'What would Michael Foot have been like as Prime Minister? I believe he would have led a successful Labour government'

Michael Foot, the great bibliophile – for thus I will remember him, rather than as parliamentary orator or sometime leader of the Labour Party – began one of the most fascinating essays in the English language, his essay on Beaverbrook entitled "The Case for Beelzebub", thus:

"Legends are created, as every journalist knows, in the cuttings libraries of newspaper offices; no sooner are a man's or woman's eccentricities established there than they become embalmed, and may be disinterred in every plausible detail, until the last trumpet is sounded. But history, against the odds, must attempt some readjustments."

Had my friend and European parliamentary colleague John Ardwick not predeceased Foot, doubtless his elegant pen would have suitably mocked the public onslaught of 1995 – Oleg Gordievsky's suggestion, highlighted by The Sunday Times and the Rupert Murdoch press, that Foot was an "agent of influence" for the Soviet Union.

George Carman QC told The Sunday Times that the insinuation that Foot was traitorous was so ridiculous that he would cease to work for them if their in-house lawyers insisted on going ahead.

Never can there have been a higher-volume horse laugh resounding round the Labour Party. We could envisage no figure on the face of this planet less suitable to be an agent or spy than the champion of Byron and Thomas Paine. Moreover, one of the paradoxes of Michael Foot's character was that he was a British patriot as deeply as he was a left-winger. Indeed, it was his – some of us would think simplistic – patriotism which catapulted him into endorsing the despatch of the task force in the Falklands War in 1982.

When, on the morning of 3 April 1982, I barged into the Leader of the Opposition's room as his science spokesman to say, "Michael, don't endorse the sending of the task force – I know more about South America and military technology than you do!", his gentle rebuke was: "Tam, and I know more about Fascism than you do." For him, Leopoldo Galtieri was the incarnation of Benito Mussolini, and had to be confronted.

To insinuate that Michael Foot, with his political history, was disloyal to Britain was preposterous. To insinuate that he could have had any truck with Soviet authoritarian regimes as their tool was plain wicked.

It was obvious to his friends that the old war-horse in him relished his last great fight. It took him back 45 years to 2 March 1950, when the Evening Standard produced a scandalous front page under the headlines "Fuchs and Strachey: A Great New Crisis. War Minister Has Never Discussed Communism. Now Involved in MI5 Efficiency Probe".

Foot responded, as Editor of Tribune, with a scorching polemic. Someone in the office suggested the title "Prostitutes of the Press". Foot thought that too "banal and defamatory" and therefore substituted what was thought to be the more anodyne, but equally accurate and insulting: "Lower than Kemsley". Lord Kemsley was at that time proprietor of the Daily Sketch and the Sunday Times, held in Foot's circle to be the touchstones of low journalism. Kemsley instituted libel proceedings, and the case dragged on for three years. Foot eventually triumphed.

In his last decade, Foot ascended to icon status among those of an Old Labour disposition. Be it at the Durham Miners' Gala or the celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, ever frailer, he would rise and some of the old oratorical strength would surge up in him. No one in the Labour Movement can ever have been asked to speak at more memorial meetings and funerals to say farewell to comrades and friends. Foot's sense of fun shone through, when, in 2002, with great feeling at the Central Hall, Westminster, he said goodbye to Barbara Castle, with a rich description of their holiday in France nearly 70 years earlier.

The unique timbre of Foot drawing his verbal pictures cannot be captured from the printed word. He is one of few – very few – to have been both a considerable public speaker and a considerable writer: a rare combination indeed. Could it have been that he understood, better than most, the subtle, all-important differences between the spoken and the written word?

In the 20 years alone after he left the Commons he was the author of Another Heart and Other Pulses: the alternative to the Thatcher society (1984), Loyalists and Loners (a series of biographical portraits, 1986), The Politics of Paradise: a vindication of Byron (1988), H.G.: the history of H.G. Wells (1995), Dr Strangelove, I Presume (a history of the Cold War and post-Cold War nuclear arms race, 1999) and, to celebrate his 90th birthday, The Uncollected Michael Foot (edited by Brian Brivati, 2003). He also edited the Thomas Paine Reader (with Isaac Kramnick, 1987) and wrote numerous prefaces and introductions – most recently an introduction to Greg Rosen's anthology of party speeches, Old Labour to New, published in February 2006.

What would Michael Foot have been like as Prime Minister? He was an excellent and decisive Secretary of State for Employment, a view endorsed not only by Jack Jones and Vic Feather, but also by a number of employers initially horrified at his appointment. He was a good Leader of the House, in the not uncritical judgement of John Smith, who was his junior minister in the Privy Council Office. His leadership of the Labour Party was derailed by the Falklands War, and cruel coverage of his attire – actually respectful – at the Cenotaph.

I believe he would have led a successful Labour government. He was a shrewd chooser of people. He could delegate. Jealousy of colleagues' success was absent from his nature. Foot's Chancellor, probably Peter Shore, would have had a free hand. His weak area, relations with the Americans, would have been left to the Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey. He would have encouraged ministers, and honoured the accountability of the House of Commons. His wife Jill Craigie would have been an exciting hostess at Downing Street.

And, even in Downing Street, he would have retained the huge affection of the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Tam Dalyell

Michael Mackintosh Foot, politician, journalist and writer: born Plymouth 23 July 1913; Assistant Editor, Tribune 1937-38, managing director 1945-74, Editor 1948-52, 1955-60; Acting Editor, Evening Standard 1942; MP (Labour) for Devonport 1945-55, for Ebbw Vale 1960-83, for Blaenau Gwent 1983-92; Secretary of State for Employment 1974-76; PC 1974; Deputy Leader, Labour Party 1976-80; Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1976-79; Leader, Labour Party, and Leader of the Opposition 1980-83; married 1949 Jill Dell (née Craigie, died 1999); died London 3 March 2010.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
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

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game