The Year in Review: Michael Foot

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.

Disunity and extremism had led the Labour Party to choose Foot as leader in 1980 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.

He became leader by 139 votes to 120 but was unable to preserve the party's precarious unity. He was still a unilateral disarmer, still opposed to the Common Market. The unease of the right wing was brought to a head when the special conference at Wembley decided 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 joined Roy Jenkins in the creation of the SDP. Labour had split at last.

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," the drama critic Hannen Swaffer would say to a taxi driver.

Foot, slim, formally dressed, eyes gleaming with fun behind his spectacles, wrote by hand, 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. Once I noted the series of late-evening meetings with Owen and Peter Howard, "Crossbencher" of the Sunday Express. 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

Born 23 July 1913; died 3 March 2010.

Lord Ardwick died in 1994

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIRED - Humbe...

Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for a Qualified C...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

Year 1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers ne...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits