Paul Foot

Investigative journalist and principled believer in socialism

Tuesday 20 July 2004 00:00

Paul Foot was the finest polemical writer of his day. He was the staunch friend of lost causes, and so staunch and sustained that his timescale for crusades was measured not in years - let alone months, weeks or days - but in decades. The names of James Hanratty, Helen Smith, Carl Bridgewater, Hilda Morrell and Colin Wallace reverberate down the years and bear testimony to Foot's persistence.

Paul Mackintosh Foot, writer and journalist: born Haifa, Palestine 8 November 1937; Editor, Socialist Worker 1974-75; married 1962 Monica Beckinsale (two sons; marriage dissolved 1970), 1971 Roseanne Harvey (one son; marriage dissolved 1995), (one daughter with Clare Fermont); died Stansted, Essex 18 July 2004.

Paul Foot was the finest polemical writer of his day. He was the staunch friend of lost causes, and so staunch and sustained that his timescale for crusades was measured not in years - let alone months, weeks or days - but in decades. The names of James Hanratty, Helen Smith, Carl Bridgewater, Hilda Morrell and Colin Wallace reverberate down the years and bear testimony to Foot's persistence.

In all his writing, his books and his work for the Daily Mirror, the Socialist Worker, Private Eye and the many other newspapers and journals to which he contributed, Foot was not only a champion of the underdog but a deeply principled believer in socialism. For him socialism was built on three principles, all vital to one another.

The first was the social ownership of the means of production. Many people took this to mean the ownership of all property by some "Big Brother" state. They looked around their homes and saw a few treasured possessions: furniture, a television set, a washing machine, perhaps a car or some books. They did not see why they should give these things up to some bureaucratic state, or to anyone else for that matter, and nor should they, thought Foot.

There was a big misunderstanding, he argued, carefully nursed by the supporters of capitalism. They deliberately ignored the obvious difference between people's possessions and the means of producing those possessions. If you owned a washing machine, you did not get richer because you owned it. On the contrary, you would probably pay out large sums every month in hire-purchase commitments. Even when you'd finished buying it there would be no extra income to you from having that washing machine, whereas, if you owned shares in Hoover, you grew richer because other people were buying washing machines. Foot's concern was about the means of the production of wealth.

His second principle was equality. He ridiculed the principle by which rich men and their newspapers could influence so much of the world. Hence his love-hate relationship chronicled at enormous length in his arguments with David Montgomery and the Mirror, the newspaper for which he worked for 14 years, until he was sacked in 1993. He once told me that Michael Foot might pen a superb tribute to "Beelzebub" - Lord Beaverbrook - but that he, Paul, would never subscribe to his uncle's view of newspaper owners.

His third and final pillar of socialism was workers' democracy. Many people had a vision of socialism as a state bureaucracy, run by masses of officials, who stamped their prejudices and favouritism on society with secret police forces and torture chambers. For Foot it was a central principle of socialism that the people who make decisions should be accountable to the people who are affected by them.

The late Maurice Macmillan told me that his father, Harold Macmillan, sitting in Birch Grove, always made a point of reading any article by Foot which came his way and would lisp: "Thankfully, no one requires my opinion as a response to that!"

Paul Mackintosh Foot - the Mackintosh came from the surname of his formidable paternal grandmother Eva, daughter of Angus Mackintosh MD and wife of Isaac Foot PC, sometime Liberal MP for Bodmin and wartime and post-war Lord Mayor of Plymouth - was born in 1937, the eldest of the three sons of Florence Tod and Hugh Foot, Governor and Commander-in Chief in Cyprus in the Eoka years, 1957 to 1960. (His father was the second of five sons, the others including Sir Dingle Foot QC, Labour MP and Solicitor-General; Lord Foot, solicitor, Liberal peer and champion of National Parks; and Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party and much else.) Hugh Foot, created Lord Caradon in 1964, was Harold Wilson's Permanent Representative at the United Nations and one of the most helpful Ministers of State at the Foreign Office to whom I have ever gone on a parliamentary delegation.

Paul Foot was sent to Shrewsbury, where he was an exact contemporary (and collaborator in magazines) of the future founders of Private Eye Christopher Booker and Willie Rushton, and its future longstanding editor Richard Ingrams. He later recalled that the main characteristic of the school was barbarism. Shrewsbury was run on the standard lines of British public schools throughout the ages. It cost a lot of money to go there, and what the parents got in return, Foot told the readers of the Socialist Worker in November 1989, was children well equipped to be rulers. To be leaders of the future it was necessary to know what it was like to be bullied in order to turn out a good bully yourself.

Almost every relationship, as Foot saw it, was founded on discipline, violence and hierarchy. And yet much later he had the honesty to wonder how it was that, at least in his last two years at school, he enjoyed it so much. The answer lay partly in two teachers, one nicknamed "Kek", who was hooked on Auden and Eliot, and another called Keating, whose idealism and visions were unlikely in such a barbaric place.

Foot's housemaster he described in the New Statesman thus in July 1979, in a style which encapsulates vintage Paul Foot:

A letter in The Spectator mourns the death of Mr Anthony Chenevix-Trench, "a great headmaster", and yearns for the return of the Times obituary column to pay proper tribute [the newspaper having ceased publication for 11 months following industrial action]. This diary is no substitute for a Times obituary of course but I would hate to miss the opportunity of paying my respects to Mr Trench who was my housemaster at Shrewsbury School 25 years ago.

Foot continues:

Trench made his name as a great innovator, especially in corporal punishment. He would select certain younger boys for special tuition in Greek prose, in which he was a recognised scholar. Less than three mistakes and a bar of chocolate; more than three a beating. But Trench was no ordinary flogger. He would offer his culprit an alternative: four strokes with the cane, which hurt; or six with the strap, with trousers down, which didn't. Sensible boys always chose the strap, despite the humiliation, and Trench, quite unable to control his glee, led the way to an upstairs room, which he locked, before hauling down the miscreant's trousers, lying him face down on a couch and lashing out with a belt. He achieved the rare distinction of being hated and despised by every boy who came in contact with him, and was therefore an obvious choice to be the youngest ever headmaster of Bradfield, and then of Eton.

At Eton he made the mistake of whipping the heirs of earls as though they were run-of-the-mill manufacturers' sons at Shrewsbury or Bradfield. One sensitive young viscount limped home and bared his tattered bum to his outraged father. Trench was sacked. He was appointed headmaster of Fettes.

Foot went on to University College, Oxford, where he claimed to have shared with the poet Shelley "a rotten education". He recalled passing, on many journeys to the college's football changing rooms, a huge gilded cage under a dome, inside which on a marble slab born by angels and sea-lions there was a statue of a beautiful young man, emphatically naked. A typewritten note on the wall told him that this was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had been an alumnus of University College from 1810 to 1811. Foot recalled asking the Dean why Shelley had spent so little time at the university. "Oh," muttered the Dean, embarrassed, "he was drowned."

And so of course he was - 11 years after he had been expelled from the college for writing the first atheist pamphlet ever published in English. Shelley for Paul, as for his uncle Michael, was a hero for his irreverence. In 1981 Paul Foot claimed him for the revolutionary left in his book Red Shelley.

Foot's first job on leaving university, where he edited the magazine Isis and was President of the Oxford Union, was in Glasgow as a correspondent for the Daily Record, sister paper of the Daily Mirror. One of his first assignments was covering the by-election in the West Lothian constituency in May 1962, at which I happened to be the Labour candidate. Those were the (healthier) days when political minders were unknown and by-election candidates were jolly well expected to answer political and policy questions for themselves.

My tabloid tormentors, all of whom I liked, were a red-haired young man from the Daily Express, Charles Douglas-Home, later to be Editor of The Times, Joe Haines, later to be Harold Wilson's press secretary, and Paul Foot of the Daily Record. The first question Foot ever asked me was: "How on earth is it that the West Lothian Constituency Labour Party with six coal-mines in the constituency can choose somebody from Eton and King's College, Cambridge, as their candidate?"

I was somewhat flummoxed until H.B. Boyne of The Daily Telegraph came to my rescue, gently observing in a soft Scottish voice: "Perhaps for the same reason that the Daily Record chooses somebody from Shrewsbury and University College, Oxford, to be their political reporter." From that moment Foot and I were firm friends.

And yet he was the most ruthless and fastidious of interrogators on matters of fact, especially dealing with causes, with which he was by temperament and nature in sympathy. In his essay "Torpedoing the Peace", published in the New Statesman in May 1983, Foot began:

Did Mrs Thatcher order the sinking of the aged Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, on Sunday 2 May 1982, in order to scupper a peace settlement which had been hammered out between Lima, Peru, and Washington over the previous weekend and which was on the point of being signed? For several months, Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian, has been making this astonishing charge against the Prime Minister. His view is that she deliberately gave the order to sink the cruiser at a time when an honourable peace settlement was almost secured - one which could have prevented the subsequent bloodshed of the Falklands campaign.

The charge has been met in the main with faintly amused disdain. Tam Dalyell, it is pointed out, is an eccentric with weird views on many subjects. But, whenever a specific reply has been given to any of his questions, the mystery surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano has deepened.

I have never ever in my life been so closely cross-questioned by anybody as by Foot in the preparation of his article. And he had journeyed to Lima, Peru, to make sure that his story would stand up to inevitable criticism and ridicule.

In February 1986 he contributed a two-page spread, "Westland Ho", to the London Review of Books. The research as always was deep. The discerning editor, Professor Karl Miller, commented to me: "Paul writes as well for me and for the New Statesman as he does for the Daily Mirror and the Socialist Worker."

After the Daily Record, Foot worked variously for The Sun, The Sunday Telegraph, Private Eye, the Socialist Worker (of which he was Editor in 1974-75) and the Mirror, where he was hired specifically as an investigative journalist and wrote a page, ring-fenced even during the days of Robert Maxwell. His most powerful weapon in pursuing a campaign, however, was to write a book about the case.

Who Killed Hanratty? (1971) investigated James Hanratty, hanged for the "A6 murder" in 1961. The controversial case was sent, 37 years after his death, back to the Court of Appeal, which in 2002 upheld his conviction. The Helen Smith Story (1983) seeks the truth about a nurse who fell to her death from a balcony at a party in Saudi Arabia in 1979. Her body still lies in a Leeds mortuary, unburied, as her father believes that she was murdered. Murder at the Farm: who killed Carl Bridgewater? (1986) covers the death of a schoolboy in 1978. Four men were convicted of his murder; three of them were released, in 1997, after 18 years, when the Court of Appeal ruled their convictions unsafe. (The fourth died in prison.) Who Framed Colin Wallace? (1989), meanwhile, tells of a Ministry of Defence employee who served six years for killing a friend in 1981 before being released and then, in 1996, having his conviction quashed at the Court of Appeal. He claimed to have been framed after he refused to take part in an MI5 "dirty tricks" operation in Northern Ireland.

Paul Foot died at Stansted airport, apparently of a heart attack, on his way to Ireland for a holiday. He had nearly died in 1999, of a ruptured thoracic aortic aneurysm. (When I went to see him in hospital, near death's door and paralysed, he told me that Tony Benn had been the previous day, with these words of reassurance: "Paul, it wasn't your legs we loved you for, it was your heart and your mind.") But he recovered, to write again, for Private Eye, The Guardian, The Oldie and elsewhere, as energetically as before, fulminating against "Blair and co" in their conduct of the Iraq war.

He published a book of his journalism, Articles of Resistance (2000), and resumed his political campaigning - he had contested Roy Jenkins's former seat, Birmingham, Stechford, in 1977 for the Socialist Workers Party - to be the Socialist Alliance candidate for Mayor of Hackney in 2002 (he came third). In 2000 he was named in the What the Papers Say Awards as Journalist of the Decade.

Foot's last book, The Vote, on the struggle for universal suffrage, will be published by Penguin in February 2005.

Tam Dalyell

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