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Michael Foot

From Academic Kids

Michael Foot
Michael Foot

The Right Honourable Michael Mackintosh Foot (born 23 July 1913), British politician, was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983. He is the younger brother of the late lawyer Sir Dingle Foot, the Liberal politician Lord Foot and of the late Lord Caradon, a former Governor of Cyprus, whose late son was the campaigning journalist, Paul Foot.


Contents

Early life

Michael Foot was born in Plymouth, Devon, and educated at Wadham College, Oxford. His father, Isaac Foot, was a solicitor and founder of the Plymouth law firm, Foot and Bowden. Isaac Foot was an active member of the Liberal Party and was Liberal MP for Bodmin in Cornwall 1922-1924 and 1929-1935 and a Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

A Liberal at university, Foot joined the Labour Party soon after graduating in 1934. He first stood for parliament at the age of 22 in the 1935 election when he contested Monmouth. He became a journalist, working briefly on the New Statesman before joining the left-wing weekly Tribune when it was set up in early 1937 to support the Unity Campaign, an attempt to secure an anti-fascist United Front between Labour and the parties to its left. The campaign's members were Sir Stafford Cripps's (Labour-affiliated) Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Foot resigned in 1938 after the paper's first editor, William Mellor, was fired for refusing to adopt a new CP policy of backing a Popular Front, including non-socialist parties, against fascism and appeasement.

Star polemicist

On the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan, Foot was soon hired by Lord Beaverbrook to work as a writer on his Evening Standard. (Bevan is supposed to have told Beaverbrook on the phone: "I've got a young bloody knight-errant here. They sacked his boss, so he resigned. Have a look at him.") In 1940, under the pen-name "Cato" he and two other Beaverbrook journalists (Frank Owen, editor of the Standard, and Peter Howard of the Daily Express) published Guilty Men, a Left Book Club book attacking the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government that became a run-away best-seller.

Beaverbrook made Foot editor of the Evening Standard in 1942 at the age of 28. Foot left in 1945 to join the Daily Herald, then jointly owned by the TUC and Odhams Press and effectively an official Labour Party paper, as a columnist, and to fight Plymouth Devonport in the 1945 general election. He won the seat for Labour for the first time, holding it until his surprise defeat by Dame Joan Vickers in 1955. He rejoined Tribune as editor from 1948 to 1952, and was again the paper's editor from 1955 to 1960. Until 1957, he was the most prominent ally of Aneurin Bevan, who had taken Cripps's place as leader of the Labour left, though Foot and Bevan fell out after Bevan renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference.

Before the cold war began in the 1940s, Foot favoured a 'third way' foreign policy for Europe (he was joint author with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo of the pamphlet Keep Left in 1947), but in the wake of the communist seizure of power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia he and Tribune took a strongly anti-communist position, eventually embracing NATO.

Foot was however a critic of the west's handling of the Korean war, an opponent of West German rearmament in the early 1950s and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Under his editorship, Tribune opposed both the British government's Suez adventure and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Foot returned to parliament in 1960 at a by-election for Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, left vacant by Bevan's death.

Leader of the left

Harold Wilson – the subject of an enthusiastic campaign biography by Foot published by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press in 1964 – offered Foot a place in his first government, but Foot turned it down. Instead he became the leader of Labour's left opposition from the back benches, dazzling the Commons with his command of rhetoric. He opposed the government's moves to restrict immigration, join the Common Market and reform the trade unions, was against the Vietnam war and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, and denounced the Soviet suppression of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also famously allied with the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to scupper the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and create a House of Lords comprising only life peers – a "seraglio of eunuchs" as Foot put it.

In government

After 1970 Labour moved to the left and Wilson came to an accommodation with Foot. When Labour returned to office in 1974 under Wilson, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment, in which role he played the major part in the government's efforts to keep the trade unions on side. Foot was one of the mainstays of the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the EEC. When Wilson retired in 1976, Foot contested the party leadership but was defeated by James Callaghan. Later that year he was elected deputy leader and served as Leader of the House of Commons, which gave him the unenviable task of trying to maintain the survivial of the Callaghan government as its majority evaporated.

Labour leader

Following Labour's 1979 general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, beating the right's candidate Denis Healey in the second round of the leadership election (the last leadership contest to involve only Labour MPs). Foot presented himself as a compromise candidate capable, unlike Healey, of uniting the party, which at the time was riven by the grassroots left-wing insurgency centred on Tony Benn. The Bennites demanded revenge for the betrayals, as they saw them, of the Callaghan administration, and pushed the case for replacement of MPs who had acquiesced in them by left-wingers who would support the causes of unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and widespread nationalisation. (Benn did not stand for the leadership: apart from Foot and Healey, the other candidates – both eliminated in the first round – were John Silkin, like Foot a Tribunite, and Peter Shore, an anti-European right-winger.)

When he became leader, Foot was already 66 and frail – and almost immediately after his election as leader was faced with a massive crisis: the creation in early 1981 of a breakaway party by four senior Labour right-wingers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers (the so-called "Gang of Four"), the Social Democratic Party. The SDP won the support of large sections of the media, and for more than a year its opinion poll ratings suggested that it could at least overtake Labour and possibly win a general election.

With the Labour left still in insurgent mood – in 1981 Benn decided to challenge Healey for the deputy leadership of the party, a contest Healey won by the narrowest of margins – Foot struggled to make an impact and was widely criticised for it, though his performances in the Commons, most notably on the Falklands crisis of 1982, won him widespread respect from other parliamentarians. The right-wing newspapers nevertheless lambasted him consistently for his bohemian eccentricity, attacking him for wearing what they described as a "donkey jacket" at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day. Foot said later that it was "a perfectly good jacket", a dark green coat, which he wore over his black suit (bought from Herbie Frogg in Jermyn Street), to keep himself warm on a cold November morning – and that the Queen Mother had praised him for his choice of garment.

Through late 1982 and early 1983, there was constant speculation that Labour MPs would replace Foot with Healey as leader – speculation that increased after Labour lost the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, in which the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was its candidate – but Labour won a subsequent by-election in Darlington and Foot remained leader for the 1983 general election.

The 1983 Labour manifesto, strongly socialist in tone, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, high taxation, and a huge expansion of public ownership of industry. The manifesto also pledged that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords and leave the EEC. Among the Labour MPs newly-elected in 1983 in support of this manifesto was Tony Blair. Foot's Labour Party lost to the Conservatives in a landslide. Foot resigned and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock as leader. Gerald Kaufman, once Harold Wilson's press officer and during the 1980s a key player on the Labour right, described the 1983 Labour manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history".

After 1983

Foot took a back seat in Labour politics after 1983 and retired from the House of Commons in 1992 but remained politically active. He defended Salman Rushdie, the novelist who was subject to a fatwah by Ayatollah Khomeini, and took a strongly pro-interventionist position against Slobodan Milošević over Croatia and Bosnia.

In 1995, an article in the Sunday Times, under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", alleged that the Soviet intelligence services regarded Foot as an 'agent of influence'. Foot denied he had been any such thing, successfully sued the Sunday Times and handed over a large part of his damages to Tribune.

Foot has remained a high-profile member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to this day. He is the author of several books, including highly regarded biographies of Aneurin Bevan and H. G. Wells. Many of his friends have said publically that they regret that he ever gave up literature for politics.

Though Foot is considered by many a failure as Labour leader, his biographer Mervyn Jones makes the case that no one else could have held Labour together at the time. Foot is remembered with affection in Westminster as a great parliamentarian.

In 2003 Foot turned 90. He remains a director of Plymouth Argyle F.C., the football club he has supported since childhood. For his 90th birthday present, the club registered him as a player and gave him the shirt number, 90.

Foot was married to the film-maker, author and feminist historianJill Craigie from 1949 until her death in 1999.

Bibliography

  • "Cato". Guilty Men. Left Book Club. 1940.
  • Foot, Michael. The Pen and the Sword. MacGibbon and Kee. 1957. ISBN 0261619896
  • Foot, Michael. Aneurin Bevan. MacGibbon and Kee. 1962 (vol 1); 1973 (vol 2) ISBN 0261615084
  • Foot, Michael. Debts of Honour. Harper and Row. 1981. ISBN 0060390018
  • Foot, Michael. Another Heart and Other Pulses. Collins. 1984.
  • Foot, Michael. Loyalists and Loners. Collins. 1986.
  • Foot, Michael. Politics of Paradise. HarperCollins. 1989. ISBN 0060390913
  • Foot, Michael, 'Introduction' in Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Penguin (Penguin Classics), 1967 & 1985.

Biographies


Preceded by:
William Whitelaw
Secretary of State for Employment
1974–1976
Succeeded by:
Albert Booth

Template:Succession box one to two

Preceded by:
James Callaghan
Leader of the British Labour Party
1980–1983
Succeeded by:
Neil Kinnock

Template:End box

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