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Michael Foot

Michael Mackintosh Foot (born 23 July 1913) is a British politician and writer. He was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.

Family

Foot's father, Isaac Foot, was a solicitor and founder of the Plymouth law firm, Foot and Bowden. Isaac Foot was an active member of the Liberal Party and was Liberal Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall 1922–1924 and 1929–1935 and a Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

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.

Early life

Michael Foot was born in Plymouth, Devon, and educated at Plymouth College Preparatory School and Leighton Park School in Reading. He then went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College, Oxford. Foot was president of the Oxford Union. He also took part in the ESU USA Tour (the debating tour of the USA run by the English-Speaking Union. On graduating in 1934, he took a job as a shipping clerk in Liverpool. Foot was profoundly influenced by the poverty and unemployment that he witnessed in Liverpool, on a different scale from anything he had seen in Plymouth. A Liberal up to this time, Foot was converted to Socialism by Oxford University Labour Club president David Lewis and others: "... I knew him [at Oxford] when I was a Liberal [and Lewis] played a part in converting me to socialism." Foot joined the Labour Party and first stood for parliament at the age of 22 in the 1935 general election when he contested Monmouth. During this election Foot criticised the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, for seeking rearmament. In his election address Foot contended that "the armaments race in Europe must be stopped now". Foot also supported unilateral disarmament, after multilateral disarmament talks at Geneva had broken down in 1933.

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.

Journalist

On the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan, Foot was soon hired by Lord Beaverbrook to work as a writer on his Evening Standard. (Bevan is supposed to have told Beaverbrook on the phone: "I've got a young bloody knight-errant here. They sacked his boss, so he resigned. Have a look at him.") At the outbreak of the second world war, Foot volunteered for military service, but was rejected due to his chronic asthma. In 1940, under the pen-name "Cato" he and two other Beaverbrook journalists (Frank Owen, editor of the Standard, and Peter Howard of the Daily Express) published Guilty Men, a Left Book Club book attacking the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government that became a run-away best-seller. Beaverbrook made Foot editor of the Evening Standard in 1942 at the age of 28. During the war he made a speech that was later featured during The World at War TV series of the early 1970s. Foot was speaking in defence of the Daily Mirror, which had criticised the conduct of the war by the Churchill Government. He mocked the notion that the Government would have no more territorial demands of other newspapers if they allowed the Mirror to be censored. Foot left the Standard in 1945 to join the Daily Herald as a columnist. The Daily Herald was jointly owned by the TUC and Odhams Press, and was effectively an official Labour Party paper. He rejoined Tribune as editor from 1948 to 1952, and was again the paper's editor from 1955 to 1960. Throughout his political career he railed against the increasing corporate domination of the press, entertaining a special loathing for Rupert Murdoch.

Member of Parliament

Foot fought the Plymouth Devonport constituency in the 1945 general election. He won the seat for Labour for the first time, holding it until his surprise defeat by Dame Joan Vickers at the 1955 general election. Until 1957, he was the most prominent ally of Aneurin Bevan, who had taken Cripps's place as leader of the Labour left, though Foot and Bevan fell out after Bevan renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference.

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.

In 1967, Foot challenged James Callaghan but failed to win the post of Treasurer of the Labour Party.

In government

After 1970 Labour moved to the left and Wilson came to an accommodation with Foot. In April 1972, he stood for the Deputy Leadership of the party, along with Edward Short and Anthony Crosland, who was eliminated in the first ballot. Short defeated Foot in the second ballot though.

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.

Labour Leadership

Following Labour's 1979 general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher, Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, beating the right's candidate Denis Healey in the second round of the leadership election (the last leadership contest to involve only Labour MPs). Foot presented himself as a compromise candidate capable, unlike Healey, of uniting the party, which at the time was riven by the grassroots left-wing insurgency centred on Tony Benn. The Bennites demanded revenge for the betrayals, as they saw them, of the Callaghan government, and pushed the case for replacement of MPs who had acquiesced in them by left-wingers who would support the causes of unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and widespread nationalisation. (Benn did not stand for the leadership: apart from Foot and Healey, the other candidates – both eliminated in the first round – were John Silkin, like Foot a Tribunite, and Peter Shore, an anti-European right-winger.)

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.

Resignation

The 1983 Labour manifesto, strongly socialist in tone, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and a return to a more interventionist industrial policy. The manifesto also pledged that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords, nationalise banks and leave the EEC. Among the Labour MPs newly-elected in 1983 in support of this manifesto were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Foot's Labour Party lost to the Conservatives in a landslide. Foot resigned and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock as leader. Gerald Kaufman, once Harold Wilson's press officer and during the 1980s a key player on the Labour right, described the 1983 Labour manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". This wasn't just through the orientation of the policies however, it also included the marketing aspect. As a statement on internal democracy, Foot passed the edict that the manifesto would consist of all resolutions arrived at at conference, making the manifesto over 700 pages long(!) The party also failed to master television, while Foot addressed public meetings around the country, and made some radio broadcasts, in the same manner as Clement Attlee in 1945. Members joked that they hadn't expected Foot to allow the slogan "Think positive, Act positive, Vote Labour" on grammatical grounds!

Backbenches and Retirement

Foot took a back seat in Labour politics after 1983 and retired from the House of Commons in 1992 but remained politically active. From 1987 to 1992, he was the oldest sitting British MP (preceding former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath). He defended Salman Rushdie, the novelist who was subject to a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, and took a strongly pro-interventionist position against Slobodan Milošević over Croatia and Bosnia.

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.

Foot is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.

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.

Personal life

Foot was married to the film-maker, author and feminist historian Jill Craigie from 1949 until her death in 1999.

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.

In popular culture

Foot was portrayed by Patrick Godfrey in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's controversial The Falklands Play.

Notes

Bibliography

  • "Cato". Guilty Men. Left Book Club. 1940.
  • "Brendan and Beverley" (as "Cassius"). Victor Gollancz. 1940.
  • Foot, Michael: The Pen and the Sword. MacGibbon and Kee. 1957. ISBN 0-261-61989-6
  • Foot, Michael: Aneurin Bevan. MacGibbon and Kee. 1962 (vol 1); 1973 (vol 2) ISBN 0-261-61508-4
  • Foot, Michael: Debts of Honour. Harper and Row. 1981. ISBN 0-06-039001-8
  • Foot, Michael: Another Heart and Other Pulses. Collins. 1984.
  • Foot, Michael: H. G.: The History of Mr Wells. Doubleday. 1985.
  • Foot, Michael: Loyalists and Loners. Collins. 1986.
  • Foot, Michael: Politics of Paradise. HarperCollins. 1989. ISBN 0-06-039091-3
  • Foot, Michael: 'Introduction' in Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Penguin (Penguin Classics), 1967 & 1985.
  • Foot, Michael: 'Introduction' in Russell, Bertrand: Autobiography (Routledge, 1998)
  • Foot, Michael: Dr Strangelove, I Presume (Gollancz, 1999)
  • Foot, Michael: The Uncollected Michael Foot (ed Brian Brivati, Politicos Publishing, 2003)
  • Foot, Michael: 'Foreword' in Rosen, Greg: Old Labour to New (Methuen Publishing, 2005)
  • Foot, Michael: Isaac Foot: A West Country Boy - Apostle of England. (Politicos, 2006)

Biographies

  • Hoggart, Simon; & Leigh, David. Michael Foot: a Portrait. Hodder. 1981. ISBN 0-340-27040-3
  • Jones, Mervyn. Michael Foot. Gollancz. 1993. ISBN 0-575-05933-8
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. Michael Foot: A Life. HarperPress (HarperCollins) 2007. ISBN 978 0 00 717826 1

External links

The Labour History Archive and Study Centre hold Michael Foot's archive see: http://www.phm.org.uk/

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