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John Rentoul: Michael Foot - A Life

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Wednesday, 3 March 2010 at 03:45 pm

Actually, the article I was looking for when I stumbled upon the subject of the previous post, was this review of Kenneth O Morgan's Michael Foot: A Life. It provides my assessment of Foot as "the one who saved the Labour Party, not the one who nearly killed it":

Michael Foot has become a symbol of everything that was wrong with Old Labour. He was an old man when he came to the leadership of the party at the age of 67, steeped in Cromwell, Hazlitt and Bevan, and he was in charge when it went down to its worst defeat in 1983. How much of that was his fault, and how much the product of forces no leader could have tamed?

Kenneth Morgan does well to remind us that the idea of Foot as possible prime minister was not as outlandish at the time as it quickly came to seem. Denis Healey, his rival for the leadership, was a thuggish figure, far from the cuddly grandpa he became. Foot had been a loyal and constructive, if entirely backward-looking, member of James Callaghan's Cabinet. In addition, for the five months between his election as leader and the SDP breakaway, Labour was ahead of the Conservatives. There was nothing he could have done to avert Labour's split, and Morgan is probably right to conclude that - although the soft-left fight-back started under Foot and was encouraged by him - it was only the crushing defeat of 1983 that could have begun to bring the party to its senses.

Foot's claim on political history is therefore a negative one. As a transitional leader unexpectedly taking over a party in the throes of a compulsive-obsessive, self-destructive spasm, he managed to nurse it well enough to ensure that it, rather than the SDP, became the vehicle for the eventual anti-Conservative revival.

The Falklands War was the moment that turned Margaret Thatcher's economic recovery into a story of national greatness regained - imagine what would have happened if Labour had given free rein to its anti-war instincts and wholeheartedly opposed that military action. As it was, Foot's windy rhetoric about the United Nations and peace plans gravely dissipated the astonishing moral power of his thunderous demand in the House of Commons on the Saturday after the Argentine invasion that a British task force be sent to recover the islands. But if it had not been for that immediate and visceral response, and for his wise decision to support Thatcher over the Belgrano, the Labour Party would have gone to the bottom of the South Atlantic with the Argentine cruiser. Healey, for all his doubts about one-sided nuclear disarmament, was more critical of the Falklands venture throughout. Morgan reveals that Foot forced him to shut up about the Belgrano.

A great strength of this biography - and part of its relevance to today's foreign policy debates - is its exploration of the apparent tension between Foot the peace campaigner and Foot the righteous warrior. The Quakerish semi-pacifist of the 1930s became the co-author of Guilty Men, the acid polemic of 1940 against the appeasers. Then the founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament became the hammer of tyrants in the Falklands and Kosovo. He ended up as an opponent of the Iraq invasion - although that was such a flawed enterprise that both hawks and doves could oppose it without being accused of inconsistency. All the same, it was sad to see Foot sink so low as to accuse Tony Blair, his protégé from the time of the 1982 Beaconsfield by-election, of "lies".

Morgan admits in his preface to his doubts about whether he was the right person to write Foot's authorised biography. Indeed, he fails Foot's own test - "unbiased historians are as insufferable as the people who profess no politics" - set in the preface of his own first book, Armistice. Morgan is too balanced, his style too plain (although he does write that "the Cenotaph donkey jacket proved to be a more troublesome garment than the Mantle of Nye ever was") to do full justice to Foot's bookish English patriotism - or to his sense of mischief. But he does do Foot the service of recording for posterity that he was the one who saved the Labour Party, not the one who nearly killed it.

Photograph of Michael Foot in April 1972: Leonard Burt/Getty Images