I doubt if there are many parliamentarians who could match the late Michael Foot in his oratory, and this speech is the one that the BBC have named as his finest hour. Do listen to it if you can – it’s deft and funny even if it failed to achieve what it set out to do (to save the Labour government in 1979). The Liberal leader of the time – David Steel – gets a particularly sharp ribbing from the great man. About twenty six minutes in, he launches into a furious and powerful condemnation of the Conservatives’ historical credentials.
It opens with a warm reproach to his friend Gerry Fitt, and those of us who knocked on doors for Labour in that forlorn election may remember arriving home around midnight after a few hours of crying into our beer post-poll to hear that Foot had decided not to appear in the TV studios until the morning. However, shortly afterwards, he changed his mind – not to address the question of Labour’s defeat, but to express his sympathy with Gerry Fitt on having lost West Belfast to Gerry Adams. Here, he’s quoted in The Independent by John Sergeant – I’d love to find the recording of this which I heard on the radio once, but I can’t find it now.
“This was where Michael Foot’s brilliant speech came into its own. His target was Sir Keith Joseph, the highly intelligent but rather dotty Trade and Industry Secretary, who once jumped into a taxi and shouted at the driver “Where am I going?” Foot claimed that Sir Keith, with his puzzled and forlorn manner, reminded him of a magician he used to see in his youth at a theatre in Plymouth. When he asked for an expensive watch, a plant in the audience would rise to his feet. The magician would relieve him of a marvellous gold watch, and proceed to smash it with a mallet.
“Then on his countenance,” Mr Foot explained with relish, “would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say ‘I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.’ It does not work.” As Labour MPs roared with laughter at the obvious reference to the monetarist experiment, Mr Foot continued in mock-serious vein. “Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace Theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician used to come along at the end and say ‘I am sorry, I have still forgotten the trick.'”
Looking at some of the tributes, I’d pick up Gordon Brown’s comment that Foot was “…a man of deep principle and passionate idealism”.
It’s well meant, I’m sure, but I doubt if Foot would be that keen on it. He was very far from being an idealist. Instead, Foot was a passionate and committed anti-fascist – condemning the appeasement the much of the left indulged in during the 1930s, and he was on this particular case earlier than almost anyone else in the party. He also never succumbed to any of the dippy romanticism that a lot of the democratic left had about Soviet totalitarianism.
Foot was no idealist. He was one of the finest exponents of principled and practical democratic socialism and I’d suggest that we’re all a bit poorer for his passing.