Michael Foot died on 3 March 2010. To look at his life is to explore the modern history of Britain. A history that Michael was involved in at every stage. To cast him just as Michael Foot: politician ignores the many other facets and extraordinary talents that made him such a towering figure. The glowing tributes show a man held in the highest esteem by both his friends, colleagues and opponents. All recognised a man of huge intellect, courage, dignity and passion. A man whose beliefs were never concealed or compromised.
By the time Michael became Labour leader at the age of 67 he had several lifetime’s worth of achievements to his name already. A senior Cabinet Minister, newspaper editor, author, leading patriotic opponent of appeasment and founder of Britain’s biggest anti nuclear movement.
Michael was born in Plymouth, the fifth of seven children. He was educated at Leighton Park, in Reading, and at Wadham College, Oxford, where he took a second-class degree in classics, where in 1933 he was elected president of the union. It was a family trait. Four Foot brothers were presidents of either the Oxford or the Cambridge Union.
After University he took a job with a shipping firm in Liverpool, and rebelled against the family liberalism, his father was a noted Liberal MP, by joining the Labour party. It was the Liverpool experience that finally converted him to socialism, as Michael recalled later: “I first joined the Labour Party in Liverpool, because of what I saw of the poverty, the unemployment and the endless infamies committed on the inhabitants of the back streets of that city.”
When a general election was called in 1935, he walked into Labour’s headquarters, asked for a list of constituencies that needed candidates, and was adopted the next day for Monmouth. He was unsuccessful in that election but his political career had started.
Joining Tribune in 1937, he was soon appointed assistant editor and also started work on a range of books about his political and literary heroes including Lord Byron and HG Wells. His association with Tribune and with the Socialist League brought Foot two friendships – with Aneurin Bevan, MP for Ebbw Vale and with another Tribune writer, Barbara Betts, later known as Barbara Castle.
Aneurin Bevan introduced Michael to Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of Express Newspapers which then included the London Evening Standard. They became close friends, a friendship that lasted until Beaverbrook’s death in 1964 and demonstrated Michael’s ability to make friends with people who did not share his own beliefs. One of Beaverbrook’s papers, The Evening Standard, was then edited by Frank Owen, who employed Michael as a feature writer.
As Britain, led by Neville Chaimberlain appeased Hitler Michael denounced the politicians who had landed Britain in this peril in his leader columns for the Standard. And with two other journalists, under the pseudonym “Cato”, he wrote a 40,000-word book, Guilty Men, over a weekend in 1940. They also sold it from a stall in Farringdon Road, central London, when bookshops refused to stock it. The ultimate sale was an astonishing 200,000.
In 1942, at only 29, Michael was appointed editor of the Evening Standard, where he remained until 1944. In 1945, upsetting expert forecasts as thoroughly as the Labour party did at national level, he became MP for the Devonport division of Plymouth. The campaign also marked another hugely significant moment in his life, his first meeting with Jill Craigie, the documentary film-maker, who was making a film about the rebuilding of heavily bombed Plymouth. They married four years later.
His oratory was widely hailed as being among the best in the House. He warned against the retreating from socialism, demanding more nationalisation and even greater help for working people. He sat in Parliament for a total of 42 years, the first 10 for Devonport from 1945, and then for 32 as heir to Nye Bevan in Ebbw Vale, which became Blaenau Gwent.
What he didn’t say in the Commons, he wrote in Tribune – where he became editor in 1948. Michael used his editorship and long connection with Tribune to make it the voice of the traditional left, calling for more socialism at home, a more non-aligned foreign policy and nuclear disarmament. With Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo, he had produced the 1947 pamphlet Keep Left and started the Keep Left group of backbenchers. But, after holding Devonport in contests with in 1950 and 1951, he lost it in 1955.
Michael Foot always straddled the literary and political worlds, and in this period away from Westminster, he thought seriously of concentrating on writing. But in 1957 he was drawn into the passionate debate about nuclear disarmament. He was a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and a regular Aldermaston marcher. But unlike some of the leading unilateralists, he wanted the Labour Party to be converted, not undermined.
Aneurin Bevan died in 1960, after urging his friend to return to the Commons. Michael was selected for the byelection in Ebbw Vale and after taking his seat, he was deprived of the whip for voting against the defence estimates, but it was restored in 1963 when Harold Wilson became leader. During Wilson’s first government (1964-70), Michael was a fierce backbench critic on some issues.
However, when Labour lost power to Edward Heath’s Conservative government, Foot accepted a place on the opposition front bench With Labour back in office again from February 1974 and submitting renegotiated terms to a European referendum in 1975, he campaigned for a no vote. Uniquely, cabinet ministers were allowed to campaign on opposite sides. Foot was then secretary of state for employment, and won a reputation for administrative ability. When he left the department, a civil servant paid him a memorable, backhanded compliment: “You posed a quite exceptional challenge to my powers of obstruction.”
In two years, Foot restored trade union rights lost in the Tory industrial relations act of 1971, created the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) and the Health and Safety Executive, and played a major role in forging the “social contract” between the government and the unions. In 1976 after Harold Wilson’s retirement Jim Callaghan defeated Michael Foot in the leadership contest and Foot became – though not formally – deputy prime minister, with the posts of lord president of the council and leader of the Commons.
From 1976 to 1979 byelection defeats cost Labour its majority and we stayed in Government by working with the Liberals and other minor parties, which Michael negotiated skilfully. However as we all know the Tories regained power in 1979.
After Jim Callaghan’s retirement in 1980. Michael Foot narrowly defeated Denis Healey. But immediately faced problems. Rejecting his pleas, 25 Labour MPs joined the new Social Democratic party. Also rejecting Foot’s pleas, Benn stood against Healey for the deputy leadership, plunging the party into a damaging struggle. The activities of the Militant Tendency caused constant trouble. Whatever else is said about this troubled time in our party’s history the ultimate judgment must surely be that he held the party together against the odds when it was dangerously polarised.
Michael Foot passing away signals the end of a great life and an era in politics but his memory will live on in the work of those inspired by him and in those who will read his writings.
Michael was at the heart of the Labour Party and was inspired by the values of democratic socialism; in turn, he inspired those around him to work to promote those ideals.
He will be missed by his many friends and admirers from all walks of life.
The tributes to Michael have come from far and wide, from friends and opponents.
Gordon Brown said:
“Michael Foot was a man of deep principle and passionate idealism and one of the most eloquent speakers Britain has ever heard.
“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”.
Tony Blair said:
“Michael Foot was a giant of the Labour movement, a man of passion, principle and outstanding commitment to the many causes he fought for.
He took over the leadership at the most difficult time in Labour’s history and conducted himself with huge dignity. We shall greatly miss him and always revere his memory.”
Neil Kinnock said:
“Michael was a supreme parliamentary democrat who used his great gifts as an inspiring speaker and writer to urge peace, security, prosperity and opportunity for humanity and punishment for bigots and bullies of every kind. His bravery and generosity were unsurpassed.
He used both to ensure that the Labour party survived as a political force when self-indulgent factionalism could have doomed it to irrelevance.”
Ray Collins said:
“Michael Foot’s passing is very sad news for the Labour Party and the wider movement. As leader of our party, a Labour Minister, a writer and a man he was a tireless campaigner for social justice, whose intelligence, charm and courage will be remembered for years to come.
“As Michael Foot himself said, government by consent is the most sacred cause of all. As a young man I was fortunate to see at first hand Michael’s own skill in government, when as Secretary of State for Employment, with Jack Jones of the T&G, he forged the Health and Safety at Work Act which protected millions of working people from injury and illness.
“It is a mark of Michael Foot’s quality as a man and the scale of his contribution to public life over almost seven decades that it is hard to summarise in a single sentence. He was possibly one of the few writers who could. As well as pivotal biographies, Labour Party members will remember the clarity and passion of his writing against the appeasement of the 1930s, nuclear weapons, or Apartheid and in support of social justice.
“Michael Foot will be missed by many but most of all by those who knew him best, his family and friends, and my thoughts and condolences are with them today.”