Recommending Michael Foot for a job on the Evening Standard, Aneurin Bevan said to its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook: "I've got a young bloody knight errant here." The description held true. Political and journalistic opponents paid tribute to Foot last week with a mixture of wonder and exasperation. The Daily Mail's obituary was a version of the famous American epitaph for Foot's spiritual predecessor, Thomas Paine: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
Foot's death was stirring because it recalled an age of political romanticism. His allegiance was to radical thinkers and poets, not to the fees office. The professionalising of politics passed him by.
The blight of New Labour, according to Andrew Rawnsley's new political biography, is that it became so successful at winning elections that it lost its own soul. Tony Blair was remorseful that during his first term he traded radical reform for short-term popularity. In his second term he made up for that, fighting his perceived battle for civilisation and becoming nationally reviled.
Foot, on the other hand, kept his soul and lost Labour the election. It wasn't the forfeiting of power he minded. He would not have danced, as Tony Blair did, across Michael Levy's tennis court crowing: "I'm the Prime Minister. I'm the Prime Minister..." Foot regretted with his deepest sense of patriotism that he had let down the British people in the 1983 election. He said: " I am deeply ashamed that we have allowed the fortunes of our country and the fortunes of the people who look to us for protection... to sink to such a low ebb."
Foot's political romanticism had more in common with 18th-century radicalism than with New Labour. He was closer to John Wilkes, another nonconformist patriot and wit, than Peter Mandelson. Wilkes counterintuitively campaigned for parliamentary reform and against war with the American colonies. He was also funny. When a constituent told him he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes replied good-naturedly: "And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?"
The ability to be passionately political, free thinking and humorous seems anachronistic, yet Foot did not represent an extinct species. His romantic spirit exists in politicians such as Boris Johnson and is traceable in men such as Michael Portillo, who believed in a Britain of social liberalism and international greatness. In the Labour Party, he resembled Richard Crossman and he worshipped Aneurin Bevan.
You can see Foot's spirit in Tam Dalyell, and in Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister believes in the building of Blake's Jerusalem. His temper is mostly torment that the reality of politics distracts him from his shining city.
Political romantics spring up in all parties and create a culture of respect. Career politicians, on the other hand, are narrow and tribal, their beliefs more shallow and pragmatic. It is hinterland and humanity that enrich politics. The pity is that they do not appear to win elections.
Foot's hero, Nye Bevan, said after the 1945 election: "We have been the dreamers; we have been the sufferers; now we are the builders." It was a glorious cause but had no place in modern politics. After Bevan lost to Hugh Gaitskell in 1955, his perspective changed. "I know the right kind of political leader for the Labour Party is a desiccated calculating machine." That is the success, and the tragedy, of New Labour.
Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening StandardReuse content