Michael Foot: More than a politician, a man of deep principle

Friends and political rivals pay tribute to a great orator and parliamentarian who became Labour leader too late in life

In the voters' minds, Michael Foot may have been known for leading Labour to its worst election defeat for 60 years. But in the hearts of his Labour colleagues, there will remain a special place for Michael Foot, who died yesterday at the age of 96.

Senior Labour figures admitted his spell as party leader from 1979-83 was not a happy one, recalling that it was Labour who wanted Mr Foot, rather than him showing a politician's usual hunger and ambition for the top job.

People in all parties paid tribute to his rich contribution during his long career: as the greatest parliamentary orator of his generation; a fierce defender of parliament's rights; a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament proud to describe himself as "an inveterate peace-monger"; a serial left-wing rebel who followed the path of his hero Nye Bevan; a Cabinet minister during the 1970s economic crisis; a man of principle who never had a bad word for anyone; a republican who declined the trappings of politics, including a seat in the House of Lords.

Although he was an MP for 42 years, Mr Foot was much more than a politician: he was an historian, writer and journalist. He once wrote: "Men of power have no time to read books. Men who do not read books are not fit to hold power."

Mr Foot first stood for Parliament in 1935, but began his career as a journalist – editing the London Evening Standard by the age of 28. He had two spells as editor of left-wing journal Tribune. After entering Parliament in 1945, he was thrown out of the Parliamentary Labour Party for two years for opposing increases in defence spending. He was MP for Plymouth Devonport, before going on to represent Ebbw Vale and Blaenau Gwent. He was Employment Secretary in the 1974-76 Labour Government led by Harold Wilson and Leader of the Commons from 1976-79.

Gordon Brown said: "Michael Foot was a man of deep principle and passionate idealism and one of the most eloquent speakers Britain has ever heard. He was an indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs and whether people agreed with him or not, they admired his character and his steadfastness."

Baroness Thatcher, who won the biggest of her three majorities – 144 seats – against Mr Foot at the 1983 general election, said: "He was a great Parliamentarian and a man of high principles."

Mr Foot died shortly before 7am yesterday at his home in Hampstead, north London, after a long illness that required 24-hour care. His wife, Jill Craigie, died in 1999. He was last seen in parliament in 2009 when he attended a Labour celebration of the work of himself and Jack Jones, the former transport union leader, who has since died.

Friends admitted that Mr Foot did not agree with all the actions since 1997 of Tony Blair – whom he rightly marked out as a man with a great future when he stood in the Beaconsfield by-election in 1982 – and Gordon Brown. But he never criticised them.

His successor as Labour leader, Lord Kinnock, said Mr Foot was "considerate right to his last breath" when he visited him last week, expressing his delight that his wife, Baroness Kinnock, was in the "right job" as the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa.

Lord Kinnock told The Independent: "Michael was a supreme Parliamentary democrat who used his great gifts as an inspiring speaker and writer to make the case for justice, liberty and peace. He gave love and earned love as few politicians do in any age.

"He was sparkling company, a marvellous comrade, a magnificent man, a great Socialist and libertarian. The only tribute that would do him justice is enduring application of his enlightened values in the cause of progress for humanity."

After Labour's defeat at Lady Thatcher's hands in 1979, Mr Foot succeeded James Callaghan as party leader at the age of 67. Labour was riven by ideological differences and Mr Foot was unable to head off the breakaway by the "Gang of Four" moderates – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Mr Foot, who first became an MP in 1945, was seen as unsuited to the demands of the modern age. He dismissed criticism that he wore a donkey jacket to the 1981 Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph, but the image stuck.

Although he reluctantly began the process of expelling leaders of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency from Labour, he did not change left-wing policies including nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. The party's 1983 manifesto was described by Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history". Amid criticism of Mr Foot's performance, Labour's general secretary Jim Mortimer reassured journalists during the campaign that he was still leader of the party.

Mr Foot was hailed yesterday as the man who prevented his party's death. The SDP might have succeeded in its goal of "breaking the mould" of British politics if the SDP had pushed Labour into third place at the 1983, but Labour held on to second – just. It won 27.6 per cent of the votes to the SDP-Liberal Alliance's 25.4 per cent.

According to Lord Kinnock, Mr Foot held Labour together in the "grimmest, darkest hour in its modern history". He said: "The fact that the party survived as a recognisable political entity at all is attributable to the commitment, conviction, sheer guts and self-sacrifice of Michael Foot. He kept the Labour Party in existence."

Lord Healey, who was defeated for the Labour leadership by Mr Foot in 1980, said: "Although we disagreed very much over policy, I was very glad to serve under him as deputy leader. I don't think he should be remembered only for the 1983 election defeat, because he made a tremendous contribution to the Labour Party when its future was on a knife edge."

Peter Tatchell, who was opposed but later backed by Mr Foot as Labour candidate for Bermondsey in 1983, said: "He had the grace to later apologise to me – an apology that I accepted. I have never waivered in my view that Michael Foot was a great humanist and humanitarian, and a true champion of social justice and human rights.

"Sadly, Michael became Labour leader too late in life. He was at his peak in the 1940s and 1950s, and would have been an even better Labour Prime Minister than Clement Attlee."

Michael Foot: In his own words

"I have been on the left of the party since I joined it in 1934 and I have not seen much reason for altering."

Panorama TV interview, 1976

"She has no imagination and that means no compassion."

On Margaret Thatcher, 1981

"It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi-house-trained polecat."

On Norman Tebbit, 1978

"Men of power have not time to read; yet men who do not read are unfit for power."

Debts of Honour, 1981

"How long will it be before the cry goes up: 'Let's kill all the judges'?"

On the National Industrial Relations Court, 1972

"Members of our secret service have apparently spent so much time under the bed looking for Communists that they haven't had the time to look in the bed."

On the Profumo scandal, 1963

"I think the House of Lords ought to be abolished and I don't think the best way for me to abolish it is to go there myself."

On leaving the Commons, 1992

"He's passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever."

On David Steel, leader of the Liberal Party, 1979

"There is nothing wrong with being a Marxist. Their point of view is essential to a democratic debate."

Daily Telegraph interview, 1977

"We had not the armour, the strength, the quickness in manoeuvre, yes, the leadership."

On the 1983 election defeat, when he was leader, Another Heart and Other Pulses, 1984

"It's impossible to write the history of freedom in this country without telling how trade unions have contributed to it."

On ITV's Weekend World, 1976

"It's quite a change to have a prime minister who hasn't got any political ideas at all."

On John Major, 1991

"No rising hope on the political scene who offered his service to Labour when I happened to be leader can be dismissed as an opportunist."

On Tony Blair, The Independent, 1995

"We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer, 'To hell with them'. The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do."

Speech before the 1983 general election

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