Michael Foot is the younger brother of the late Sir Dingle Foot MP, and also of the Liberal politician Lord Foot (previously John Foot), and of the late Lord Caradon (previously Hugh Foot), a Governor of Cyprus and a former representative of the United Kingdom at the United Nations from 1964-1970, whose late son was the campaigning journalist Paul Foot.
He became a journalist, working briefly on the New Statesman before joining the left-wing weekly Tribune when it was set up in early 1937 to support the Unity Campaign, an attempt to secure an anti-fascist United Front between Labour and the parties to its left. The campaign's members were Stafford Cripps's (Labour-affiliated) Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP). Foot resigned in 1938 after the paper's first editor, William Mellor, was fired for refusing to adopt a new CP policy of backing a Popular Front, including non-socialist parties, against fascism and appeasement.
Before the cold war began in the late 1940s, Foot favoured a 'third way' foreign policy for Europe (he was joint author with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo of the pamphlet Keep Left in 1947), but in the wake of the communist seizure of power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia he and Tribune took a strongly anti-communist position, eventually embracing NATO.
Foot was however a critic of the west's handling of the Korean war, an opponent of West German rearmament in the early 1950s and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Under his editorship, Tribune opposed both the British government's Suez adventure and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Foot returned to parliament in 1960 at a by-election for Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, left vacant by Bevan's death.
He had the Labour whip withdrawn in March 1961 after rebelling against the Labour leadership over air force estimates. He only returned to the Parliamentary Labour Group in 1963 when Harold Wilson replaced Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader.
Harold Wilson – the subject of an enthusiastic campaign biography by Foot published by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press in 1964 – offered Foot a place in his first government, but Foot turned it down. Instead he became the leader of Labour's left opposition from the back benches, dazzling the Commons with his command of rhetoric. He opposed the government's moves to restrict immigration, join the Common Market and reform the trade unions, was against the Vietnam war and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, and denounced the Soviet suppression of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also famously allied with the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to scupper the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and create a House of Lords comprising only life peers – a "seraglio of eunuchs" as Foot put it.
When Labour returned to office in March 1974 under Harold Wilson, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment, in which role he played the major part in the government's efforts to keep the trade unions on side. He was also responsible for the Health and Safety at Work Act. Foot was one of the mainstays of the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community. When Wilson retired in 1976, Foot contested the party leadership, leading in the first ballot, but was ultimately defeated by James Callaghan. Later that year he was elected deputy leader and served as Leader of the House of Commons, which gave him the unenviable task of trying to maintain the survival of the Callaghan government as its majority evaporated. In 1975 Foot, along with Jennie Lee and others, controversially supported Indira Gandhi with her state of emergency against her political opposition in India.
When he became leader, Foot was already 67 and frail – and almost immediately after his election as leader was faced with a massive crisis: the creation in early 1981 of a breakaway party by four senior Labour right-wingers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers (the so-called "Gang of Four"), the Social Democratic Party. The SDP won the support of large sections of the media, and for more than a year its opinion poll ratings suggested that it could at least overtake Labour and possibly win a general election.
With the Labour left still strong – in 1981 Benn decided to challenge Healey for the deputy leadership of the party, a contest Healey won by the narrowest of margins – Foot struggled to make an impact and was widely criticised for it, though his performances in the Commons, most notably on the Falklands crisis of 1982, won him widespread respect from other parliamentarians. (He was however criticised by some on the left who felt that he should not have supported the Thatcher government's immediate resort to military action in defence of 2,000 Falkland islanders' wish to remain British subjects.) The right-wing newspapers nevertheless lambasted him consistently for what they saw as his bohemian eccentricity, attacking him for wearing what they described as a "donkey jacket" at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day. Foot didn't make it genuinely known that HM the Queen Mother had complimented him on it!
Through late 1982 and early 1983, there was constant speculation that Labour MPs would replace Foot with Healey as leader – speculation that increased after Labour lost the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, in which the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was its candidate &ndash, standing against a tory, a liberal and the right wing O'Grady, who had declared himself the real labour candidate and fought an openly homophobic campaign against Tatchell; but, critically, Labour held on in a subsequent by-election in Darlington and Foot remained leader for the 1983 general election.
In 1995, an article in The Sunday Times, under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", alleged that the Soviet intelligence services regarded Foot as an 'agent of influence', named as 'Agent Boot'. Foot denied he had been any such thing, successfully sued The Sunday Times and handed over a large part of his damages to Tribune. The article was based on the paper's serialisation of KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky's memoirs.
Foot has remained a high-profile member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to this day. He is the author of several books, including highly regarded biographies of Aneurin Bevan and H. G. Wells. Indeed, he is a distinguished Vice-president of the H. G. Wells Society. Many of his friends have said publicly that they regret that he ever gave up literature for politics.
In a poll of labour party activists he was voted the worst post war labour party leader. Though Foot is considered by many a failure as Labour leader, his biographer Mervyn Jones strongly makes the case that no one else could have held Labour together at the time. Foot is remembered with affection in Westminster as a great parliamentarian. He was widely liked, and admired for his integrity and generosity of spirit, by both his colleagues and opponents.
In 2007, it was revealed that he had had an extramarital affair in the early 1970s which had put a considerable strain on his marriage, not least because he spent a substantial amount of money paying the woman's bills. Craigie's suspicion was said to have been raised when Foot, not known for his sartorial elegance, began taking inordinate care over his appearance.
In 2003 Foot turned 90. He has been a passionate supporter of Plymouth Argyle F.C. since childhood, and served for several years as a director of the club. For his 90th birthday present, the club registered him as a player and gave him the shirt number, 90. This made him the oldest registered player in the history of football. He had stated that he would not 'conk out' until he has seen his team play in the Premiership.
As of 23 July 2006, his 93rd birthday, Michael Foot became the longest lived leader of a British political party, beating Lord Callaghan's record of 92 years, 364 days. A staunch republican (though well liked by Royalty), and proponent of an elected upper house, Foot had always rejected honours from the Queen and the government, including a knighthood and a peerage on more than one occasion.
The Labour History Archive and Study Centre hold Michael Foot's archive see: http://www.phm.org.uk/
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