Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot - My Debt of Honour

It is hard to know where to start in appreciating Michael Foot and all that he did to make the world a better place. I first bumped into him in Traflagar Square when a student in the early 1980s when he was Leader of the Labour Party walking towards Parliament. Walking with his stick at speed he readily allowed me to accompany him and to talk politics. My main message I recall was to thank him for all the work he had done for the Labour Party. It is hard to imagine today that a Leader of a Political Party would be walking in central London without and security.

I was brought up in the certain knowledge as to what a worker Michael was. In 1963 he was very seriously injured in a car accident at St. Owens Cross in Herefordshire. His life was threatened but he was nursed back to health in Hereford General Hospital by the NHS. The NHS founded by Nye Bevan his predecessor as MP for Ebbw Vale. Michael was on his way back to London late on a Sunday night after a weekend in his constituency. In an age before the motorways of today he was on a journey of several hours on A roads back to London for a week at Parliament. This was a regular journey for him and puts into context the moaning of pygmy Conservative representatives who complain about their need for first class travel.

When the accident happened Michael was with his wife Jill Craigie. I was fortunate to meet them and see them on a number of occasions and it was transparent to the most casual observer what a deep and enduring passion they shared together over decades. Michael Foot leaves behind an immense bibliography. He is best known fittingly for his 2 part biography of his predecessor as a MP Aneurin Bevan. If you want a short sharp read Guilty Men. Michael co-authored this evisceration of the Conservative appeasement policy in 1940, and it resonates through the years. People forget that a man who later came to be known as a strong supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was a strong advocate for violence if neccessary to defeat fascism rather than appeasement.

A lesser known book but one which has brought me great pleasure over the years is Debts of Honour which he dedicated to his wife Jill "the biggest creditor of the lot" - how many in politics owe so much to their partner. In it he pays tribute to an eclectic selection Disraeli and Beaverbrook from the right. William Hazlitt, Jonathon Swift, and Thomas Paine plus more. He writes of Daniel Defoe the feminist, Michael was a feminist when many men in the Labour Party were still chauvanists. First in the book is his father Isaac Foot part of the famous family which has provided so much patriotic public service to our country.
I saw him speak on many occasions and in terms of oratory in my time only Tony Blair in British politics has equaled his ability to educate, enthuse and excite. Michael was a great loyalist to his beloved Plymouth Argyle and the Labour Party says the BBC. Yet they overlook his role at the Tribune newspaper as was and now a magazine. A former editor and regular contributor, Michael advised, cajoled and fundraised for it over decades.
As an ordinary Labour Party member in 1983 I recall with despair the ineptitude around the Bermondsey by-election campaign and a more senior campaigner advising me that part of the problem was that Michael was too nice to sort out some of the problems. When history judges us better surely to have been considered too nice! There were too many fellow travelers in the Labour Party at this time, most notably Militant. Michael Foot it always struck me thought he could defeat them by the power of argument. Two problems - not all of us had his powers of persuasion, and Militant never played by the rules! Like many others I resolved to address this through organisation as well as debate.
Michael failed in the 1983 General Election but at the time it was hard to see who else could have held the Labour Party together through such fractious times with the SDP splitting off to the right and Trotskyites to the left.
Michael never retired and was an activist to the end. I was privileged to have his entusiastic support when I paid tribute to people from Lewisham who supported the anti-fascist forces and I have written about this elsewhere. Michael readily opened his contact book and ensured the presence of many distinguished figures. He spoke with passion and fervour, and but for his health would have fought in Spain for the Popular Front.
How wonderful that a man who suffered more than his share of ill health in his life should live to the age of 96.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear this news and I read it first on your blog, my most significant thought is that he is man who made Labour unelectable for a generation, something I know both Blair have since tried to emulate with some success in the last local elections and likely in the general