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(as it never was)

Review: Michael Foot: A Life, by Kenneth O Morgan, Harper Collins, 2007 
First published in Dublin Review of Books ( Issue no 3, Autumn 2007

Kenneth O Morgan has written extensively on twentieth century British history, mainly on Labour and on Wales. The Welsh connection is relevant because Foot, though Morgan stresses his credentials as part of a distinctly English tradition, was Aneurin Bevan's successor in the Welsh constituency of Ebbw Vale, the basis of what is now Blaenau Gwent. Morgan has already covered the period of Foot's career separately in his book The People's Peace ­ 1945-1989 (Oxford University Press, 1990).

He is a friend of Michael Foot's and Foot invited him to write the book, so this is in a sense an official biography. He gives reasons why he might have been an unsuitable choice, including some political disagreements with his subject, and adds modestly: "I have always been a historian rather than a biographer; only six of my books have been biographies."


"This book has been great fun to write," he says, and this seems to have been mainly due to the interviews with Foot himself, which are a major source. He has also extensively interviewed people who worked with Foot, notably the civil servants and political staff of his period in office in the 1970s, who all emphasise that while he was very demanding, working for him was enjoyable. There is much emphasis on his sociability, his loyalty to his friends, the hospitality of his house in Hampstead, the conversations with Eric Hobsbawm on the Number 24 bus and on the conviviality of his table in The Gay Hussar in Soho, his favourite restaurant.

Foot did not always have this reputation for being nice, nor does it quite fit with his self-image as jagged-edge rebel. He became generally known to the public through a very early television chat show -­ if that is the appropriate term ­- started in 1950 and called In The News; Foot was "much the least popular of the four regular team members with the viewers", apparently because of his dogmatic, finger-jabbing style. The BBC considered sacking him but was dissuaded when his friend AJP Taylor threatened to quit in solidarity. Foot's first major contribution to political life was as part-author of the pamphlet Guilty Men, denouncing the supporters of Chamberlain who remained in government in 1940 after Churchill had taken over as prime minister. Morgan, who speaks highly of it ("the greatest radical tract since the time of Wilkes"), describes the work as "uninhibited venom"; and there is, perhaps, something not quite nice about a man who could use the pseudonym "Saint-Just" -­ the beautiful young man who was reputedly the most bloodthirsty of the leaders of the Jacobins at the height of the Terror. It is difficult to know why, given that choice of pseudonym, Morgan should think he would mind being compared to Robespierre.

Morgan suggests that his character began to improve after a motor accident in October 1963, when he also gave up smoking ­- his long life is quite an achievement for a man who smoked up to seventy Woodbines a day. But even before then we have glimpses of a generous and chivalrous spirit. For example, during the campaign he fought in Plymouth Devonport in 1950, he and his wife had to look after the rival candidate Randolph Churchill, sober him up and see him on his train after he had been abandoned by his own party activists (the source of the story is Foot himself and we are not told how often it happened).


I have begun by evoking Foot's likeability, and the fact that Morgan obviously likes him, because the book is, on the whole, in the nicest possible way a devastating critique of his political career. Sometimes in the generally well-disposed body of the text something resembling a cloven hoof appears, as when he says of a group of old supporters of Aneurin Bevan ­- Foot, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle ­- who joined together against Britain's entry into the European Common Market ­ that they were "resolute for a better yesterday". Or later, writing of the great confrontation between Foot and Tony Benn in the 1980s: "as exponents of socialist thinking neither Foot nor Benn is significant".

But his final chapter, "Envoi: Toujours l'audace", is a more or less open assault on the inconsistency and often irrelevance of Foot's thought:

"In the later 1940s, for instance, he favoured a wages policy and a federal Europe, both of which he vehemently resisted as a minister in the 1970s ...

"Foot did not seriously engage with the major debates when the original impetus of the Attlee government's programme slackened after 1951. Bevanism was doctrinally repetitive. There is no Foot critique of [Anthony] Crosland's The Future of Socialism -­ the powerful revisionist view that public ownership was largely irrelevant in a transformed capitalism where management had superseded ownership, and that socialism was now "about equality". Education and the argument for comprehensive schools, for instance, never seemed to be a topic of great interest to Foot ...

"His election campaign in 1983 seemed a repetition of the old tunes of forty years earlier. Newer themes, like the environment or globalisation, seldom emerged ...

"His broad lack of interest in economics at any stage of his career was a major factor: perhaps a deep, abiding suspicion of capitalism in any form, and hatred of its instruments within a global economy, made him reluctant to turn his mind to discussing fundamental economic principles. It is doubtful if he really understood them ...

"His inability to contribute to economic debates on international development, trade and Third World indebtedness curbed his effectiveness. Such matters did not seem to engage him. Also, his inattention to detail in analysing the machinery of government did not encourage enquiry on his part into how the apparatus of socialist planning might actually work ...

"He had surprisingly little to say about workers' control or industrial democratisation, down to the 1976 Bullock Report ...

"Foot's political legacy was an evanescent one. There was no more eager champion of causes that were irretrievably lost ..."


So what else is there? Earlier Morgan has told us: "Even more than his opposition to the bomb, anti-Europeanism was his most strongly held political position." But he also tells us that during the period when Labour was in government, in the 1960s and 1970s, Foot's opposition to the bomb was "the dog that did not bark". He did not raise it, even when Trident and the stationing of Cruise missiles were under discussion in the last days of the Callaghan government, of which he was a member. In 1982, however, as leader of the Labour Party in opposition, he turned up at Christmas with presents for the women protesting against Cruise missiles on Greenham Common.

As for anti-Europeanism, we have seen that in the 1940s he had been in favour of a federal Europe, which he had seen as a possible third force independent of both the USA and USSR. At the time, of course, the European economy, and the British economy with it, were, or appeared to be, heavily reliant on American aid ­- the main preoccupation of Ernest Bevin's policy as foreign secretary. Foot argued the case against Bevin in a pamphlet produced with a group that also included Mikardo and Richard Crossman called Keep Left (1947). Morgan misses a trick when he fails to mention the reply, Cards on the Table, published by Transport House, defending Bevin's policy. It was written by Denis Healey, a political rival to Foot all his life who eventually served as his deputy leader in 1981-3.

Foot, then, was originally pro-Europe and was even disciplined by Transport House in 1948 for attending the founding conference of the Council of Europe at the Hague (the Labour government subsequently, in 1949, succeeded in greatly weakening the council's potential as a vehicle for European union). But more significantly, given the intensity of his anti-Europeanism in the 1960s and 1970s, he reverted to a pro-European position in the 1990s: "His old Euroscepticism was given a decent unchristian burial." By this time, of course, he was an old man, but a very active old man, still producing books and arguing the case for military intervention in Yugoslavia ­ a subject to which we shall return.