Ο Μάικλ Φουτ, πρόεδρος των Εργατικών στη Βρετανία κατά τη δεκαετία του 1980 πέθανε σε ηλικία 96 ετών, ανακοίνωσε ο υπουργός Δικαιοσύνης Τζακ Στρο στη βρετανική Βουλή των Κοινοτήτων. Ο Μάικλ Φουτ ήταν ιδιαίτερα αγαπητός στους παραδοσιακούς ψηφοφόρους των Εργατικών. Αντικατέστησε τον Τζιμ Κάλαχαν στο τιμόνι του Εργατικού Κόμματος το 1980 και οδήγησε το κόμμα στις εκλογές του 1983, όπου όμως γνώρισε συντριπτική ήττα από τους Συντηρητικούς της Μάργκαρετ Θάτσερ. Υπήρξε σημαντικός συγγραφέας και διετέλεσε βουλευτής για 47 χρόνια.
An incorrigible rebel, the former Labour leader failed politically but always followed his mighty heart
Michael Foot in February 1995. Photograph: Martin Argles
Michael Foot, the most improbable literary romantic to lead a major British party since Benjamin Disraeli, has died at the age of 96 after a turbulent political career that left him a much-loved but also deeply controversial figure. Though physically frail he displayed his customary zest for life until close to the end.
Born a year before the outbreak of the first world war, Foot’s career could be traced through many of the horrors and triumphs of the bloody 20th century, while simultaneously harking back to literary and political conflicts long forgotten by most of those whose votes he sought through nearly 60 years of elective politics. Never a communist, always a leftwing socialist and scourge of fascism, in all his battles he was rarely less than wholly committed to causes for which he cared. After his death was announced at midday today Gordon Brown led the deluge of tributes from both friends and political foes.
«Michael Foot was a man of deep principle and passionate idealism and one of the most eloquent speakers Britain has ever heard. He was an indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs and whether people agreed with him or not they admired his character and his steadfastness,» the prime minister said in a statement.
As a brilliant orator, steeped in Byron, Shelley, Swift, Milton and the great political struggles for British liberty, Foot’s political life was mostly spent as the incorrigible, scornful rebel. A champion of British unilateral nuclear disarmament (CND), one of the left’s great postwar causes, he was one of those who helped foster the left-right Bevanite split that damaged Labour throughout the 50s – even after his hero, Nye Bevan, made his peace with the right.
In his public and private life he maintained a reputation for personal integrity, honesty and – with exceptions like Norman Tebbit whom he dubbed a «semi-housetrained polecat» – the basic kindness of a very gentle Jacobin radical. Yet Foot was also a bundle of contradictions, a friend of Lord Beaverbrook – Foot called him «Beelzebub» – of Enoch Powell and Randolph Churchill, a defender of Indira Gandhi when she declared a state of emergency in his beloved India. A passionate champion of liberty, the bibliophile author of 20 books, he was later accused of betraying it to accommodate trade union power in the 70s. For others his lofty idealism, which included a life-long devotion to Plymouth Argyle FC (he attended their games well into his 90s), was highly attractive. Despite the defeat of many of his most cherished causes, he had a rich and deeply fulfilled life, which he shared (until her death in 1999) with his beloved wife, the filmmaker Jill Craigie.
The most remarkable twist in his career came when he was past 60 and was drawn gradually into the vortex of power after Labour unexpectedly regained office in 1974.
- Improbable partnership
A decade after rejecting office in Wilson’s first government, he became employment secretary, battling to contain union militancy with the «social contract,» sustain the government’s fragile incomes policy and keep it afloat in the Commons, courtesy of the Lib-Lab pact, after Labour lost its majority in 1977. Such was Foot’s gallant reputation and prestige he kept the unions and the left onside during his last improbable partnership, as deputy prime minister to Jim Callaghan from 1976-79 until it all collapsed into the industrial «winter of discontent». But even defeat had a largely unforeseen consequence. When Callaghan stood down in 1980 MPs (who then still picked the leader alone) voted with their heart for Foot over the electorally more appealing Denis Healey, the Ken Clarke of his time.
It gave Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, Labour’s rightwing «Gang of Four» their excuse to split the party and form the SDP in alliance with the Liberals. Foot’s leadership was also damaged by disloyalty from the left, not least Tony Benn’s divisive decision to run against Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981. The Argentinian junta’s 1982 invasion of the Falklands also helped Mrs Thatcher. Foot, the West Country patriot, felt compelled to support her reconquest.
Many had rejoiced that a cultured man of letters, scornful of spin and soundbites, could still lead a great party in the name of socialist fraternity. Others feared he was unelectable, a concern reinforced by his appearance at the Cenotaph in what was wrongly dismissed as a duffle coat. The Queen Mother, another of his unlikely friends, was supportive. «Oh hello, Michael, that’s a smart sensible coat for a day like this,» she was supposed to have said. Foot’s ineffectual Labour campaign was trounced in the 1983 election after which he appeared on Private Eye‘s cover, waving his stick and shouting: «Hang on, I haven’t finished yet.» But it paved the way for Neil Kinnock, his protege, to succeed and begin the long drive to modernisation which led to Labour’s triumphs in the 90s.
Whatever Foot thought of New Labour he loyally kept quieter than he would have done in the 50s. After all, it was the kindly letter he wrote praising young Blair after meeting him in 1982 that helped Blair win Sedgefield, the last available seat in England in 1983.
If it was a defeat for Foot-ism it was one of many: clause 4 socialism, the wartime «second front now» campaign, CND, pay policy, the unions’ role in economic planning, a No vote in the 1975 referendum on Europe. He campaigned for them all and all were overwhelmed by the harsher realities of politics in a world changing faster than an upper middle class English radical wanted. Foot was a socialist and an internationalist who never wrote a book of theory and liked America no more than he did the Soviet Union. India, which he loved, has since gone nuclear and capitalist too. It did not daunt his youthful enthusiasms, nor his tendency to slap his thigh to emphasise a point. «The triumphs of socialism must be achieved even if it is achieved by a three card trick,» he would joke. No puritan, his company was usually marked by laughter, more mellow as he aged, and the clink of glasses.
The frail favourite child of a West Country Liberal dynasty, cursed with eczema and asthma, Foot hitched his star early to Bevan, the charismatic Welsh ex-miner, whose admiring biographer he became. Their socialist views did not prevent either of them becoming allies of Beaverbrook, the Canadian press tycoon, owner of the then-mighty Daily Express, who shared their sense of mischief. Converted to socialism by the misery he witnessed in Liverpool, Foot came to London and was taken up by both the leftwing weekly, Tribune, and Beaverbrook to become a highly successful journalist as well as literary writer, a biographer of Jonathan Swift. Foot gained his first great claim to fame as the author of Guilty Men, the celebrated 1940 polemic against the prewar appeasers. Beaverbrook duly entered Churchill’s cabinet, Bevan continued to attack Churchill, and Foot briefly edited Beaverbrook’s London Evening Standard – though Tribune was his life’s love.
It helped set the tone for Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 when Foot unexpectedly won Plymouth Devonport for Labour and became a Westminster gadfly. It was a role he maintained from outside after losing Devonport in 1955 and resumed after succeeding Bevan in Ebbw Vale after his hero’s death in 1960.
Foot and Bevan fell out over Bevan’s renunciation of unilateralism. But Foot usually followed his mighty heart for most of his career. In the 60s he even joined forces with Enoch Powell, with whom he shared the title of best parliamentary orator, to block Labour efforts to reform the Lords. He wanted it abolished, Powell wanted it left untouched.
Such quixotic behaviour prompted his old Oxford friend Barbara Castle to complain that «Mike» had «grown soft on a diet of soft options». His embrace of the messy compromises of power after 1974 was all the more remarkable, but even his sympathetic biographer, Kenneth Morgan, felt he was too nice, too vague, too emollient to have been a successful party leader. After his leadership ended Foot stayed in the Commons – remaining until Labour lost in 1992, the loyal elder statesman still capable of filling the chamber as few could.
There was never any question of going to the Lords. But his passion for books, as for Plymouth Argyle FC, never dimmed as the infirmities of old age took their toll. He would still lunch at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho, a leftwing haunt since the 30s, until last year, with old friends like the Guardian’s Ian Aitken and the literary Tory and anti-Thatcher rebel, the late Ian Gilmour. His body gave him trouble but his mind remained sharp until very recently.
In the bloody 90s when Yugoslavia was torn by civil war, Michael and Jill Foot went there and made a film on behalf of their beloved Dubrovnik, then under third attack Serb attack. It was a fitting last hurrah. Michael Foot’s political life was marked by recurring defeat but his life itself was a model of how to live with courage, friendship and some good luck. Even when Jill crashed the car into a lorryload of Lucozade and Michael was seriously injured he emerged from hospital minus his asthma and his 70 Woodbines-a-day smoking habit. He had also discovered a new passion: the 16th century French essayist Montaigne.
In the summer of 1983 Gerald Kaufman called it «the longest suicide note in history». In the autumn of 2008, it was the new orthodoxy.
After the fall of Lehman Brothers rocked the global financial system, Gordon Brown found that some of the ideas on which Michael Foot had fought the doomed 1983 campaign were not so daft after all. Big expansionary programme to lift Britain out of recession? Check. Programme to be paid for by increase in borrowing? Check. The state to exercise greater control over the City? Check.
Where Foot threatened to take the banks into public ownership if they refused to co-operate with the setting up of a national investment bank, Brown has actually nationalised one bank, Northern Rock, and taken hefty stakes in RBS and Lloyds. Larry Elliott
Like Neil Kinnock toppling into the Brighton waves or William Hague’s baseball cap, it was a an image that haunted Foot’s career: his choice, on a cold day at the Cenotaph in November 1981, to wear a light, short jacket with shoulder patches amid a sea of sober black coats.
Was it a donkey jacket making him look like «an unemployed navvy», as one of his own MPs said, or a sensible choice, as the Queen Mother apparently considered it?
The design historian Stephen Bayley remembers the occasion so vividly he is contemplating an essay on political overcoats.
«I believe he was attempting mistakenly to send a message of classlessness – but in a sort of de haut en bas spirit born of his privileged background,» Bayley said. «A man from the working class background he was trying to espouse would … have worn a smart suit.» Maev Kennedy