A handy tool for a balanced assessment of obituaries of the Great and the Good is to be aware that the more fanciful the praise for the deceased the greater the relief that they are no longer around to cause any trouble. Consider, for example, the tributes to Michael Foot on his death, at 96, last month. This is Gordon Brown, overlooking that during Foot’s life he would have been one of his consistent opponents: “…a man of deep principle and great idealism…one of the most eloquent speakers the country has ever heard … An indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs…” Here is Tony Blair, the intensity of whose antagonism towards Foot would have rivalled that of Brown: “…a giant of the Labour movement, a man of passion, principle and outstanding commitment…” Finally, still dealing with Prime Ministers, this is Margaret Thatcher “…a highly principled and cultivated man…if I did not think it would offend him, I would say he is a gentlemen…” Except that that was not a comment by Thatcher after Foot had died; it was what she thought at the time she had crushed him in the 1983 election. Principle? Idealism? Passion? The fantasies about Foot live on, like a virus infecting those who promote themselves as successors.
He was swept into Parliament in the Labour landslide of 1945, when the votes showed that the lies about a safer, healthier world emerging from that greatest ever human crisis had been gratefully absorbed. Foot’s constituency was Devonport in Plymouth, where his comfortably powerful family (his father had been an MP, one brother was an MP, another became Governor of Cyprus) had their affluent home. Before that he had worked as a journalist on the New Statesman and Tribune. Aneurin Bevan, whose reputation as a viperous left-wing orator had not been an obstacle to him forming a close friendship with the Tory press baron Lord Beaverbrook, suggested that Foot (“…a young bloody knight-errant…”) would be a useful employee for one of the unconventional lordship’s newspapers. Perhaps because of Beaverbrook’s seeming vulnerability to those he saw as fellow rebellious misfits Foot was placed in a job which refreshed him with regular pay rises until he became editor of the scandalously strident Evening Standard. In 1945 Foot transferred to the Daily Herald, part-owned by the TUC but later transmogrified into Rupert Murdoch’s Sun with its Page Three girls and screeching headlines.
By that time Foot’s reputation as a rebel had been cemented into place, although it was typically impulsive rather than consistent. In the 1940s one of his most successful projects had been as the co-author, with two other journalists, of the book Guilty Men. Published by the Left Book Club, this was a best-selling polemic against the Conservative government’s apparent preference for negotiating about – or appeasing – Nazi Germany’s expansionism instead of building up British forces. Guilty Men does not spare Foot’s political allies: “Up to the arrival of Hitler on the scene, the Labour Party officially went through all the antic motions of ‘resisting militarism‘. This consisted of adopting pretty well every half-baked disarmament proposition that was drawn up, and annually voting against the Service estimates”. But effective a rant though that is, it takes no account of the fact that Foot had not always opposed disarmament. In 1933, when the Geneva talks, aiming at multilateral disarmament, broke down he came out in favour of unilateral disarmament . His election address in 1935, when he stood unsuccessfully for Monmouth, attacked the Tory Prime Minister Baldwin for his policy of re-armament, stating that “…the armaments race in Europe must be stopped now”.
More recently, Foot has presented himself as “an incessant and inveterate peacemonger” – which was not taken seriously by anyone with so much as a passing acquaintance with his history. Among other attitudes, he supported the formation of the US dominated NATO military alliance and the American policy of propping up the dictatorship in South Korea before the war began there. The audacious cynicism demanded by this was starkly exposed over the Falklands war. In an emergency debate in the Commons on 3 April 1982 the rage of the Tory hawks left Thatcher, in the words of one observer, “humiliated” and of another “strangely halting and subdued”. But Foot changed the course of the debate with a passionately belligerent speech demanding that there was “…a moral duty and political duty and every other kind of duty” to send in the task force to eject the Argentinian occupiers. This “peacemongering” was pleasing to a number of remarkable allies for Foot. Like Edward du Cann whose chairmanship of the Lonrho conglomerate was memorable for Ted Heath’s description of it as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Like Julian Amery, a leading light of the Monday Club. Like the late Alan Clark, an “historian” whose pitiless egocentricity and human aversion found expression in his excusing the wartime atrocities of the Waffen SS as “heroic cruelty”. Later, in the controversy over the torpedoing of the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano when it was sailing away from the battle zone, Foot was in favour of the attack, even if it did cost hundreds of lives. And this was an opinion which he steadfastly held to.
Was Foot trying to re-assure his admirers, as well as his antagonists, when he greeted his election as Labour Party leader in 1980 with the bold declaration “I am as strong in my socialist convictions as I have ever been”? He did not offer any clear definition of the word, which encouraged the assumption that his “socialism” was the kind of confused, panicky responses to capitalism’s crises, notable for the depression of workers’ life standards, which he had been closely involved in during his time as a minister under Callaghan. This had reached its nadir with the Winter of Discontent and, no matter how compulsively Foot wheedled and manipulated at resuscitation, the end of that government in 1979. Among other problems for the Labour Party then there was the exposure of the fact that Foot’s “principles” were as worthlessly malleable as they needed to be in capitalism’s abrasive politics.