Michael Foot was the great rhetorician of his age. His tirades against government enlivened politics and helped sustain the credibility of parliamentby Andrew Adonis / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Michael Foot: a life, by Kenneth O Morgan (HarperPress, £25)
Most politicians vanish from memory as rapidly as the controversies they spin. It is ideas, institutions and rare inspirational individuals that linger, and even the last of these often survive with little reference to their political careers. Who thinks of Tocqueville as Louis-Napoleon’s foreign minister, or even Madison as a two-term president?
I therefore expected this biography of Michael Foot to be of interest mainly to students and political survivors of the dismal 1970s and early 1980s—the only periods of his long career in which the 93-year-old former Labour leader has exerted much direct influence on events. Yet within pages, I was engrossed. Kenneth Morgan’s superb portrait quickly takes shape, and the only dullish part is the chapter on Foot as employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s 1974 government, where the detail of successive trade union and labour relations acts is as tedious to recall as it was unfortunate to the body politic at the time. (Not that Morgan shares this judgement: he thinks the legislation was not at fault but rather the actions of the unions under it, which Foot could not have been expected to foresee.)
Foot was the master of opposition, not office. Had he held office for more than his five allotted years in the 1970s, the cost would have been lethal to a life of such vivid contrariness. His greatest contributions to the 1960s Wilson governments, for example, were his brilliant philippics against Richard Crossman’s plan for a nominated House of Lords. “Think of it,” began one celebrated tirade alongside Enoch Powell. “A second chamber selected by the whips! A seraglio of eunuchs!” Come a political crisis, “we would hear a falsetto chorus from the political castrati. They would be the final arbiters of our destiny.”
Foot was the great rhetorician of his age, “a fusion,” in Morgan’s description, “of the Cornish chapels, the Oxford Union and the soapboxes of the Socialist League” of his youth. Rhetorical brilliance did not desert him as a minister or as party leader. Few of those who heard it (I did so around an old wireless at a friend’s house) will forget Foot’s call to arms in the emergency Saturday Commons debate the day after the invasion of the Falkland islands. Rising immediately after a hesitant Margaret Thatcher, he captured…