Michael Foot – 1913-2010

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.

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland. A left-leaning Labour Party member and blogger. I’m on twitter as @paul0evans1 and I blog mainly at the Local Democracy blog though I’m in lots of other places as well. I’m a massive fan of Google Reader – please follow me and share the better posts from your feed?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Indeed Mr Evans……shame on Gerry Fitt of the SDLP for not acting in the interests of his friend Michael Foots British Labour Party for whom you forlonly campaigned.
    Shame on Gerry Fitt for acting in the interests of his own constituents.

    That would be a different Michael Foot to the fearless class warrior who negotiated rather shabby little deals with unionists.

    Er no……same Michael Foot.

  • old school

    One of those, “I thought he was dead already” moments.
    In hindsight, and in a now, media savvy world, he really was a terrible choice for leader.
    Even as a kid, he looked to me like a fumbling,
    hill walker. I remember him getting interviewed with his leg in plaster, one arm rested on crutches, and the other constantly moving his ridiculous hair from his face.
    Kind of guy you´d meet at a car boot sale, sporting a thermos.
    Thatch had it in the bag.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    But a chance for the hypocrites in the Meeja to praise him in obituaries tomorrow. Forgetting the fact that they crucified him, it will be a case of “spot the cliché”

    “veteran campaigner”
    “a politician not interested in image”
    “Nye Bevan”
    “the Foot family”
    “wife Jill…..”
    “last great orator”

  • Driftwood

    Just remember the ‘Donkey’ jacket at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day and a crap joke about Foot’s stick by Kenny Everett at a Tory conference. So crap I cannot remember it.

    I also remember Gerry Fitt in the Commons, referring to homosexuals, ‘In Northern Ireland we call them fruit machines’.
    Wasn’t very funny either.

    Liked the Keith Joseph quote. Now he was funny.

  • I remember that shit Kenny Everett mocking the man during Maggie´s Election Roadshow back in ´83. Everett was in “fine” company that evening along with Tarby and Steve Davis.

    Here´s to you Michael, RIP.

  • If you have the time, it’s worth reading Foot’s greatest achievement: the longest footnote in history, if only for its view into a bygone age. But in among the daft stuff (part-nationalisation of the buildings materials and road haulage sectors?!) there is a surprising amount of policy that has since been implemented.

  • Damn, I meant to say “the longest suicide note in history”. Spell checkers don’t help much when you’re talking nonsense…

  • Andrew,

    Manifestos tend to be longer when they’re written by committee. Labour was un-leadable at the time and that document reflects that fact perfectly.

    I’ve not been able to listen to Tony Benn’s comments on Foot partly because of this. The obsession that a section of the left had with mandating MPs in advance to particular policies was enough to destroy any party (as David Trimble found out a few years ago).

    It’s a move that is generally favoured by people who are members of your party but supporters of another (as David Trimble found out a few years ago).

  • Probably a lot more popular if he were active today in these anti-spin times but he reflected a bunch of left leaning, muddled policies that were (correctly) associated with the decline of Britain, such as unilateralism and never ending state support for ailing industry riddled with lazy feckers who called themselves Trade Unionists in order to avoid a bit of honest graft.

    Correct about the run up to the WW2 but wrong about Britian in the seventies and easy prey for the newly tabloidized media who had a feeding frenzy on a hapless and unconvincing Labour party.

    At least he had the satisfaction of knowing that although he had got it wrong himself the excess of Mrs Thatcher’s Tory party paved the way for a future, if more sensible Labour Party.

    A good if politcally naieve egg.

  • DeargDoom

    “We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer ‘To hell with them.’ The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”

    Foot had it spot on.

  • David Crookes

    Sad to see Michael Foot depart. He was a great parliamentarian in an age when it was still possible for there to be such a thing, he was highly literate, and he really did believe things. Thee was a notable geniality about his character. His failure to realize the extent to which things had changed within his own lifetime furnishes all of us in NI with a lesson.

    Michael Foot was a good man. The best of British.

  • Andrew Gallagher @ 07:16 PM:

    it’s worth reading Foot’s greatest achievement.

    Indeed it is.

    Uniquely you have a choice, and you got the wrong one.

    You could have suggested Guilty Men (in collaboration with Frank Owen, MP, and Peter Howard). That was seminal in nailing the Tory appeasers, was a significant contribution to the ethos of the new coalition government, remodelled the mood of resistance in the summer of 1940, and was one of the many pamphlets which delivered the Labour victory of 1945. It was too scurrilous for the booksellers of the Charing Cross Road to handle, so it was retailed instead from a costermonger’s wheelbarrow. It sold (“like hot pornography”) something like a quarter-of-a-million copies (of which I have two).

    Alternatively, you could have proposed that massive two-volume hagiography of Nye Bevan.

    A third option might have been my own choice: The Pen and the Sword, a study of two years (1710-11) and two men (Marlborough and Swift), which Foot wrote when he lost the Plymouth Devonport seat.

    Then, again, there was the useful account of Lord Byron, The Politics of Paradise, which neatly parallels his nephew, Paul Foot’s works on Shelley. Or, also in the literary field, Michael Foot’s last one (except for a compendium selection) The History of Mr Wells.

    There’s half-a-dozen major works. Name another political figure with a similar personal achievement. No: not Churchill — he had a team working for him, and was little more than an editor (even if it delivered the Nobel for Literature, which says a lot about the Nobel Institute, and not a lot about literature).

    Then, of course, there are those who, like me, were inspired and guided by his week-by-week contributions to Tribune.

    Alternatively, you can dismiss all of this sincere, well-argued, original, passionate, committed and convincing intellect, and go for the sound-bite politicians and commentators, the kind who do no better than repeat well-worn clichés, such as Gerald Kaufman’s once-original phrase, “The longest suicide note in history”. For the record, Foot insisted that the explicit instruction to the Leader in the Labour Party constitution be implemented: the document was Labour’s programme for government, as approved by Annual Conference resolutions. In full. You could have opportunism, or media pap: with Foot you got strict honesty and principle. You don’t get that level of transparency any more.

  • Greenflag

    ‘the top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”’

    That’s true . When a Hedge Fund investment amnager in New York can earn more in one year than 80,000 New York Public school teachers together can earn in 30 years and when the EU authorities are reluctant to aid the Greek Government because if they do Goldman Sachs will make another gazillion on the uptake then it’s safe to say that whereas the poor may be always with us the greedy top will always be on the prowl for prey -widows and orphans pension funds included .

    Michael Foot was a good man if somewhat ‘naive’ in his approach to political power or to be more specific the winning of same.

    Those ‘insoluble economic problems ‘ have arisen again despite the fact that the ‘top’ was not only not deprived of their initiative but allowed to run riot with greed and license to the fore .

    Which is why the UK is in it’s present perilous economic state and half the rest of developed world as well 🙁

  • Brian Walker

    I remembered and indeed covered as a student journalist the Oxford Union debate on the House of Lords in which Foot and Enoch Powell for different reasons classically joined to champion representative democracy as operated by the House of Commons, showing a faith in the institution badly needed today. For all that he was often scathingly partisan, he often crossed over the points of party tramlines. There he was in Oxford in I think 1967, marching down the floor together with Powell to loud cheers,Powell not having yet delivered himself of the notorious “rivers of blood” speech but still of course well to the right. Foot “loved as a second father” Lord Beaverbrook the mischevious Tory press baron and Churchill intimate but also notorious appeaser. On the evidence of his eloqunet but hagiographical biography, he also loved Nye Bevan but broke with him politically over Bevan’s refusal late in his life to go “naked into the conferance chamber” without a British nuclear deterrent. What appealed to Foot about these very different characters was that they were even bigger rebels than he was, and larger than life. Foot was in fact a social insider of professional west country gentry neatly transplanted to Hampstead Heath. He overcompensated for his origins by championing the idealised working man, leading himself into errors like supporting the closed shop even at the risk of compromising free speech in journalism and wrongly assuming that the extension of trade union power which he embraced as Employment Secretary 1974 to 76, was a logical extension of democracy. A fierce opponent of fascism from Hitler to Galtieri, he was softer towards Stalin and his successors than he should have been thiugh no Communist himself. A great anti-colonialist, he nevertheless continued to support Indira Gandhi through her suspensionf democracy, finally earning himself a place of honour before her funeral pyre, to the envy of the watching Americans. In no sense was a common man. He was a socialist romantic whose collectivism often seemed forced or acquired. His natural roots lay in Victorian individualist liberalism and with these he always seemed to be at ease. His loyalty to the Labour party wss unquestionable through thick and thin, and clearly above policy. Tony Bene might have seemed a natural ally. In fact as Barbars Castle’s diaries make clear, Foot loathed what he regarded as Benn’s egoism and self indulgence.

  • Brian Walker

    Sorry for typos above. I pressed submit rather than preview by mistake..

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Actually Mr Walker, I found that piece rather splendid.

  • Driftwood

    Actually Mr Walker, I found that piece rather lower sixth form.

    Web of meaninglessness.

    What did you think of Alfredo Stroessner?

  • Jimmy Sands

    “Lord Beaverbrook the mischevious Tory press baron and Churchill intimate but also notorious appeaser…

    “he was softer towards Stalin and his successors than he should have been”

    What bizarre parallel universe is this?

  • tuatha

    Vale Foot and Powell and, when Wedgie Benn departs, that will the last of the great parliamentarians.
    We shall not see their like again.

  • Michael Foot was an idealist, not a good thing to be in politics.

    He was one of the few the title ‘Right Honourable Member’ really did apply.

  • Brian Walker’s psycho-analysis of Foot’s ideology:

    a socialist romantic whose collectivism often seemed forced or acquired. His natural roots lay in Victorian individualist liberalism and with these he always seemed to be at ease. His loyalty to the Labour party wss unquestionable through thick and thin, and clearly above policy.

    I’m still wrestling with the grammar, to discover these with which he was not at ease.

    If these are those I suspect, the thought seems wrong. Foot had an uncanny ability to mix. It didn’t matter: he could relate to a fellow-intellect (or a mere stroller like myself), mooching with “Dizzie” across the Heath, or he could retreat to his “Number 10” in Ebbw Vale and debate and chat with neighbours and constituents. At times his ability to engage was Jill’s frustration, particularly if she had to deliver him to an appointment. When he “did” a constituency party, he could work his way through, enough to be the envy of any professional.

    What’s wrong with championing the idealised working man? Read Orwell (say Down the Mine) and you’d find the same trait. There was, until Thatcher de-industrialised Britain, “the dignity of labour”, which, if one wanted to make a way in the Labour movement, one did not diss. Foot, piloting measures such as Employment Protection and Safety at Work, or stitching up the wounds of Ted Heath’s Three Day Week, was no starry-eyed romantic, but a pragmatist.

    As for the Victorian individualist liberalism, why not? He had met with HG Wells and many of the Fabian founding fathers, and was their direct successor. And they represented a vital thread in the Labour tradition. We could do with their ilk today. Look again at his time at Employment: it wasn’t for want of trying that British employers resisted measures similar to those that Citrine and Woodcock designed — collective bargaining and dispute settlement, work councils, employee representation and participation, and the settlement of labour disputes — for deNazified Germany.

    I ponder, too, whether a social insider of professional west country gentry is meant to be put-down. Probably not, on second thoughts, even if it ignores that the grandfather was no gentleman, merely a carpenter/undertaker. It does, in a way, recognise a wider aspect of the Foot story. I belong to the generation who marvelled at the three Feet making a Yard, sons of the Liberal Isaac (who himself was the losing candidate when Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in the Commons):

    — Hugh (winding down the British empire, especially in Cyprus, then going to the UN Trusteeship Council, father of Paul and the actor/good-egg Oliver);
    — Dingle (barrister of distinction, Liberal MP and junior minister in the wartime Ministry of Economic Warfare, at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, later Labour MP for Ipswich, and life peer): and
    — the boy Michael, our topic of today.

    They all served their country, and its people well. Let us now praise famous men, and their father who begat them.

  • Greenflag

    malcolm redfellow,

    ‘it wasn’t for want of trying that British employers resisted measures similar to those that Citrine and Woodcock designed—collective bargaining and dispute settlement, work councils, employee representation and participation, and the settlement of labour disputes—for deNazified Germany.’

    Ironically the post war Germans built upon these British inspired structures and this is probably one of the the main reasons why German engineering and niche manufacturing and ‘union’ membership survived and prospered whereas their equivalents in the UK post 1980 were ‘culled’ to a fraction of their former size.

  • Greenflag @ 01:13 PM:


    Occasionally, we should recall the “midwives” of the rebirth of democratic German trades unionism and German industrial relations, in the British Control Commission, in the British Government (Ernie Bevin to the fore), and in the TUC.

    Them boys done good.

  • tuatha @ 09:40 AM:

    Tony Benn (aged 84) is yet a mere stripling.

    Let us cherish Denis Healey (aged 90).

    There remains (to my surprise) one survivor of the 1945 Labour Commons: John Freeman. Freeman is better remembered for the ground-breaking TV Face to Face interviews. He went on to be British Ambassador in Washington in the Nixon era.

    What should also be recalled is that Freeman was the third, along with Bevan and Wilson, of the principled Labour ministers who resigned from the Government (23 March 1951) over the NHS charges introduced to contribute to the cost of the Korean War.

  • Paddy

    Reading about the (non) donkey jacket incident in today’s Daily Telegraph, apparently a Labour MP made a typically racist remark, saying Foot looked like an Irish navvy. Did the Pervies/INLA ever try to whack Labour Party MPs/leaders and if not, why not?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Mr Redfellow,
    I also had not realised that John Freeman was still alive.
    Also pleasantly surprised recently to learn that Cliff Michelmore is still with us.

  • FitzjamesHorse @ 05:08 PM:

    Respec’ on that one.

    As (I trust) is Peter Dimmock (b. 1920) of Grandstand.

    My brother, on an annual trip back to Norfolk, visits Dimmock’s brother, little bro’s inspirational teacher at Swaffham Grammar School.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    although I note from Wikipedia Dimmocks wife Polly Elwis (who I am sure you also remember) died in the 1980s and he remarried in 1990.
    David Coleman still with us too.