BOOK REVIEW / How Worzel came to save the Labour Party: 'Michael Foot' - Mervyn Jones: Victor Gollancz, 20 pounds

Share
Related Topics
'THE TRUTH about Foot's place in history is that he was the man who saved the Labour Party.' This is the controversial thesis of a monumental, though far from definitive, biography of the amiable chap who led the Labour Party in the early Eighties, its most difficult years.

Known to Private Eye as 'Worzel' or 'The Old Bibliophile', and born before the First World War, Foot seems like a figure from some black and white, Picture Post past, before political postures were defined in living colour and polished by Saatchi & Saatchi or Labour's posturing shadow communications agency. Foot's biographer, Mervyn Jones, is himself an elderly socialist journalist and novelist, a man out of the same Bevanite, Tribune stable that had, a generation earlier, spawned Foot. He is, moreover, one of Foot's closest friends and admirers. Jones learnt that the erudite Oxford-educated eccentric who led the Labour Party during its most awful period had decided not to write his memoirs. And when he then offered to write Foot's biography, Foot agreed and made unpublished letters and documents available.

From his own point of view, Foot was wise to entrust the task to a journalist friend rather than an impartial academic who would have asked harsher questions - about, for example, his early association with Beaverbrook and his later switch from parliamentary poacher under Harold Wilson to authoritarian gamekeeper under James Callaghan.

It will be a long time before a similarly weighty, but harder- nosed, tome is produced. In the meantime, Foot emerges looking rather too good - because Jones's fascinating and effortlessly readable study glosses over most of the crucial issues. He has chosen to invite us to judge Foot, not as a great parliamentary debater, nor yet as a great radical pamphleteer (Guilty Men, the attack on the Thirties appeasers, remains one of the great polemic works of this century). He is, Jones insists, to be judged as a political saviour.

In a technical sense Jones is correct. The Labour Party survived that ghastly decade. Today it dominates the opinion polls, for what that may prove to be worth. However, the general election of 1983 - the only one for which Foot was directly responsible - was a defeat unequalled since 1918. His self-indulgence and self-righteousness, his ambiguity over unilateral nuclear disarmament, his decision to appear on the same platform as Militant candidates, his casual alienation of those of social democratic inclination, dragged his party to the verge of third place to the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance. It is inadequate to argue that, say, Tony Benn or Denis Healey might have generated yet more unrest in the ranks and led the troops to even greater disaster.

But the fundamental criticism of this work is that the author does not integrate the libertarian Foot who made such an appalling nuisance of himself during the Attlee and Wilson governments of 1964 to 1970 with the sup-with-the-devil apparatchik who ran Callaghan's government with cynicism and ruthlessness a decade later.

Why, for example, was Barbara Castle's attempt at union reform and wage restraint in 1968 a betrayal of everything Labour stood for, and Foot's similar efforts for Callaghan the very epitome of democratic socialism? Why did Foot, an instinctive free thinker and free writer, attempt to impose a statutory union-controlled closed shop on journalists? Why did he support the obnoxious state of emergency imposed upon India in 1975 by his friend Indira Gandhi?

These are deep waters into which Jones does not wish to sail. Instead, his ultimately unsatisfying biography remains safely anchored in the shallows. Jones has served his friend better than he serves the reader.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee