The Self-Made Exile

by Andrew Adonis

April 26, 2007

Most politicians vanish from memory as rapidly as the controversies
they spin. It is ideas, institutions and rare inspirational individuals
that linger, and even the last of these often survive with little
reference to their political careers. Who thinks of Tocqueville as
Louis-Napoleon’s foreign minister, or even Madison as a two-term

I therefore expected this biography of Michael Foot to be of interest
mainly to students and political survivors of the dismal 1970s
and early 1980s-the only periods of his long career in which the
93-year-old former Labour leader has exerted much direct influence
on events.

Yet within pages, I was engrossed. Kenneth Morgan’s superb portrait
quickly takes shape, and the only dullish part is the chapter on
Foot as employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s 1974 government,
where the detail of successive trade union and labour relations acts
is as tedious to recall as it was unfortunate to the body politic
at the time. (Not that Morgan shares this judgement: he thinks the
legislation was not at fault but rather the actions of the unions
under it, which Foot could not have been expected to foresee.)

Foot was the master of opposition, not office. Had he held office
for more than his five allotted years in the 1970s, the cost would
have been lethal to a life of such vivid contrariness. His greatest
contributions to the 1960s Wilson governments, for example, were his
brilliant philippics against Richard Crossman’s plan for a nominated
House of Lords. "Think of it," began one celebrated tirade alongside
Enoch Powell. "A second chamber selected by the whips! A seraglio of
eunuchs!" Come a political crisis, "we would hear a falsetto chorus
from the political castrati. They would be the final arbiters of
our destiny."

Foot was the great rhetorician of his age, "a fusion," in Morgan’s
description, "of the Cornish chapels, the Oxford Union and the
soapboxes of the Socialist League" of his youth. Rhetorical brilliance
did not desert him as a minister or as party leader. Few of those
who heard it (I did so around an old wireless at a friend’s house)
will forget Foot’s call to arms in the emergency Saturday Commons
debate the day after the invasion of the Falkland islands.

Rising immediately after a hesitant Margaret Thatcher, he captured the
house and the nation: "The Falkland Islanders have been betrayed… The
government must now prove by deeds-they will never be able to do it
by words-that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be
faced with that charge. Even though the position and circumstances
of the people who live in the Falkland islands are uppermost in our
minds… there is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and
brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there
will be a danger not merely to the Falkland islands but to people
all over this dangerous planet."

Foot’s "instinctive minority-mindedness, locked into a kind of
permanent self-made exile"-as Morgan puts it-was not absolute. There is
a splendid example of his dogged loyalty, standing by the beleaguered
Callaghan as the "winter of discontent" dismembered the 1974 Labour
government, deploying his parliamentary gifts to keep a majority
intact week by week in the incongruous post of lord president of the
council. His lifelong loyalty to his friends-and what an odd gallery,
including Max Beaverbrook, Indira Gandhi and Enoch Powell-is equally
magnificent in its way. Yet it was as the scourge of authority that
Foot became a supreme political artist. And the achievement was,
I now realise, anything but negative. Such masterly parliamentary
oppositionitis helped sustain the institution of parliament with
greater credibility and legitimacy than most representative assemblies
have ever achieved. There was no inevitability in the survival of
parliamentary authority in the turbulent postwar decades, particularly
the 1970s. Foot helped that highly conservative and unapproachable
institution-which didn’t even permit radio broadcasts until 1978-to
remain credible as a grand forum of the nation.

Morgan establishes an equally bold claim for Foot the propagandist.

>>From Guilty Men, Foot’s 1940 denunciation of the appeasers
"responsible" for war, to his campaign against the evisceration of
his beloved Dubrovnik more than five decades later, barely a week
passed without a shocking broadside or opinionated review. Even as a
minister he was a regular Observer reviewer. Near the end of Morgan’s
book comes a pathos-laden image of Foot and his wife Jill Craigie,
fronting and producing a shoestring film on Milosevic’s assault on
Dubrovnik. The 80-year-old Foot, handicapped, barely mobile, blind in
one eye after an attack of shingles, rails in the bitter December cold
against the great dictator and his unforgivable crime on a defenceless
people. It is up there with Gladstone’s final denunciation of Armenian
atrocities and Chatham’s dying pleas on America.

Foot’s inspirations were Swift, Hazlitt, the Romantic radicals and a
medley of humanist and revolutionary propagandists from the Levellers
to the Chartists-alongside Nye Bevan, the contemporary hero-saint.

Morgan’s achievement is to weave these fibres throughout the
biographical tapestry, beginning with the formidable Isaac Foot of
Pencrebar, a "west country Hatfield," inculcating his five remarkable
sons in the radical classics under the watchful eyes of more than 20
busts of Cromwell.

When the young Michael defects from Liberal to Labour in 1934,
after a gap year amid the Liverpool slums, Isaac’s reaction is that
"he ought to absorb the thoughts of a real radical" and "an even more
intense perusal was needed of the thoughts of William Hazlitt." The
perusal of Hazlitt et al never ceased thereafter, and the fruits
were as erudite as they were audaciously partisan. Twentieth-century
labourism may owe more to Methodism than to Marxism, but the substance
of Foot’s 20 books and thousands of articles-including those telling
late lectures on "Byron and the Bomb" and "Swift and Europe"-testify
to a wider heritage. Who but Foot could evoke the 1945 election as
a British 1789, with Bevan as Danton, and be even half persuasive?

This is much more than another Labour biography. It is a portrait in
bright oils of a master parliamentary literary-political agitator,
in a society and culture congenitally hard to rouse. As the picture
builds, I found myself surprisingly unconcerned about the merits of
Foot’s causes: as Morgan concludes, he "commands attention, even
fascination, not so much for what he did as for what he was." Or
rather is, for, like Mr Gladstone, his righteous anger never retired.

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