Back to Michael Foot Index

Review of Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot (2)


Explaining Foot's earlier anti-Europeanism, Morgan refers to "cheap food, that great triumph of one of his political heroes, Richard Cobden, in 1846. Free trade had always been a central tenet of Foot in his liberal days and he never forgot it." The remark is a little mysterious given that as an economic thinker Foot was anything but a free trader. His solutions to Britain's economic problems were usually, like Tony Benn's, protectionist. His opposition to the European Common Market was largely based on the perceived need for parliament to maintain the fullest possible control over the British economy.

But Morgan is clearly thinking specifically of free trade in agriculture. The Common Agricultural Policy was designed to protect European agriculture by maintaining price levels against the vagaries of the market. In England, however (and we are talking about a specifically English ­ not a Welsh, Irish or Scottish ­ trait), the triumph of the radicals typified by Richard Cobden had been the triumph of the industrial sector over the agricultural, of town over country. The priority was not to preserve a local agricultural capacity but to be able to import food, together with raw materials for industry, at the lowest possible price, and in the century following the triumph of Cobden this was effected under the empire.

There was, then, a tension in Britain between the immediate practical interests of the British working class (cheap food and raw materials) and the larger internationalist and anti-imperialist vision associated with socialism. The point is illustrated in the case of two countries apparently dear to Foot's heart ­- Ireland and India, both of them compelled to export cheap food to England at times when their own populations were undergoing famine. Foot's enthusiasm for the triumph of Richard Cobden in 1846, during the Irish famine, might give an Irish reader pause for thought. Had he been a more methodical moral or philosophical thinker than he was it is a problem that might have featured more prominently in his biography. Although Foot's political rhetoric was the rhetoric of socialism as a total worldview, there can be no doubt that, as Morgan says, the moral world he inhabited was largely that of nineteenth century liberalism.


His father, Isaac Foot, a successful solicitor, had been briefly involved in HM Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, the beginnings of Marxism in Britain, but had gone over to the Liberals after the 1906 election. He was later mayor of Plymouth and Liberal MP for Bodmin, becoming minister of mines in the National Government ­ the coalition formed by Ramsay MacDonald, provoking a revolt within his own Labour Party in 1931.

Despite his self-image as a rebel, Michael Foot never seems to have strayed very far from the central preoccupations of his father. Of course he passed from Liberal to Labour but this was quite a normal development in the Liberal politics of the time and Isaac seems to have looked upon it benignly. Morgan does say that, while still a Liberal, Michael supported Lloyd George, who led a small group of Liberal MPs that refused to join the National Government. It is possible that there is something here that runs deep, given Foot's abiding suspicion of coalition government. If so, Morgan does not draw it out. What is certain is that Foot's pantheon of heroes, frequently evoked by Morgan, was inherited almost entire from his father, chief among them Oliver Cromwell. Foot's brother Dingle tells us that there were at least twenty busts of Oliver Cromwell in the family home. In 1941, as a contribution to the British war effort, Isaac published a collection of stirring addresses under the title Cromwell Speaks! Michael Foot frequently evokes Cromwell and was a vice-president, as was his brother John, of the Cromwell Association. Another characteristic that might give Irish readers pause for thought.

As Morgan says: "Inspired always by his father Isaac, he generated for himself a unique cultural genealogy, pivoting on Swift, the déclassé outsider who dished Marlborough and the Whigs, but going back to Montaigne and then moving onwards to Hazlitt, Byron, Heine and H.G. Wells, with Orwell and [the Italian writer Ignazio] Silone as more contemporary exhibits."