He has been talking animatedly, fiercely, about Swift, Hazlitt and Montaigne for the best part of an hour; talking about them as if they were just up the road, and liable at any moment to pop in with some new contribution. 'My father was on the side of the Whigs, you know, he wasn't on Swift's side,' he has said, jabbing his finger; or, of a recent seminar opened by the Irish President, 'You know, when you get Mary Robinson and Jonathan Swift together, something's really happening.' But time is running on, and it is necessary now to press him about the more recent past, and about the Labour Party.
Michael Foot has been a member of the Labour Party all his adult life. He fought his first election at the age of 22, and became party leader for three unhappy years when he was 67. But he doesn't want to talk about politics now.
He doesn't want to discuss his translation from rebel to shadow cabinet member and government minister. He doesn't want to talk about the leadership years between 1980 and 1983, when he presided over the rise of Militant, the defections that led to the founding of the Social Democratic Party, and the terrible election defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. And he certainly doesn't want to talk about what the Labour Party has since become.
He acknowledges that there are times when he regrets not having stuck to journalism. His wife, Jill Craigie, said many years ago, before there was even a whisper that he might become party leader, that 'Michael's heart is really in writing and newspapers; he's not really cut out for political intrigue.' Now, at 80, he seems only too relieved to have put political intrigue behind him, and to be able to devote his retirement to writing his biography of H G Wells.
He is, though, himself the subject of a new biography. Its author, Mervyn Jones, controversially claims that 'the truth about Michael Foot's place in history is that he was the man who saved the Labour Party.' Foot would no doubt be very happy to see this judgement stand. But he must know that there is another interpretation of his career - that he compromised his radical, rebellious instincts in an attempt to hold the party together, only to have it fall apart in his hands.
In these days of retirement, Foot rises at 6am, listens to the news and Farming Today, and sets off across Hampstead Heath for a walk with Dizzie the dog. They are familiar figures on the Heath, the master shambling along with his stick, dishevelled and deep in thought, the dog trotting behind. When Foot was in parliament, he honed his speeches on these walks, larding them with quotations from his massive memory-store of literary references. (His father memorised whole plays of Shakespeare and several books of Paradise Lost on similar walks in the West Country.) Later, he catches the Underground to King's Cross, and walks down to his cubbyhole in the Tribune offices, on the fourth floor of a dismally utilitarian building owned by the Transport and General Workers' Union.
On Hampstead Tube station, his fellow passengers eye him respectfully: Michael Foot has become a grand old man of British politics, admired, despite those disastrous years of leadership, for his principles, his decency, his learning; and perhaps, in truth, partly for the disastrous years of leadership. Politics commands little respect these days, and Foot proved to be too thoughtful, too civilised, too old-fashioned to be really good at it.
He limps to meet me along the dismal corridor of the Tribune building: a vivid, eccentric figure, with wild white hair streaming from his temples, slightly removed from the world around him by an air of deep preoccupation. The cartoon images of him in the early 1980s exaggerated the lopsided gait and the stoop, suggesting a person so decrepit that he was barely able to stay upright. The fact that he is tall and rather imposing comes as a surprise.
In his black suit and red-and-white spotted tie, he also looks decidedly dapper for someone who is so famous for being scruffy. But there is something wild and incomplete about his clothing: perhaps it's that his glasses are mucky, or his shoes evidently only recently returned from the Heath, or his blue socks. Practically the most famous thing about Michael Foot, of course, is that he once, disgracefully, wore a donkey jacket to the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph. Except, he says, that it wasn't a donkey jacket, it was a brand-new green coat, rather shorter than an overcoat, and the Queen Mother complimented him on it at the time. 'What a nice coat,
Mr Foot,' she remarked after the ceremony.
'It's a perfectly reputable jacket - it's down there somewhere,' he says, indicating a pile of things beside the filing cabinet. 'Or another one exactly the same: I've bought another since. It's not a donkey jacket at all. I still have some resentment about that . . . King Alfred, you know, was the best king we ever had in this country, but he is more remembered for the cakes than anything else. And I think I may be more remembered for my donkey suit than anything else.'
ALL around Michael Foot, the things he knew are in decline. Tribune is a shadow of the paper he first wrote for in 1937, and later edited. The TGWU is nothing like the force it was when he and Jack Jones strained to maintain the social contract, to keep the unions under control and Labour in power. Politics has become ruthlessly professional: young politicians now serve apprenticeships in think-tanks and party organisations, rather than, as Foot did, writing books about Swift. Even high culture has ceded much of its authority: bright young Oxbridge graduates now are more likely to write books about football or dog racing than Byron or Hazlitt. The cultured politician is almost extinct.
'It's hopeless to have politicians who don't read,' Foot says. 'They become illiterate. And many of them are, aren't they? I only got a ministerial post late in life (he was 60), but even then I didn't stop reading. I had quite a lot of books I read at that time, partly for the purposes of things that were happening then, but I was determined not to spend all my time reading those damned blue books. They said I was innumerate, and I daresay I did understand less about figures than some of those people. But there you are, I think it's more dangerous for people to be illiterate than innumerate.'
He learnt the importance of books from his father, who had amassed 60,000 of them by the time he died, including two first editions of Paradise Lost, 450 Greek testaments, and 2,000 volumes on the French Revolution. Michael met him every week in London for the last 40 years of his life: 'All our conversations turned on books of one sort or another, and he would be obsessed by one subject after another, one author after another, and he would want to get every book that he could, and he piled up his library that way, but then he became absolutely absorbed by particular authors, and he passed on all that method of doing it to me.'
Foot's father was a prosperous Plymouth solicitor, a Methodist lay preacher and a Liberal MP, for whom dissent and radicalism went hand in hand. History, for Isaac Foot, was a progress towards equity, a series of waves of popular protest - Diggers, Levellers, Chartists - which, expressed through parliament, brought ever-widening reforms. Michael inherited his father's almost mystical reverence for the House of Commons, which helped to keep him from communism in his youth, from enthusiasm for Europe in his middle years, and from any sense, until it was too late, of the importance of television.
Michael was the fifth of seven children. Dingle, the eldest, became solicitor-general in the Wilson Government and was knighted. Hugh Mackintosh Foot ('Mac,' later Lord Caradon), became Governor of Cyprus and chief British spokesman at the UN. John became Lord Foot, a Liberal peer. With Michael, that amounted to one knight, two lords and a party leader, plus three presidents of the Oxford Union and one of the Cambridge Union. The lives of the others, unhappily, were less gilded: Christopher, the youngest son, developed Huntingdon's Chorea, and eventually had to be placed in an institution. The two girls were not encouraged to be high achievers; both, according to Mervyn Jones, drank heavily, as did Christopher, and Dingle in later life. Sally, the fourth child, and the closest emotionally as well as in age to Michael, died in 1965, in an accident that might have been related to drink, drugs, or both.
Michael went to Leighton Park, a Quaker boarding-school with an internationalist, pacifist ethos, where there were anguished debates in the Boy Scouts about whether it was compatible with Quaker beliefs to fly the Union flag. He suffered from asthma and eczema - both of which eased in middle age, although his skin is still red and blotchy - but he was a good sportsman. (During our interview, he was at his most animated when a fellow Plymouth Argyle supporter rang up to discuss the previous Saturday's match.)
He was still a Liberal when he went up to Oxford, but made many socialist friends, one of whom, John Cripps, son of Sir Stafford Cripps, got him his first job, with an uncle who was in shipping in Liverpool. 'The actual time when I went over,' Foot says, making the political shift sound like a religious conversion, 'was when I went up to Liverpool to work, and the final thing that clinched it was seeing what industrial England was like, and what a horror it was and what was needed to change it. It was a fine place to start off for a socialist: they had a strong Labour movement, with people dedicated to fighting the poverty they saw and creating a decent society.'
This is characteristic Foot rhetoric: the Labour movement (a word he still uses freely, unlike almost anyone else in the Labour Party), the strength of working-class feeling, the equation of socialism with goodness and decency. When he became MP for Ebbw Vale, he explained his feeling for the valleys: 'The people of industrial Wales are proud of their working- class tradition, proud of their working-class achievements, and still as proud as ever of
being working-class. Against this rock all the
prissy values preached by the BBC, all the tinsel tuppenny-ha'penny ideas filtered through television, all the snobbery and smug complacency associated with a Tory-directed affluent society beat in vain . . . Men and women still believe it is better to live in a real community than to set before themselves the idea of rising out of their class, spurning their great ancestry and kicking away the ladder . . .'
Probably only someone who had never had to endure the privations of actually being
working class could have written about it as a kind of pre-lapsarian state. Foot's hero, Aneurin Bevan, who actually came from the valleys, was terser about the Welsh: 'They're good,' he said, 'but they're not that good.'
Foot admits that he hero-worshipped Bevan more or less from the moment he met him. He admired his brio, his Welshness, his autodidactism and his left-wing convictions. Just as he romanticised the working class, he attached his passionate feelings to individuals: his father, Bevan, and, more ambivalently, Lord Beaverbrook.
Of Bevan, he wrote: 'His eyes were fixed on the horizons of politics. Ideas were his passion, and he was interested in power as the vehicle for ideas.' Foot too fixed his eyes on the horizons, hoping eventually to discern a society that would more or less abolish private property and the profit motive. But he remained a liberal in his devotion to the abstractions of democracy and individual freedom: his socialism was probably in the end less about dogma, or perhaps even very clear ideas, than about generous emotions.
Lord Beaverbrook employed Foot, at Bevan's instigation, as a leader writer on the
Evening Standard in 1938. (Within a couple of months, Standard leaders had quoted Leonidas of Sparta, Pericles, Cato, the Bible several times, Shakespeare several times, Milton, Cromwell, Gibbon, Pitt, Benjamin Franklin, Saint-Just, Walt Whitman, Mazzini and Joseph Conrad.) Foot edited the paper during the war, and enjoyed an increasingly close, almost filial relationship with his proprietor, who paid him pounds 4,000 a year - twice as much as a high court judge - and showered him with money, a cottage on his estate and holidays in Venice.
All this patronage worried some left-wing colleagues. 'It was not as people supposed,' Foot says now. 'Beaverbrook was a great journalist. When people compare him with some of these other mo-gulls (he over-pronounces this word, as if it were too newfangled to be entirely reliable), or whatever they call themselves, there's no comparison whatsoever: he was genuinely interested in all aspects of the paper - except sport - he didn't care a bugger about sport. And other than my father, Beaverbrook was more interested in books than anyone I've met.'
Foot fought an election at Monmouth before the war, but first entered parliament in 1945 as MP for Plymouth Devonport. He set about harrying the leadership there, and from his political column in the Daily Herald, and at Tribune, which he was now editing. In 1951, one of his Tribune articles helped to trigger the resignation from the government of Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman to set up what amounted to a left-wing opposition, and confirmed his own reputation as a renegade, inclined to put high-flown principle and personal loyalty before party discipline.
He lost his seat in 1955, wrote his Swift book, and helped to found CND. On the Aldermaston Ban the Bomb marches, wild- haired and waving his stick, he seemed almost the personification of the English radical conscience. Those who can remember the Trafalgar Square rallies still speak of his oratory in awed tones. But by 1960, he was back in parliament, having been more or less bequeathed Nye Bevan's constituency of Ebbw Vale on his deathbed. He welcomed Wilson's succession in 1963 - though now he looks back on that period as 'the biggest chance that Labour missed in the post-war world'.
In 1970, after the best part of a lifetime of making a nuisance of himself, he stood for the Shadow Cabinet. He was 57. 'I thought if I was going to go on criticising, I'd better be prepared to stand, otherwise no one would take much notice of the criticisms. I thought that was the proper thing to do, even though it was a more convenient life, combining opposition in the House of Commons with journalism, and I was finishing the book on Aneurin Bevan, and I wanted to do that . . .' He sighs wistfully, shifts, and looks at the books piled on his desk and spilling on to the floor. 'Now. That's enough? Don't you think?'
IT IS NOT, unfortunately, quite enough. Foot may believe that his biography of Aneurin Bevan, completed in 1973, 'is the best thing I've done in my life: that, if anything, is what I'll be remembered for.' But half a century in politics is not so easily dismissed. He was, after all, the employment minister who ran the social contract, on the whole successfully, carrying union leaders and the Cabinet with him. And as Leader of the House, he played a crucial role in forging the Lib-Lab pact, and so propping up the Callaghan government.
He also, of course, became party leader. 'No, no, it's not my role, I'm not a leader,' he had once said to his friend Alan Brien. James Callaghan, who in many ways admired him, shared his conviction that he wasn't leader material. 'Oh, Michael is so honest and straightforward,' he said, explaining why he voted instead for Denis Healey. Foot doesn't want to discuss his reasons for standing for the party leadership now, but Mervyn Jones (who had exclusive access to his papers, Foot having declared that he will never write his own memoirs) believes a Foot leadership was the one chance the fissile party had. If Healey had won, the thinking goes, the parliamentary party would never have been able to work with a conference now dominated by Bennite activists, and might have declared UDI.
Whether this would actually have happened, and whether a Healey-led left-of-centre party would have been more successful than the SDP, remain open questions. But even if the Foot-Kinnock succession did keep the Labour Party alive, it was as a ravaged, fraying thing, and at the cost of 15 years of Conservative government.
Foot doesn't accept that he is responsible for all those years of Tory rule: 'No, I don't, and it would be a terrible indictment if it were true.' But he does accept that another leader could have won the election he lost in 1983. 'We could have stopped Mrs Thatcher if Callaghan had continued as leader of the party. He had a much better hold on the public's opinion than I had, and a better way of presenting things. He was also presenting a more moderate case, if you like, but he had a very good popular appeal. If he could have been persuaded to stay on - and I did my best to persuade him - we could have won the 1983 election.'
Foot sometimes seemed in the early 1980s like a man who had been careful to behave with dignity throughout his career, only, at the end of it, to endure the indignity of having the leadership thrust upon him, without quite being able to muster the greatness that ought to go with it. Addressing the parliamentary Labour Party after he had won the leadership, he failed to realise that the microphones were already switched on, and said to his wife, 'It's not that easy, is it?' The remark, and the cock-up, more or less set the tone for his leadership.
In that first speech, he quoted Nye Bevan, who had said, 'Never underestimate the passion for unity in the party.' Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that Foot had more passion for unity than anyone else who mattered: both Tony Benn and David Owen, in their different ways, were embarked on a wrecking process. (He is now prepared to exonerate one much more than the other. 'I think what David Owen did was outrageous, and I still think so, and I see no reason to mitigate the charge,' he says. 'Tony Benn was undoubtedly doing what he believed was right, and anyone who doubts his sincerity is a fool.')
Foot was a politician steeped in the 18th and 19th centuries, who prized literature and history above economics and technology. 'The printed word occupies a place of pre-eminence in our society and in any democratic society. Television and radio are pitiful and pallid substitutes,' he once said. Unhappily, by the 1980s, this simply wasn't true. 'I hate it really,' he says now of television, 'but that was a foolish thing to do. Jill, my wife, was always telling me . . . She knows about such matters, and she was always saying not to be so foolish in the way that I appeared. So if I'd listened to her advice better I should have been - I don't say cured, but better. There were some catastrophic occasions, no doubt about it.' Such occasions made it all too easy for the Sun to ask: 'Do you want this old man to run Britain?' He was old, but worse, he seemed out of touch, too prolix for the age of the sound-bite, too much preoccupied with the past, the Archie Rice of politics.
He made terrible mistakes - the 1983 manifesto was a rag-bag of everything the conference had debated - for which he must bear responsibility. He made them because he was a politician for a different era, of platforms and pamphleteering and less self-interest than we have grown used to. Hazlitt wrote: 'Happy are they who live in the dream of their own existence, and see all things by the light of their own minds; who walk by faith and hope; to whom the guiding star of their youth still shines from afar, and into whom the spirit of the world has not yet entered . . . the world has no hand on them.' Michael Foot walked by faith and hope, but, at the end of his political career at least, in a bit of a dream. Yet the chances are that in some future 1066 and All That, he will be summed up as a Good Leader. He is an ethical socialist, who believes in abstractions like decency and generosity of spirit, and so was out of step with his times. And that, rather than his biography of Bevan, or even his 'donkey suit', may well be how he is remembered.
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