Mention the name Michael Foot and listen out for the automatic sneer. A rolling of eyes at a “disastrous leader”, accompanied no doubt with devilishly cutting asides about donkey jackets, walking sticks or Worzel Gummidge, delete as appropriate. Gerald Kaufman’s deathless Wildeanism chiding Foot’s 1983 Labour Manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history” will be added by the more confident comedians, and much, much merriment will be had all round. Oh, the laughter!
Let’s leave aside the fact the economic shit-storm the world currently finds itself in stems entirely from the Mephistophelian neo-liberal pact which this “suicide note” rejected, a pact wholeheartedly signed up to by the current “realist” Labour administration, along with the rest of the world. Let’s ignore the fact that the 1983 result was that of a party caught between the SDP schism, an economic upsurge and Falklands wargasm euphoria. Let’s gloss over the fact that Soviet Communism and unregulated international capitalism have both been utterly, comprehensively discredited, while simple logic dictates the democratic socialist alternative Foot put forward has been vindicated. The fact the man was basically right all along – we can delicately place that trifle to one-side for now. We can all still agree however that when it comes to the everyday devious machinations of leading a political party, and of creating an effective electoral machine and vibrant media image for the slick media age, Foot did not find his forte. What was? Writing. Journalism, ideas and writing.
Foot began writing in the 30s for a variety of magazines and papers, broadly championing the underdog, and more specifically drumming up solidarity against the menace of Fascism. His 1940 book Who are the Guilty Men?, denouncing as it did the Tory Chamberlain government’s appeasement of Hitler, did much to consolidate progressive support for the war effort, with the promise of a better society at home beyond. In the 40s he joined the Tribune newspaper along with, amongst others, his friend George Orwell, helping establish it as a voice for the Labour Left which stood solid against the hegemony of both US and USSR. On into the 60s, concurrent with acting as the conscience of the same Labour Left from the backbenches, he found time to write the definitive biography of his mentor Nye Bevan, a similarly exhaustive tome on H G Wells was to follow later.
It was the old rival Denis Healey who said that a politician needs a “hinterland”, outside cultural interests to keep them human. No-one could ever accuse Foot of not cultivating his own spiritual and mental landscape. The selection of essays here are a testament to the man’s mercurial mind, the breadth of his intellectual scope. Taken from over a half century, only a small number touch on purely political “issues” – nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, Irish nationalism. Foot’s preferred form was to discuss the life, work and ideas of an individual man or woman, and a small majority here are portraits of political figures, usually taken from reviews of biographies or collections from their own work. It takes in leading figures from Labour history and earlier British socialism, from Bevan and Bevin to Robert Owen and William Morris, the still earlier radicalisms of Tom Paine and Charles James Fox. Irish and Indian independence are well represented with Indira Ghandi and Daniel O’Connell, as is feminism with Emilene Pankhurst and Brigid Brophy. Yet at the same time there are a great many portraits of writers and characters not best known for their politics – Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Rebecca West, the Romantic poets and Heinrich Heine – not to mention Peggy Aschroft.
That the politicians segue so well into the writers is a testament to the well- rounded totality of Foot’s mind and vision. The struggle for truth and freedom are as important in the literary sphere as in the party political, maybe more so. Aesthetics, beauty, form and style are at the very least equal to politics in his thoughts and enthusiasms. In discussing Edmund Wilson’s biography of Rousseau, more reference is made to relevant quotations from Byron than to any theoretical road to Robespierre. Essays on the history of Hampstead common, and the infinite wonders of Venice, perhaps the least “political” here, are probably the most beautifully written, with an evocation of time, space and place which is truly involving, even moving.
Foot writes in a style both cultured and clear, mildly mischievous, totally lacking pomposity, and wearing its very evident learning lightly. A passion, quiet yet pronounced, reserved but unmistakable, is evident at all times. Personal recollections lightly pepper the essays on those he knows and knew, while the same easy, almost conversational style flows similarly into those from centuries past, creating the pleasing impression that Foot was on nodding terms with Coleridge and Morris just as he was with Richard Crossman and John Smith (which, in his life of the mind, he perhaps always has been).
A clue there perhaps that it takes a duller man than this to succeed in the grubby world of leading a political party. The decency consistently evident in his prose also lays bare the absolute absence of the killer instinct needed for leadership. The venom of the zealot isn’t there either. Rare asides against Thatcher are dismissive rather than enraged, bereft of the rabidity she so easily inspired in so many. Figures such as Ernest Bevin and others on the Labour Right are appraised admiringly. Even a review of the autobiography of nemesis Healey is genuinely warm and salutary. Tom Driberg, the louche old eccentric (ie. fantasist) and rogue (ie. sociopath) is recalled with the affection of the friend that he was (though the bad points are laid bare too.) Anti-Thatcherite Tory and historian Ian Gilmour is praised, and there is even a short yet powerful defence of Churchill, paying robust tribute to the old reactionary against the modern fallacy held by revisionists on Left and Right alike that a deal could or should have been struck with Hitler.
This lack of killer instinct means he lacks the final “bite” of the truly great writer too. Eloquent praise pours freely, but not once is there an effective literary slaying of a hated foe, not a shortfall that could be levelled at his friend Orwell.
This politeness, this sheathed sword and profoundly English politeness can irritate. The kind words found for that other “loveable rogue”, the Tory Kray-groupie Bob Boothby seem to be stretching the limits of tolerance past snapping point. And seeking and finding the good points even in that other arch Conservative icon Edmund Burke; for instance, is hard to take from the more partisan. Even here though, he does well to convince. How many of the golf club bores, bigots and blimps who denounced the man as a “dangerous extremist” when he led Labour could demonstrate the barest fraction of his broad minded respect for and interest in competing points of view?
Foot is a socialist in the truest sense, yet forever free of the dogma that dogs too many of his tribe. And free of the great sins too. Absolutely no apologia for the crimes of Communism from him – Stalin is condemned here in a brief article taken from the week of his death, written when the rest of the world were paying tribute. An unequivocal defence of Salman Rushdie taken from the time of the Satanic Verses furore, shows that he would have no part of the alliance with militant political Islamism which some on the Left have cynically seen fit to serve. His support for NATO’s bombing of Serbia is more contentious, though, whatever one may think of it, still presents him as someone true to a liberationist vision on his own terms, unaffected by the fact that such a position would not be popular amongst his own beloved wing of his own beloved party.
Foot sees socialism as the rightful heir of earlier struggles for liberty and autonomy that distinguished the great rebels of the past. This is the socialism of liberation, not restriction, the vision of liberty which inspired the creed in the first place, expanding the vision of the free-born Englishman to include those without property. This doyenne of dissenters is one himself, and when he writes of, say, of the great early Parliamentary radical Fox, or the still greater radical writer and pamphleteer William Hazlitt , it is with the knowledge and passion of someone who has devoted their whole life to it, in both the intellectual and the practical sense. Foot feels a truly organic lineage to this tribe, a lineage he is more than entitled to.
An impassioned portrait of Heinrich Heine, one of the longest essays here, is perhaps the best example of the Foot’s infectious enthusiasm, his quiet passion, his blending of the poetic and political. The personal too, as he describes how Heine came to be his “hero” after discovering her with a beautiful Yugoslavian girl with whom he was once in love, before coming to know him through what he saw as his modern day avatar, the cartoonist Vicky, who had “every Heinite feature, the same diminutive size, the same race, the same iconoclastic temperament with a comparable artistic gift. He too, like my Jewish girlfriend, knew Heine by heart, and would summon his hero to his side whenever the political battle was most ruthless or pitiless.” These personal asides are –springboards to a fine, enraptured paen. As someone who has never read Heine, I am inspired to do so, much sooner than later. “He could never make up his mind whether he was a poet or a politician”, says Foot of Heine, and the reason for his particular connection with this writer becomes that bit clearer.
I have found myself slipping into the past tense in writing this review, and yet Michael Foot is happily still very much alive at the age of 96. When he does pass away however, an age of passion, principle and philosophy at the higher levels of politics will die with him. It is unthinkable, literally unthinkable that a book like this could appear today. The leaders of today’s party political machines, – slick, shallow, technocratic, faux pragmatic and narrowly philistine – could not begin to produce anything of the like. You may as well expect Fearne Cotton to write an essay on the transgressive ambiguities of the Velvet Underground. You can just about see they “work in the same industry”, but nonetheless, a “category error” has occurred. Does not compute.
True, Gordon Brown wrote a biography of James Maxton back in the 80s, but it seems Brown was a different man then. On the Tory benches, Michael Gove makes an effort to engage with the cultural sphere, but this is a very limited exception to the greater picture. Ideas don’t matter. But they should, something that Foot never forgot. This book is a window to an age of wider political possibility, and of greater political imagination. It is also simply an immensely strong body of writing on its own terms. And finally it is the truest tribute possible to the man himself, a giant among pygmies.