A Political Polymath: there are not many deserving of such a phrase but Michael Foot was undoubtedly one of them and it is how Kenneth Morgan aptly describes him. Since his death there have been many appreciations of Michael Foot but we have the good fortune to have one specially written for Faber Finds by Kenneth Morgan. As Michael Foot’s biographer, Kenneth Morgan could not be better qualified, and in his piece he concentrates on Michael Foot the writer, appropriately so as Faber Finds is in the midst of reissuing his major books.
Michael Foot (1913 – 2010) was a political polymath. In a long and colourful life, he played many parts. He was one of the icons of British democratic socialism who had an astonishing range of friendships, press lords like Beaverbrook, politicians from Nye Bevan to Enoch Powell, writers from Wells to Orwell and Koestler, performers from Peggy Ashcroft to Spike Milligan. He was a great communicator, a crusading editor of Tribune and the greatest political pamphleteer since the days of John Wilkes. He was a wonderful parliamentarian, who cherished and thrilled the House of Commons. More characteristically, he was an extraordinary mass orator, at his best in rousing marchers and demonstrators, notably the members of CND. He was also a central figure in the post-war history of the Labour Party, with his links with the unions largely responsible for keeping the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the seventies in office. He also proved a surprisingly effective government minister who got through six contentious acts of parliament on issues of industrial relations despite a virtually hung parliament. Less happily, he also became party leader in 1980. He was a veteran who inspired respect and affection but was mercifully pilloried in the media for his lack of concern with spin and soundbites, and who led his party to its heaviest defeat. He continued to be active in his eighties and nineties, notably in a passionate crusade to defend Croatia against Serb aggression. When he died, there was a strong sense that we might never see his like again.
Most characteristically, he was a political man of letters, whose love of language and literature and engagement with history gave depth to his politics. He was a captivating writer, and it is good that Faber are now re-publishing his most important works. They have already reissued The Pen and the Sword, a trenchant analysis of the role of Dean Swift in the downfall of Marlborough during Queen Anne’s reign, and his remarkable two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan, a socialist classic. Now three more are being published again. Guilty Men, written with Frank Owen and Peter Howard under the joint soubriquet ‘Cato’, is perhaps the most famous political polemic of the twentieth century. It is a series of vignettes which condemned for all time Neville Chamberlain and those Cabinet colleagues who indulged in the appeasement of Hitler prior to the second world war. It appeared in July 1940, shortly after Churchill had replaced Chamberlain in 10 Downing Street, and went through several reprints almost immediately. Despite marketing problems, it sold 220,000 copies. It was a devastating critique of the Chamberlain government and established permanently all the popular judgements and legends of that dark period. Stereotypes about Munich-style appeasement have governed politicians’ attitudes ever since – even, ironically, in the case of Bush and Blair at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which Foot passionately opposed). It is highly partisan and historically debatable. But its instincts were right and the British public recognised the fact. More than any other work it embodies the social patriotism of the left in modern Britain.
Debts of Honour is a much later, retrospective volume of essays, published in 1980. Each is sparkling and highly original. It is a catalogue of radical heroes and inspirations of various kinds. It includes many of Foot’s familiar roll-call of literary giants, Swift, Defoe, Paine, Hazlitt and Silone, radical associates like Bertrand Russell, Noel Brailsford and the cartoonist ‘Vicky’, some unexpected mavericks like Beaverbrook and Disraeli, ‘the good Tory’, and a deeply affectionate portrait of his Methodist bibliophile father, Isaac Foot, a Liberal MP. It is miscellaneous, eccentric and enchanting. It is also distinctly lively – the essay on Defoe focuses on that most liberated of feminists, Moll Flanders. It affords a unique insight into Michael’s cultural universe, with incidental comments on other literary inspirations such as Michel de Montaigne, Edmund Burke and H.G. Wells. The volume was put together as a literary exercise shortly after Foot ceased to be a Cabinet minister with Labour’s defeat in the 1979 general election. But its appearance just before he was elected party leader in November 1980 gave it a more contemporary resonance. One youthful admirer of it was an unknown trainee barrister, Tony Blair, who drew inspiration from Foot’s brilliant delineation of an alternative non-Marxist radical-socialist tradition. In Debts of Honour the young Blair found ‘a treasure trove of ideas that I never imagined existed’, and wrote to Foot to tell him of his excitement at this discovery. In this respect, if absolutely in no other, Foot played his part in the conception of New Labour.
Loyalists and Loners appeared in 1986 in very different circumstances, after Foot had led his party to shattering defeat in 1983 and had resigned as its leader. It is equally sparkling in style though more sombre in tone. It consists of thirty sketches of individuals. There are more members of Foot’s roll-call of literary heroes – Orwell, Koestler, Heine, Stendhal, Herzen; a miscellany of political and other personalities – Enoch Powell, James Cameron, Lady Astor, the Chartist William Lovett and the socialist cartoonist Will Dyson; four prime ministers – two heroes, Lloyd George and Churchill, two recidivists, MacDonald and Baldwin; and even one dog, Michael and Jill’s Vanessa, named after Swift’s close friend, Esther van Homrigh. What aroused most attention, however, were some of the essays in the first section which drew heavily on Foot’s period as a front-line Labour politician and minister between the sixties and the eighties. In addition to affectionate studies of Jennie Lee and Barbara Castle, there are ferocious assaults on ‘Brother George’ (Thomas), a Labour Speaker who had sold his soul to the establishment, and ‘Brother David’ (Owen), SDP defector extraordinary. There is also a devastating expose of ‘Brother Tony’ (Benn), a destructive critic of the Labour leadership for years past, now convicted of disloyalty, hypocrisy and unctuous pride. Even more savage is an onslaught on Bevan’s revisionist nemesis, Hugh Gaitskell.
All three of Foot’s books demonstrate his extraordinary gift for language and for communication, his humanity, his commitment to radical libertarianism and socialist values, his love of country. They are testament to an eloquent and courageous political litterateur of a kind more familiar in the Edwardian age than in recent British history, a unique figure in our public life. Michael Foot wrote and made history, and it is excellent that these powerful works of his should now be made available for new readers to learn from and enjoy. All of them embody Michael’s core belief, almost incomprehensible to most of our current politicians, in the centrality of books for the civilized life. He wrote that ‘Men of power have no time to read; yet the men who do not read are unfit for power’. It is part of his legacy that this truth goes marching on.
Professor Kenneth O. Morgan FBA is an Oxford historian and Labour peer. His 32 books include Michael Foot: a Life, published in paper back by Harper Perennial in 2008.