Michael Foot: Writer and politician who rose to become leader of the Labour Party

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Michael Foot was almost devoid of personal ambition, which is rare in a politician of first rank. He had been Liberal President of the Oxford Union and then Labour candidate in a by-election at the age of 22. Yet he had reached the age of 60 before he took office as Minister for Employment in Harold Wilson's last government. Two years later, when Wilson resigned, the left backed Foot for the leadership of the party – and not only the left. Had he won, he would have become Prime Minister, but he lost to James Callaghan by 39 votes. As runner-up, he was offered his choice of portfolio and he chose to become Leader of his beloved House of Commons, the least administrative and most political of governmental posts.

After Labour's defeat in 1979, Callaghan remained leader of the party for a year "to take the shine off the ball" and give Denis Healey a chance to succeed him. The parliamentary party, however, chose Foot, believing that he, with his "soft-left" approach, might reconcile its bitter divisions. He failed to do so. The task was beyond anybody.

When he was within a week or two of 70, he led the party into the disastrous defeat of 1983 and then, to everyone's relief, including his own, he retired to the back benches and his books. He was still loved and respected. He had sought none of these high roles. They had been awarded to him, sometimes even thrust upon him, because of his personal virtues, his kindliness, his verbal skills, his scholarship and his charisma. I never heard Foot speak ill of anyone outside the context of politics, but inside that context he took an unholy delight in the traditional asperities of the democratic platform and many people thought of him wrongly as a bitter extremist.

Foot came late to office because he had spent most of his political life as a rebel, first as a member of the Keep Left faction in the 1945 parliament which criticised Ernest Bevin's foreign policy, and then, as a leading Bevanite always fighting not only Labour's opponents but also the leaders of the party and what he saw as their cautious, consensus-seeking policies. Romantically, he visualised his own role not as a future minister burdened with administration, but as a guardian of the socialist ideal against those who thought that a policy of conspicuous moderation was the way to win power and to keep it.

The party was split over Bevanism for years. The Bevanites were, Gaitskell said, élite sectarians who posed as the sole guardians of socialist principle, while seeking personal publicity and factional support at the expense of the party. He saw Aneurin Bevan as a demagogue ambitious to replace him as leader. Yet the Bevanites were socially tolerated by some of those on the other side because the split in the party was also a split within their own bosoms. Their hearts were with Bevan as custodian of the central myth of the party; their heads were with Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell.

Though, after Bevan's death, Foot inherited his constituency of Ebbw Vale, he did not see himself as fitted for that capacious mantle, prophet though he too was. He saw himself rather as the biographer and he produced over the years, in two large volumes, Aneurin Bevan (1962-73), a sustained apologia for the left's wayward Celtic hero. The most bitter blow in Foot's political life was when Bevan opposed the unilateral renunciation by Britain of the nuclear bomb at the Brighton conference, the famous speech about not going naked into the council chamber.

Foot had lost his hero and his leader. He was out of the House at the time, having been beaten at Devonport, and was editing Tribune. Bevan had made an uneasy peace with Gaitskell, who appointed him shadow Foreign Secretary. He saw that, if Britain unilaterally rejected the bomb, then it would be rejecting all its alliances and its chance to be a moderating influence between the two nuclear giants. The left, who were unilateralists almost to a man, were horrified by Bevan's attitude and the row went on long after conference. Foot wrote:

"Most painful were the clashes with angry supporters of the newly established CND, with the left of the Labour Party, inside and outside the House of Commons and in his own constituency with some of his oldest friends, including myself."

After a row at the Foots' home, Bevan smashed a chair to the ground and, though he apologised next day, "our friendship remained prickly and painful". Foot refused to drop Tribune's slogan "The Paper That Leads the Anti-Bomb Campaign". The chapter ends with Foot sitting by Bevan's bed before his hopeless operation and hearing him say that he should think of following him as member for Ebbw Vale.

Lord Beaverbrook, who loved Foot as a son, saw his limitations clearly. "Take Michael Foot," he said in 1949 when he was indulging in his 70th birthday recollections, "there's a boy for you!" I suggested that he had been even better a few years before when Frank Owen had been his editor at the London Evening Standard. "You're right," said Beaverbrook, "Michael's problem is that he has never had a self-starter."

Beaverbrook, a great charger of other men's batteries, poured life and energy into Foot. So did Owen. So did Bevan. And the response was gratifying: columns of distinguished leading articles in the high style of the early 19th century, effective in the historic drama of 1940, as was Winston Churchill's own antique rhetoric. Foot, who had been one of Oxford's best debaters, made passionate speeches with Owen on the platforms of blacked-out halls, calling for a second front that would relieve the terrible pressure on Russia. These, too, had literary elegance and were delivered across a range of intonations in a series of barks, presumably the consequences of his asthma.

Foot's asthma and its concomitant, an embarrassing eczema, may have constricted his ambitions in more ways than one. He had close relations with two or three women but they remained platonic. He was 36 when he married Jill Craigie, a documentary film director. It was a most happy marriage. Years later they had a motor-car accident which put Foot in hospital for four months and cured his asthma.

Certainly Foot had little flair for authority, as we discovered when he became acting editor of the Standard in 1942. Of course he was still in his twenties, lacked broad journalistic experience and was too kind to exercise the necessary discipline. He returned to Tribune, the left-wing weekly which had supported the Cripps-Bevan popular front movement, and he was to be associated with it as editor or managing director for 30 years.

The Foot family home was a kind of school for the creation of public men. The father, Isaac Foot, was a most prosperous Plymouth solicitor, a bibliophile, an orator in the Methodist pulpit and on the Liberal platform. He was MP for Bodmin and served in the 1931 government. His son Dingle was Solicitor-General in the Labour government of 1945 and another son, Hugh, later Lord Caradon, a former Governor of Cyprus, went to the UN as Minister of State at the Foreign Office. John Foot, who stayed with the Liberals, became a radical life peer.

Michael Foot remained a backbencher in 1964, though other old Bevanite leaders – Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Anthony Greenwood – were all in Wilson's cabinet. Foot had the whip taken away from him for voting against a three-line whip on defence and only sought its restoration when Wilson became leader. During that government he was a constant critic, still Keeping Left, as it were, especially on Vietnam and In Place of Strife, Barbara Castle's White Paper proposing the reform of the trade unions.

In the 1983 election Foot looked as unlike a potential prime minister as George Lansbury had done in pre-war years; and the party itself looked more left than it had done since 1945. No fewer than 29 moderate Labour MPs had decamped to the new Social Democratic Party and the manifesto was later aptly described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history.

The policy was full of ambiguities contrived to suppress the party's inner conflicts; but the electorate had divined that they were being asked to give power to a party that was opposed to the nuclear deterrent and membership of the Common Market and that would spend lavishly in the hope of countering unemployment. Its claim to be able to work with the unions and keep wage increases within bounds was unconvincing to all those whose memories stretched back four years to the Winter of Discontent. The image many people had of Foot was of an elderly man with wild hair and a stick leading his dog at the head of an Aldermaston march, or appearing at a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at Whitehall wearing an inappropriate green coat.

Before the election, the opinion polls suggested that Labour would get more votes if the deputy, Denis Healey, were in charge. Foot thought seriously of resigning in his favour but it would have been necessary under the new rules for the electoral college to have confirmed the appointment and the Tories could have had good electioneering fun by reminding people how two years before, after the GLC election, the moderate leader Andrew McIntosh had been replaced by the egregious Ken Livingstone.

The Prime Minister whom Michael Foot was seeking to replace was 12 years younger and revivified by the Falklands victory. Foot had boldly supported the dispatch of the task force but had weakened the impact by arguing that it should be used to bargain for peace before the action began.

At mass meetings of the faithful Foot could usually but not always produce the old magic they loved, socialist earnestness and hope mixed with funny, biting mockery of his opponents. The party's belief that the Tories must lose because there were three million unemployed ebbed away and the result was even worse than had been feared. Labour got merely 27.6 per cent of the vote, three million fewer votes than in 1979. Not since 1935 had the party done so badly. By October Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley – "the dream ticket" – had replaced Foot and Healey.

It was the current disunity and extremism which had led the party to choose Foot as leader when Callaghan resigned. The Labour rank and file had been disappointed by the meagre achievements of 1974-79, oblivious of the problems of a minority government in a world financially destabilised by the oil crisis. The bitterness of the defeat strengthened the campaign of the far left to convince members they had been betrayed by their members.

Even before that election, conference had decided that constituency parties must consider the fitness of the sitting MP to be their candidate at the next election. Power was passing away from the parliamentary party. Then there was to be an electoral college to choose the party leader and make him more directly responsible to the activists. Before it was set up, however, Callaghan resigned and soft left and hard left desired Foot to become a candidate.

Healey was hated by some union leaders for the incomes policies he had demanded as Chancellor and they turned the pro-Foot campaign into a Stop Healey campaign. Healey, they said, would divide the party and perhaps the union movement. Foot would unite it: he would have the confidence of the left, the tolerance of the right.

So he became a leader by 139 votes to 120, yet Foot was unable to preserve the precarious unity of Labour. He was still a unilateral disarmer, still opposed to the Common Market. The unease of the right wing, who already had a contingency plan to break away, was brought to a head by the decision of the special conference at Wembley to give MPs only 30 per cent of the votes in the electoral college. They lost hope in their ability to win over the party and David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams went off to join Roy Jenkins in the creation of the SDP. Labour had split at last.

Foot's problem was now Tony Benn, hero of the far left. The defeat gave the dissident groups – the Labour co-ordinating committee, the campaign for Labour democracy and the Trotskyite Militant Tendency – a chance to dominate many a run-down constituency party. Benn decided with their backing to oppose Healey for the deputy leadership, and after a long and vicious campaign Healey's victory was won with a majority of less than one per cent. Healey acknowledged that Foot tried to meet him halfway even on defence but it was an uneasy partnership. Healey wrote:

"Michael came to be distrusted both on the right and left of the party and lacked both the political authority and the political grip to impose his will. He was a natural rebel and found leadership uncongenial; moreover, though a brilliant man, he had no administrative experience or executive ability. For all those reasons he was unable to give the party a sense of direction either in Parliament or outside."

But nobody else could have done so. As Joe Haines put it: "The lunatics were running the asylum."

Callaghan was more generous. He wrote: "Once you penetrate his shyness, his natural worth and lack of artifice make him an easy man to like. His absence of self-seeking is matched only by his optimistic belief that even the most unworthy colleague has some redeeming trait, which sometimes renders his judgement fallible."

It was as Minister of Employment under Wilson in 1974-76 that the old rebel won his reputation for unshakeable loyalty. The Government had come to office with a sketchy social contract with the unions and it was essential to foster and cherish the unions if the contract was to work and they were to deliver wage moderation. In his legislation and in close collaboration with the union leader Jack Jones, Foot gave the unions pretty well all they asked for, including the legalisation of peaceful picketing, the removal of unions' liability for damages arising out of a dispute and a re-legalisation of the closed shop.

It was this last which made people wonder what had happened to his own libertarian beliefs. Newspaper editors developed a fear that their chapels (union branches) would insist on their becoming members of the NUJ and so they would lose their freedom to determine the content of their papers. A hundred editorials and Lord Goodman's mixture of combative and negotiating skills could not move the minister. In the event, the editors' fears proved to be groundless.

Foot became an enthusiast for the flat-rate wages policy associated with Jack Jones. It proved to be a remarkable success and lasted until the later days of the Government when Jones had retired and the winter of discontent began. Foot became, said Healey, "an indispensable supporter in the negotiations with the TUC which took up so much of my last three years as Chancellor". At a Tribune meeting, Foot even managed to make pay policy sound like socialism.

It was a most difficult task that he took on as Leader of the House of Commons in 1976. Without being able to command a majority, he had to get his legislation through, including the devolution bills, and it meant deals with the minority parties, uninhibited use of the guillotine and eventually a pact with the Liberals. The frustration of the Tories, who were kept waiting for an election they knew would restore them to power, turned into a dislike for Foot and his oratory. They worked themselves up to a furore about some traditional views he expressed on judges and their historic attitudes to trade unions.

Like other dissident members of the Cabinet, Foot had been able, by Wilson's dispensation, to oppose government policy on the Common Market referendum, and he was among the Benn group in the Cabinet who favoured an alternative economic strategy, a kind of siege economy popular with the unions, rather than accept the harsh terms the IMF was demanding for a loan to Britain. When better terms were negotiated with the IMF, however, he went along with the Government's decision. He had no patience with Benn, who, after the fall of the Government, denounced what had been done by governments of which he had been a member.

I first met Foot in the spring of 1940 when I joined the Evening Standard. He was 27, the leader writer, and already he had a reputation. Frank Owen took me to the secluded corner where Foot worked alongside the "Londoner's Diary" men, a British peer and a Central European count. "Michael's a Stalinite," said Owen, "I am a Trotskyite" – pressing a copy of Trotsky's My Life on me, saying that nobody who had not read Trotsky was fit to work on this old Tory paper.

In this light-hearted corner, Foot flourished. When they differed on policy from Beaverbrook, Owen and Foot would concoct a leader on the traffic problem of London or some minor aspect of the war effort. Once, Foot beseeched the readers to dig their vegetable plots, dig them wide and "dig for victory", thus providing one of the Second World War's best-remembered slogans. The paper was surprisingly different from Beaverbrook's Express. "Drive me to the scarlet Standard," Hannen Swaffer would say to a taxi driver.

Foot, slim, formally dressed eyes gleaming with fun behind his spectacles, wrote by hand, silently mouthing his phrases. Like his father, he kept commonplace books in which he recorded favourite passages from Silone, Michelet, Swift, Paine, Byron, Cobbett and Hazlitt, about whom he was to write frequently in his next 60 years.

Once I noted the series of late-evening meetings with Owen and Peter Howard, "Crossbencher" of the Sunday Express. Not long afterwards I told Owen that all London was asking who was "Cato", the author of Guilty Men – a Left Book Club diatribe attacking the Tory ministers who had taken us unprepared into war.

"Find out," he said. It was weeks before it dawned on me that the book had been conceived and some of it written before my eyes.

John Beavan, Lord Ardwick

Lord Ardwick died in 1994