Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Intimations of mortality

The death of Michael Foot has been announced. Yet another iconic figure from my youth has gone. There will be the usual guff about it also marking the death of the old left and a reprise of all the clichés about the 1983 Labour Manifesto and his dress sense. He wasn't a good leader of the Labour Party, though his job was absolutely impossible. He was from the Bevanite left, and was caught between Bennites and the determined political adventurism of some on the right, who split the party by forming the SDP. However, I always felt that he was a substantial and interesting figure and here are just three reasons why I think that he should be appreciated.

First, there is his peace activism. It is not quite as it would seem. Founder member of CND he may have been, but Foot was no pacifist. He started as an anti-appeaser, co author of The Guilty Men, and would support the Falklands War. His peace politics was rooted in anti-fascism.

Secondly, unlike many, I never found him a compelling speaker, but what a beautiful writer he was. He was a literate and literary politician. When you look at the tortured, banal and jargon-ridden vacuity of contemporary political discourse there is much to regret about his passing.

Finally, and this is personal, without Michael Foot's consistent advocacy, I may never have read his literary hero, William Hazlitt. Everyone should read Hazlitt.


Overtired and emotional said...

I seem to recall that his father ( a noted bibliophile) was non too pleased at Michael's turn towards socialism. When Michael attributed his conversion to reading Hazlitt his father acquiesced.

Having said all that, his principles did not stand in the way of taking £5000 a year from Beaverbrook to write for the Express during the war, nor from writing a very sympathetic biography of the old tyrant.

Still, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum...

Roger McCarthy said...

Met Michael Foot at a book launch and at a Bevan seminar in 1997-8 and found him even more endearingly scruffy and eccentric in real life than he appeared on TV.

Two things that struck me was that firstly he addressed both meetings as if he was orating to the Labour Party conference and secondly that at the seminar be had his dog Dizzy with him who growled menacingly whenever anyone else (mostly rival Bevan biographer John Campbell and Edmund Dell IIRC) said anything even mildly critical of Bevan - a rather beautiful example of canine empathy.

Not sure about his writing: he was indeed a brilliant journalist and essayist but his full-length books tend to the prolix - and as he only wrote at length about people and causes he loved his complete lack of objectivity can get a bit wearing (did Jonathan Swift really end the War of Spanish Succession with a couple of well-timed satirical essays?, is Wells's deep-seated and profound racism and elitism really just a minor character flaw?)

The Bevan biography for instance is hugely improved by Brian Brivati's one volume abridgement which eliminates the many longuers and over-elaborate justifications, but still leaves Michael's voice intact.

Can't help but thinking that he chose a good time to leave - watching a possible Labour rout and the probable destruction of what's left of Attlee and Bevan's legacy would have been a cruel fate.

Anton Deque said...

I agree with you Peter about Foot's 'famed oratory' which I felt somewhat mannered and over rated in effectiveness. He simply did not see like many others (excluding Gaitskell) that one consequence of socialism is that most people become better off and expect a bit more than comradeship and of internationalism, not much at all, unless you mean Spanish package holidays for the workers. It was necessary to change the Party and Foot was unable to do this (for reasons you mention) and Kinnock only so far. Without Blair it really would have been curtains.

It is hardly necessary to remind you and others who come here of the baleful influence of Rupert Murdoch at that time. I quite realise Murdoch had, thanks to the likes of myself and other Benn supporters (I now confess), an open goal at which to shoot but the Dirty Digger never missed and there were lots and lots of opportunities.

Foot suddenly looked out of touch in the 80s – cruelly mocked for using a stick with which to walk – and his patrician ways were seen as dated; personally, I found Thatcher's much more so – positively ration book. Still, a man to remember with fondness.