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 the house and the nation: “The Falkland Islanders have been betrayed… The government must now prove by deeds—they will never be able to do it by words—that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be faced with that charge. Even though the position and circumstances of the people who live in the Falkland islands are uppermost in our minds… there is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland islands but to people all over this dangerous planet.”
Foot’s “instinctive minority-mindedness, locked into a kind of permanent self-made exile”—as Morgan puts it—was not absolute. There is a splendid example of his dogged loyalty, standing by the beleaguered Callaghan as the “winter of discontent” dismembered the 1974 Labour government, deploying his parliamentary gifts to keep a majority intact week by week in the incongruous post of lord president of the council. His lifelong loyalty to his friends—and what an odd gallery, including Max Beaverbrook, Indira Gandhi and Enoch Powell—is equally magnificent in its way. Yet it was as the scourge of authority that Foot became a supreme political artist. And the achievement was, I now realise, anything but negative. Such masterly parliamentary oppositionitis helped sustain the institution of parliament with greater credibility and legitimacy than most representative assemblies have ever achieved. There was no inevitability in the survival of parliamentary authority in the turbulent postwar decades, particularly the 1970s. Foot helped that highly conservative and unapproachable institution—which didn’t even permit radio broadcasts until 1978—to remain credible as a grand forum of the nation.
Morgan establishes an equally bold claim for Foot the propagandist. From Guilty Men, Foot’s 1940 denunciation of the appeasers “responsible” for war, to his campaign against the evisceration of his beloved Dubrovnik more than five decades later, barely a week passed without a shocking broadside or opinionated review. Even as a minister he was a regular Observer reviewer. Near the end of Morgan’s book comes a pathos-laden image of Foot and his wife Jill Craigie, fronting and producing a shoestring film on Milosevic’s assault on Dubrovnik. The 80-year-old Foot, handicapped, barely mobile, blind in one eye after an attack of shingles, rails in the bitter December cold against the great dictator and his unforgivable crime on a defenceless people. It is up there with Gladstone’s final denunciation of Armenian atrocities and Chatham’s dying pleas on America.
Foot’s inspirations were Swift, Hazlitt, the Romantic radicals and a medley of humanist and revolutionary propagandists from the Levellers to the Chartists—alongside Nye Bevan, the contemporary hero-saint. Morgan’s achievement is to weave these fibres throughout the biographical tapestry, beginning with the formidable Isaac Foot of Pencrebar, a “west country Hatfield,” inculcating his five remarkable sons in the radical classics under the watchful eyes of more than 20 busts of Cromwell.
When the young Michael defects from Liberal to Labour in 1934, after a gap year amid the Liverpool slums, Isaac’s reaction is that “he ought to absorb the thoughts of a real radical” and “an even more intense perusal was needed of the thoughts of William Hazlitt.” The perusal of Hazlitt et al never ceased thereafter, and the fruits were as erudite as they were audaciously partisan. Twentieth-century labourism may owe more to Methodism than to Marxism, but the substance of Foot’s 20 books and thousands of articles—including those telling late lectures on “Byron and the Bomb” and “Swift and Europe”—testify to a wider heritage. Who but Foot could evoke the 1945 election as a British 1789, with Bevan as Danton, and be even half persuasive?
This is much more than another Labour biography. It is a portrait in bright oils of a master parliamentary literary-political agitator, in a society and culture congenitally hard to rouse. As the picture builds, I found myself surprisingly unconcerned about the merits of Foot’s causes: as Morgan concludes, he “commands attention, even fascination, not so much for what he did as for what he was.” Or rather is, for, like Mr Gladstone, his righteous anger never retired.