Thoughts on Foot
Like many Labour people, I feel very conflicted about Michael Foot.
My first encounter with him was literary not political. I read his introduction to Gulliver's Travels (aged 8 - I was a bit of a bookworm) and have never forgotten his detailed explanation of why Swift's description of a land where the political parties were based on whether to eat an egg starting from the big end or little end was a satire on the Whigs and Tories. I also found a copy as a kid (in a jumble sale, which there were a lot of in the early '80s) of Guilty Men, and learnt somehow that Cato was a pseudonym for Foot, and that the left had played an honourable role in opposing mainstream Tory appeasement of Hitler.
Then Foot became Labour Leader. My mum and dad were fans but not members of CND and held Tony Benn and Michael Foot in equally high esteem - which was odd given that Benn was doing everything he could to undermine Foot's leadership. I remember the anger I felt as an 11-year-old from a die-hard Labour family about the attacks on him in the Tory press in the run up to the 1983 General Election. I remember the sheer embarrassment and humiliation as a Labour family who were also members of the British Legion of the cenotaph duffel coat incident (which didn't stop me as an 11 year old ultra-leftie thinking it was great to own a duffel coat as Foot had one). I remember the ridicule we were subjected to by our Tory friends and neighbours for backing Foot and having a red poster in our window when the rest of our south-eastern housing association estate were virulently pro-Maggie and most houses in the street sported blue posters (ironically posters for ultra-Wet MP David Crouch, who came and knocked on the door of our forlorn Labour bastion to praise us for continuing to fly the flag). I remember the morning after polling day our primary school teacher asking whose parents had voted Labour, and in our grotesquely swollen by Tory underfunding class of 34 kids, only 2 of us had mums and dads who had voted Labour.
At the time I thought everyone else was wrong, and we, the gallant 27% of Labour/Foot voters, were right.
Later I began to read about and understand a bit more about the policies we had fought 1983 on and how they compared to the policies Wilson and Callaghan had won elections with. I began to understand what had caused the creation of the SDP (reviled in my household as traitors) and to understand how near Labour had come to coming third in that election. That's about the time I got interested in what Neil Kinnock was doing to save Labour, and signed up to try to do my teenage bit.
I came to see Michael Foot as having represented everything that needed to be rejected in Old Labour: vote-losing policies, rubbish campaigning, old-fashioned imagery, years wasted campaigning for stuff like CND that our working class core vote despised and which drove them into the arms of Thatcher.
At university, I invited Foot to speak at a Bristol University Labour Club meeting. Already nearly 80, he packed a big meeting room and captivated his student audience with an 80 minute peroration that meant many of us missed the start of afternoon lectures. 70 minutes of it was a staggeringly detailed history lecture about, I think, Lord Liverpool's authoritarian Tory administration of 1812-1827. The final ten minutes were when he carefully explained that this was an extended analogy for the Thatcher years and that just as three years after Liverpool the Great Reform Act and 40 years of Whig ascendancy had started, so we were on the brink of a Tory implosion and a Labour landslide. He was only a few years out in his prediction. I feel honoured to have heard him speak - without notes and with flights of rhetoric that hardly anyone in politics has ever matched.
Now as I read more Labour history I begin to understand the differences between the gentler, older Bevanite left tradition espoused by Foot, and the nastier version that the Bennites pushed. I now know he took the first steps towards the expulsion of Militant. And that he desperately tried to stop the SDP split and keep the party together. And that Kinnock, my political hero, was essentially Foot's protege and creation.
I would have found Michael Foot exasperating if I had been a Labour activist in the '50s. He and Bevan played a deeply destructive role. If I had been a Labour activist in the early '80s (I guess leafleting aged 10 doesn't count) I would have been horrified that he beat Healey for Leader.
I cannot forgive his wrongness in pursuing wrong causes like CND, hostility to Lords reform and hostility to Europe. I cannot forgive him taking on a role - Leader - that he was wholly unsuited for and leading us in a political equivalent to the Charge of the Light Brigade, straight into the valley of political death towards Thatcher's massed electoral guns.
But it is impossible even for an ungracious and pugnacious Labour moderate like me not to feel great affection for a man who always did what he thought was morally right, never looked for self-advantage or promotion, and loved the Labour Party and the people it represents. He will be sorely missed.