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 And when he then offered to write Foot's biography, Foot agreed and made unpublished letters and documents available.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

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
8,000 white-clawed crayfish are forecast to perish in the River Allen as a result of the plague  

Errors and Omissions: Plagued by an inappropriate use of a metaphor

Guy Keleny
The main entrance to Tilbury Docks in Essex  

Grant asylum to migrants who arrive close to death – but don’t be surprised if it inspires more tragedies

Mary Dejevsky
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape