Matthew Norman: What would Foot have made of it now?

He was the last great bridgehead to an age when politicians fought for their beliefs
Click to follow

Even before Michael Foot's death, the current tensions with the government of Argentina over South Atlantic property rights presented a gift for fans of the what-if school of modern history.

What if the frictions of 1982 had been resolved, as the present ones will be, by diplomacy? Without that war, which, as a venerable foe of fascist dictatorship Mr Foot felt obliged to support, would Margaret Thatcher have been sunk by the employment exclusion zone she'd imposed on three million people?

Would the longest suicide note in history have been transformed into a billet doux to which the electorate responded by peppering the ballot papers with Labour kisses? And would he have survived in office, this wry and captivating firebrand, for long?

A little while earlier, Chris Mullin had written A Very British Coup. Would the British establishment, and more pertinently Ronald Reagan's White House, have tolerated a unilateralist running America's leading anti-Soviet ally and most priceless strategic dominion? If Prime Minister Foot had ordered the Yanks to pack up their air bases and clear out at a high point of Cold War paranoia, might we have seen a constitutional crisis like the one in Mr Mullin's novel?

Assuming it survived, would a Foot administration have bowed to realpolitik and steered the country in the same reformist direction, albeit along less choppy sea lanes, as Mrs Thatcher, or stuck to its socialist guns? Or might Mr Foot's laissez-faire approach to leadership (and he was resplendently hopeless in the role) have led colleagues to move against him immediately, just as Herbert Morrison schemed to oust Clement Attlee in the hours after his landslide defeat of Churchill in 1945?

Enormous fun as it is to imagine the development of dramatically different time lines, the oddity is that no one could have been less interested in the what-if game than Michael Foot. Perhaps it isn't odd at all. Perhaps he just wasn't that bothered. No one who ever led a technically electable British political party seemed so uninterested in the acquisition of power, so free from anguish at failing to acquire it, or so without rancour at the betrayals of the successor who did.

I met Mr Foot only twice, once at a Tribune dinner not long before 9/11, and again at a neighbour's house after the invasion of Iraq, and his loyalty to people as well as principle was chastening. The first time, in Soho, I returned from the gents with some facetious reference to the Tom Driberg Memorial Suite (the Gay Hussar loo in which that singular Labour MP liked to indulge his altruistic passion for fellating newly introduced gentlemen). "Whaaaarrrgghhhhh!" harrumphed Mr Foot, slapping an outraged thigh. "Don't upset him," his wife Jill Craigie admonished. "Michael's terribly loyal to Tom's memory."

He was equally loyal to Mr Tony Blair, whom several of us tried to entice Mr Foot into slagging off. He wasn't having any. Early days was the Foot line on the young superstar for whom he campaigned in 1983; and anyway, Labour is a great movement, not one man. But this was a coup d'etat, I wittered, executed against that movement by four of five men. No, no, he's a fundamentally good chap, rebuked Mr Foot, and the party will civilise him (I paraphrase slightly) in the end.

You don't spend 90 years watching Plymouth Argyle play football without being a tribal loyalist, and a few years later he still refused to criticise. The casus belli had long since collapsed, just as Iraq had disintegrated into sectarian mayhem, yet still this glorious man was utterly loyal. If mistakes had been made, was as far as he'd go, they were made from the noblest of motives. He wasn't wild about Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld himself, but he implicitly trusted the PM's bona fides.

Reading Andrew Rawnsley's newly published The End of the Party yesterday brought some contrasts, hardly opaque before, into the sharpest of focus. The internecine poison which dissolved the Blair-Brown administration wouldn't have shocked Michael Foot. He was there, after all, throughout the mid-late Sixties when Wilson could only rule (or at least survive) by dividing the Cabinet's baronial powers as they plotted and raged against him and each other. He was no softie himself. You don't rise to lead a major party, or live to 96 come to that, without a measure of tungsten at your core.

What would have astounded him is the monumental tininess of the characters and their arguments. To a man who served alongside such war generation titans as Crossman, Crosland, Healey, Jenkins, Callaghan, George Brown and Castle, it must have been perplexing to observe the likes of Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and the Eds Balls and Miliband emerge as major players.

To watch them fight as proxies for year after year over nothing – not a bleeding carrot – more ideologically profound than Mr Blair's leaving date would have horrified him. To a man who read voraciously even when half blinded by antiquity, a Labour PM proudly taking the Henry Ford line on history must have seemed horrendous.

To read in such clinical detail how the Prime Minister took the ostrich position on those non-existent US plans for post-invasion Iraq, and how the Chancellor took policy positions purely to indulge his lust for the premiership, would surely have broken his heart.

If he'd lived to read this book he'd have said nothing publicly, of course, because he never did. Whether a good person – not an inoffensive or affable or charming person, but an honourable person passionately devoted to the common good – can become Prime Minister in a political system ravaged by the Thatcher-Murdoch axis and its ever more crudely Faustian succesors is unlikely. The miracle, perhaps, is that 28 years ago today it seemed a possibility.

I can't remember a political death as wist-inducing as Michael Foot's. He was the last great bridgehead to an age when, for all their imperfections, senior politicians fought like alley cats for their beliefs as well as the power to implement them – when cabinet ministers actually read books, and even wrote books that weren't lucrative, self-serving memoirs – and there are stronger reasons than affection, roseate nostalgia or incurable romanticism to mourn that.