to him today attest Foot was a man and a politician one could admire regardless of one's own political preferences. A great parliamentarian and political orator, he was a very English kind of romantic radical, steeped in history and literature (and thus here too rather different from many of our modern breed of politicians); Byron, Hazlitt, Shelley and Swift were some of his heroes.

And actually, when you look at some of the policies advocated by that infamous Labour platform in 1983 it's startling to think that, as Labour promised then, the government does now own some of the largest banks, nuclear disarmament (or at least reduction) is back on the agenda (in Washington anyway) and the idea of witdrawing from the European Union remains alive and a vociferously held, if minority, view. Perhaps politics really is a cyclical business that runs on irony.

So, albeit without the threat of war, is the issue of the Falkland Islands. Foot's furious denunciation in the Commons of the Argentine invasion helped prevent the Labour party from an even worse, potentially terminal, defeat in 1983. The massacre would have been much worse but for that initial, robust stance. Not that Foot's position should have surprised: he had, after all, been one of Neville Chamberlain's fiercest critics.

Foot did his party, and thus the country, another service: he prevented the wholesale takeover of the Labour party by the hard left. A takeover, which if successful, could also have destroyed the party for good. The price of all that feuding was that he was the leader of a more or less unleadable party but, viewed all these years later, the beginnings of Labour's long-haul back to respectability began with Foot's holding the soft-left just about firm enough to withstand the challenge from the hard-left. It was a close-run thing, mind you.

Above all, he was, and remained to the end, a decent man with whom it was possible for opponents (on the right anyway, if not always on the left) to have honest and respectful disagreements. He was, in other words, what a parliamentarian should be.

Among the tributes and reflections paid today, these from Alastair Campbell, Jon Snow, Dan Hannan  Danny Finkelstein and John Rentoul are especially good.  The Telegraph's obituary is here and the Times's here.

Finally, here is Foot in 1942 (three years before he entered parliament) when he was Acting Editor of the Evening Standard and speaking in defence of the Daily Mirror's right to criticise Churchill's wartime government. It's rather good and a biting piece of mockery. Liberty, even in wartime, you see, matters. (The Mr Morrison referred to is Herbert of that ilk, grandfather of Peter Mandelson, the current Business Secretary):