Thursday, March 04, 2010

Michael Foot - 1913-2010

Michael Foot was perhaps the last of the great radical, idealists in a tradition dating back to the formation of the Labour Party. His was a magnificent oratorical style, suited to the campaigning format of an earlier age, where public meetings were the main format of communication with the electorate. The modern media machine has encouraged the destruction of this content-heavy, sometimes ponderous style in favour of communications-lite demand for the soundbite. If you get the chance, listen to Foot's Commons good-humoured, but devastating, assault on Keith Joseph and Conservative economic policy in 1980, which has all the timing and delivery of a top-line comic and clearly had the audience held rapt for the duration, as Joseph was compared to a magician who had forgotten how to complete a difficult trick and was left with the shattered watch of an important member of the audience. That wouldn't have a chance of being featured in a news programme today, if Cameron or Brown were to use it. But times were different then. Back in the 1930s, when Foot first stood for parliament, he did so by the simple expedient of walking into Labour's headquarters, asking where they were short of candidates and then being selected to fight the safe Conservative seat of Monmouth the next day - a process that makes the current short-form selection look ponderous. Back in the 1950s, social networking was carried out through the medium of a loudspeaker and a soapbox and Foot was a master of it.

This is the man who gave us the memorable description of Norman Tebbit as a

semi-housetrained polecat
or nailed Margaret Thatcher

she has no imagination and that means no compassion.

Many workers today owe him a debt, for it was Foot who navigated the Health and Safety at Work Act through Parliament, which created a modern structure for protecting the workforce. Perhaps it was fitting that it fell to him to up date legislation first started in the Victorian age and it can be said that this Act has genuinely saved lives and prevented injury.

Leadership came to him late in life and he was not suited to it, but he probably provided his greatest service to his beloved Labour Party - taking the weight of the 1983 defeat and handing the reins over to the new generation who were ready to take the party through a decade of hard graft and pain to make it electable.
He was, by every account, a man with an enormous hinterland. Politics was key to his life, but was not his only interest. You suspect that some of his greatest pleasure came from watching and hoping against all hope - and the evidence of previous performances - that Plymouth Argyle would make their way to the top to British football. As the former vice-chairman of the club wrote in the Guardian today
Michael supported Plymouth Argyle for about 90 years, through thin and thin. He was completely mad about them. I ran into him when he had just stood down as Labour leader, around 1984. I was milling around outside the ground and Michael came stomping over and said: "You're Argyle fans – where do we stand?" We stood on the terraces together and as we left he said, "well, you must ring", as he didn't have any chums to go to Argyle with. So I rang. From then we went to loads of games.When he was 90, in 2003, I thought, what can you give a man like Michael Foot? We registered him as a player with the Football League, the oldest ever. We gave him a squad number, 90, so he appeared in the programmes for the whole season. In a speech I announced he was being hired as a left-winger, with strict instructions from the manager never to stray anywhere near the centre and certainly nowhere near the right.
And from Neil Kinnock, his successor as leader and a man with a talent for oratory himself
(Michael) was a resolute humanist with profound faith in the ability of "free men and women using free institutions" to secure irreversible advances in standards of living and liberty for every country and community. He was a friend to all who strove against want and injustice, an inveterate enemy of exploitation and greed. He was ferocious and funny, principled but never precious, courteous but never deferential, provocative but never vindictive, creative but never abstract. "Describe the challenges by all means," he said, "but don't confuse analysis with action. The one must lead to the other if it is to be useful to people."

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