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“Michael Foot: A Life (2007)” by Kenneth Morgan

Michael Foot will always be unfairly associated, for people of a certain age, with two things; the donkey jacket and Labour’s Manifesto for the 1983 Election, “A New Hope For Britain” which earned the memorable sobriquet, “The Longest Suicide Note in History” from Gerald Kaufman.

Both of these memories are grossly unfair to a man of considerable intellect (could you imagine Nick Clegg lecturing on Jonathon Swift?), oratical flair, journalistic integrity but above everything an almost all consuming passion for the Labour Party and Socialism. 

Accidents of circumstance thrust Foot into the unwanted limelight of the Labour leadership. An impressive and effective Deputy Prime Minister to Jim Callaghan where he was able to deploy his skills as a fixer and emolliater of the big egos of the Callaghan Government was, however totally unsuited to the rough and tumble of a burgeoning TV media to whom Foot’s donnish ways were misinterpreted as incompetence and being out of touch with the man on the street, something immediately seized upon by the Tory PR machine and the Murdoch Media who went into poisonous overdrive. 

Nevertheless nothing can cover over the disaster of the 1983 Election where we totally misjudged the mood and needs of the nation. However for me the Manifesto was, with two notable exceptions, Europe and disarmament, totally the right document, just at the wrong time. 

http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab83.htm#Personal_social makes for an interesting read. It talks about class sizes of 30 at Primary level plus the introduction of an Education Maintenance Allowance! 

Lets just nail one thing about events at the Cenotaph that cold morning in 1982. There was much more focus on the event that year due to the Falklands War earlier that year, and the ceremony was carried live on TV for the first time. 

Foot arrived at the Admiralty Building in Whitehall to be greeted by the Queen Mother, with whom he had an unexpected rapport; “Hello Michael. What a good, sensible coat for a day like this!” And most importantly it wasn’t a Donkey Jacket as can be seen in the picture above. Foot was knocking on 70 at the time, a fact that should be borne in mind. 

Morgan’s biography is a good read and deal adequately with most of the main events in Foot’s life, but has virtually no interview content with his contemporaries either from at the time or currently. Tony Benn, Foot’s main ally cum protagonist on the left is barely quoted, nor Barbara Castle or her protégé Jack Straw. This means we have to rely heavily on Morgan’s own interpretations of Foot’s actions and attitudes. I would have loved to see the opinions of say Peter Thatchell and the Militant Five included to give us some different perspectives. 

Foot’s extra Parliamentary career is covered in some depth but fails to add any detail to his controversial speech when in 1942, as Editor of the Standard Michael publicly defended the Daily Mirror’s right to criticise the Government’s prosecution of the War and un particular the vexed issue of the Second Front. This caused Foot to be subject to much opprobrium, especially from the proprietor of the Standard, none other than Max Beaverbrook, Minister for Aircraft Production.  

Michael Foot’s time in Government was a triumph of principles being put into practice despite a hostile media, a waver thin to non existent Parliamentary majority, and open hostility in Cabinet from on the one flank Tony Benn and then to the right Foot had to deal with the super ego of Michael Owen and the anti Union sentiments of Denis Healy. 

First of all Foot negotiated an end to the 1974 Miners Strike and then piloted through a Bill to curb the Unions whilst still keeping the Labour Movement as a whole together, something that Castle notably failed to do with “In Place of Strife”. Then as Callaghan’s Deputy Foot got devolution through Parliament only to see it rejected by the voters. 

But not Even Foot’s legendary powers of persuasion could prevent Healy and Callaghan’s suicidal confrontation with the Unions in the Winter Of Discontent. With inflation running at 20% Foot got the Public Sector to agree a virtual pay freeze at the top end to allow the lowest paid a 10% rise which effectively saw a cut but with some element of protection. Then Sunny Jim unilaterally decided to tell the BBC that there would be a 5% cap for the Public Sector, having just allowed nationalised British Leyland to grant a 17% settlement. Cue industrial mayhem and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Morgan documents well the slide into anarchy in the Labour Party as well as recognising that Foot, despite his left wing credentials, had privately come to the belated conclusion that it wasn’t always possible for the Left to play nicely together and something would have to be done to drag the Labour Party back to the centre ground of British politics. 

Foot, in common with Jimmy Carter and latterly Barack Obama failed to grasp that not everyone in politics was a principled as him, and that naivety about the motives of others was perhaps why Michael Foot never achieved his true potential as a great Labour Leader. Ed Miliband please take note.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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