Leading article: The death of a great 20th century radical

Despite his political failures, Michael Foot's legacy is significant

Share
Related Topics

It is sometimes said that public figures who live to a great age, no matter how reviled in their day, eventually become respected, even loved. Michael Foot is a testament to the acuity of that observation. Not many British politicians have been more reviled than the donkey-jacket wearing, unpatriotic, election-losing Foot. And yet there was not the faintest edge of ancient grudge in any of the generous tributes paid to the former Labour Party leader yesterday from across the political spectrum.

So how can this remarkable transition from national rejection to national embrace be explained? The answer lies, partly, in the fact that Foot belonged to quite a different political era, one that was so comprehensively ended by the Thatcher revolution and so deeply buried by New Labour. The sense of threat which Foot's brand of socialism once instilled faded long ago. His views became something of a historical curiosity, rather than something to keep people awake at night.

The change in mood towards Foot is partly, too, because the passing of time confers a broader perspective. People can look back now and recognise that, whatever his failings, Foot lived the fullest possible life, indeed, one of the great public lives of the 20th century. He straddled radical politics and radical journalism for 60 years; a man of letters who believed that his job was not to interpret the world, but to change it. His wartime pamphleteering was in the great liberal tradition; populist and excoriating. And his writing talents lifted Tribune, the Daily Herald, and Beaverbrook's Evening Standard.

Foot also had a long, mostly rebellious, career in Parliament. This disciple of Aneurin Bevan had the whip withdrawn because he opposed increases in defence spending and later refused to serve in Harold Wilson's first two administrations for similar reasons of principle.

Foot also founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and supported a "no" vote in the 1975 referendum on Britain's membership of the European Economic Community. Although he was on the losing side of most battles, he was described by Enoch Powell (no shabby orator himself) as "the outstanding parliamentarian of our time". His oratory is still recalled with awe today by those who were around to hear it.

But by the time Foot became party leader in 1980 he was simply the wrong man for the times. He had stood as a unity candidate but was unable to provide the strong leadership that was needed to keep the party together. The Gang of Four broke away to form the Social Democratic Party. The militant left were rampant. And it all ended in the worst defeat for Labour in half a century after the party put forward an unreconstructed left-wing manifesto. There followed Neil Kinnock and the party reforms which would eventually sweep away all the crumbling pillars of Foot's socialist worldview. It is a truism that all political careers end in failure, but Foot's failure, as a party leader at least, was monumental.

Yet the trauma of his time as leader never twisted him personally. He was always a palpably decent human being, shaped by his enthusiasms outside the narrow confines of party politics. Foot is now seen as an admirably authentic political figure and a great 20th century radical. It might not be the legacy he would have chosen when he set out on his public career all those decades ago. It is, nonetheless, the one he deserves.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
David Cameron:  

David Cameron: Britain is now the success story of Europe

David Cameron
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk