Michael Foot died yesterday, aged 96. He was the leader of the British Labour Party 1980-1983, held cabinet positions under Heath and Callaghan and was also a distinguished journalist and author.
He was born on 23 July 1913 and was first elected to the House of Commons in 1945. He lost his seat ten years later, but returned to Parliament in 1960. In 1976 he stood for the party leadership but lost to James Callaghan. Four years later he was more successful and defeated Denis Healey with a narrow margin.
Already 67, half-blind and walking with a gait after a near-fatal car accident in 1963, the erudite Michael Foot seemed an unlikely party leader for the time. It did not help that he came to lead the party at a time when it was nearly torn apart by internal struggles and the outcome of the general election called by Margaret Thatcher in the wake of the Falklands War and its accompanying wave of jingoism was almost given in advance.
In those circumstances it did perhaps seem a good idea for Labour to present a radical manifesto, clearly marking its distance to the Tories, but the manifesto is best remembered as “the longest suicide note in history”. Labour won only 28 % of the votes in the 1983 election, its worst showing in more than fifty years, and Michael Foot resigned as leader of the party.
He left Parliament at the 1992 election and, staunchly opposed to the House of Lords in the form it then had, he refused all offers of knighthoods and peerages.
Michael Foot was a great parliamentarian, but a failure as a party leader. Yet he enjoyed great personal popularity and became, in the words of The Times’ obituary, “the best-loved socialist of his time”. One of the greatest orators of modern politics, he was also one of the most principled of British politicians. He belonged to the Labour party’s left wing, was a champion of freedom and a great supporter of nuclear disarmament, a firm opponent of fascism and appeasement.
A lover of literature, particularly Byron, Swift, Disraeli and Hazlitt, he was himself the author of twenty books, including biographies of Jonathan Swift, Aneurin Bevan and H. G. Wells. Michael Foot was twice editor of Tribune and also acting editor of London’s Evening Standard during the Second World War. He was, in the words of Michael White in the Guardian today, “the most improbable literary romantic to lead a major British party since Benjamin Disraeli”.
The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/03/michael-foot-obituary
The Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article7048130.ece
The Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/politics-obituaries/7359721/Michael-Foot.html
The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/michael-foot-writer-and-politician-who-rose-to-become-leader-of-the-labour-party-1915727.html