Steve Richards: Michael Foot – a combination of idealism and pragmatism

He had a capacity for idolatory, but it was not a passive form of hero-worship

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Whenever someone feels fashionably bored with politics they should take a look at the career of Michael Foot. If they are still bored they have no interest in life.

Foot was one of my early political heroes partly because he was so endlessly fascinating to observe, the great orator and principled rebel who became an expedient cabinet minister and ultimately leader of his party. Some have argued that Foot was the left of centre's equivalent to Enoch Powell. There were parallels, but at the end of his career Powell did not seek to meet the pragmatic demands of leading a fragile party while retaining deeply held convictions. In his sixties Foot found it an impossible task, but he gave it a go.

Many of my favourite political memories are associated with Foot. I remember as a student listening to him speak in the Commons on the evening of the sweaty, nerve-jangling drama in 1979 as the Government faced a vote of confidence. Famously Foot delivered a speech of wit and verve, the one in which he described David Steel's transformation from the "Boy David" to "elder statesman" without any intervening period. Foot managed to make the entire chamber laugh, MPs on both sides wondering whether they were about to lose their seats or acquire power after an election.

What made him more complicated and interesting was that by then he was more than a great parliamentary orator. As Jim Callaghan's deputy he had played a vital unglamorous role as mediator in a divided Cabinet. Labour lost the vote of confidence, but the minority government might have fallen much earlier without Foot's presence at the top of the cabinet.

Soon after Labour lost the 1979 election Foot published an anthology of essays, Debts of Honour. I recall reading the book while watching Foot and others deal with the eruption of civil war in the Labour party. The juxtaposition was weird and ominous. The witty elegance of the writing style and the range of Foot's interests in Debts of Honour were captivating. The chapter on his father's extreme love for books is worth re-reading on a regular basis. So are all the other essays on Disraeli, Beaverbrook, Bevan, Coleridge, HG Wells, Shaw and a promiscuous array of additional heroes.

Foot had a capacity for idolatry, but it was not a passive form of hero-worship. His heroes inspired him and at times sustained him. When he was Labour's leader for nearly three bleak years he took his dog, Dizzy (named after Disraeli), for a walk on Hampstead Heath early each morning and reflected on how his idols would have dealt with the impossible challenges and appalling media abuse he faced.

He was much stronger than he looked during that dark phase in the early 1980s and everyone from Disraeli to Beaverbrook played their part in keeping him robust when people half his age would have given up under the pressure of it all.

Foot never gave up. Even after the terrible defeat for his party in 1983 he did not hide away. Another memory for me is reporting the Durham Miners' Gala in the summer of 1983 with the Foots, Michael and Jill, and the Kinnocks on the platform. Foot was about to leave. Kinnock was about to succeed. There was a mood of fearful gloom on a grey day, but Foot delivered a rousing speech, his appetite for politics undimmed by the colossal defeat.

The book Debts of Honour was published in September 1980. A few weeks later Foot became leader of the Labour party. There was something recklessly thrilling about the dazzling orator, prolific writer and principled parliamentarian becoming a leader of his party. But I thought of the book, which conveyed Foot's huge appetite for life beyond orthodox politics, and wondered why he had turned away from such pleasures for the hell of leading a party that had become impossible to lead.

The answer is partly Labour turned to him. By 1980 the party was fatally divided on all the major issues of the time, nuclear disarmament, Europe and state ownership. Many pundits have argued subsequently that Labour should have elected Denis Healey as its leader rather than Foot.

The argument is meaningless. It is the same as suggesting the Conservatives should have elected Ken Clarke in 1997. They could not do so because of Clarke's views on Europe. Parties and leaders are irretrievably linked. There is always a reason why parties elect a leader even if it seems irrational from the outside or in retrospect.

At a point when Labour was moving leftwards Healey never stood a chance and would have had even more problems than Foot in keeping the party together. He only just held on to the deputy leadership when Tony Benn challenged him the following year in 1981. Labour chose to elect Foot partly because his views chimed largely with the party's mood but also because he had shown a pragmatic streak in government.

He continued to combine the two as leader, but he never stood a chance after the formal schism that brought about the SDP. Sometimes parties are impossible to lead, as Messrs Major, Hague and Duncan Smith would testify. The Tory party was never as unruly as Labour in the early 1980s.

In an interview at a particularly tempestuous phase of his leadership, Brian Walden cited Hamlet suggesting to Foot, "something rotten was in the state of the Labour party". Foot responded, only half-jokingly "Cursed spite that ever I was asked to put it right."

But he continued to read and write on other matters while he was leader to the point of eccentricity. I recall him giving a lecture in Putney on the Putney Debates, a historic event from 1647. Foot spoke on the night that two key by-elections were being held in which it was said that his leadership was at stake. The lecture was stunning and he survived. He was one of those leaders who was always under threat and yet left the nightmarish job of his own volition.

A more recent memory was when I went round to his house in Hampstead for dinner with a group of writers. It was during Labour's first term. His wife, Jill Craigie, was still alive. At one point some of the guests started to express their disillusionment with the Government. One of them listed his many disappointments and looked up triumphantly towards Michael and Jill expecting their agreement. Instead Jill went for him, listing the achievements from peace in Northern Ireland to the minimum wage. Every now and again Michael interrupted robustly: "You tell them Jill!" Even then pragmatic loyalty mingled with principle.

His principles were always strongly held. Last year he wrote a letter to The Guardian on nuclear disarmament, his deepest passion. By then he could hardly walk or see, but still had an undiminished interest in events and of course the way they were reported. His association with Tribune in particular spanned many decades, but he wrote vivaciously for all the main newspapers whether as a full-time journalist or as one of those few politicians with a gift for writing. He knew words could make a difference.

I suspect it will become a cliché over the next few days that there will never be such politicians again. I do not see why that should be the case. Perhaps some of the current batch will reflect on the alternative dangers of lifeless managerial caution. At a point of maximum indifference to politics Foot was never dull. Time to read Debts of Honour again and marvel at a life well lived.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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