Michael Foot (born 1913) was a left-wing journalist, a British Labour Party member of Parliament, and leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.
Michael Foot was born on July 23, 1913, in Plymouth, England. His father, Isaac Foot (1880-1960), was a major figure in the radical wing of the Liberal Party and represented Bodmin (Cornwall) in Parliament from 1922 to 1924 and again from 1929 to 1935. A passionate bibliophile, he built up a collection of more than 60,000 books—an enthusiasm which his son inherited.
Foot was a physically active child despite recurring bouts of eczema and asthma. He attended Leighton Park, a public school founded by Quakers and marked by an internationalist and pacifist ethos. In 1931 he entered Oxford and soon gravitated toward the debating society or Union, as it was called, becoming its president in 1933. He voted with the majority in the famous 1933 resolution that "this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country."
Liberal Turns Labour
Foot's first venture into national journalism was a 1934 article for the News Chronicle of London entitled "Why I Am a Liberal." He argued that Liberalism was a bulwark against war and fascism and called for a Rooseveltian New Deal for Britain. But he was not destined to remain a Liberal much longer. In 1934 he took a job in Liverpool, where he was appalled by the poverty and unemployment he saw around him. As a result he joined the Labour Party and met, for the first time, Aneurin Bevan, whose close friend, coworker, and biographer he was later to become.
Foot fought his first parliamentary race in 1935, losing to a popular Conservative candidate at Monmouth. In 1937 he was adopted as the prospective Labour candidate for Plymouth Devenport. More immediately promising was the experience he was gaining in journalism. After short stints with the New Statesman and Tribune, Bevan was instrumental in finding him a job on the newspapers owned by Lord Beaverbrook. He worked for Beaverbrook from 1938 to 1944, rising to the acting editorship of the London Evening Standard in 1942. Under his guidance the paper moved sharply to the left.
The appearance of the book Guilty Men in 1940 made him notorious. Co-written by him under the pseudonym "Cato," Guilty Men was a slashing attack on the foreign and defense policies of the Conservative governments of the 1930s. A massive best-seller (by 1944 there were 43 printings), it became the leading anti-Tory critique of appeasement and stands as one of the great political tracts of 20th-century Britain and as a contributing factor to the Labour Party's victory in 1945.
Victory Over Tories
Foot won Plymouth Devenport in 1945, transforming a previous Tory majority of 11,000 into a Labour majority of 2,000. A back beach "loyal critic" of the government, he was the co-author of the 1947 pamphlet "Keep Left," which warned of the need for more rigorous socialist policies. In 1948 he became editor of Tribune and steered the editorial line toward support of Britain's entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and support for the United States in the Korean War.
During the 1950s Foot was a leading spokesperson for the left wing of the Labour Party. He attacked the 1951 Labour government's budget, which raised defense spending and imposed fees on drug prescriptions and eyeglasses. He opposed German rearmament, the British invasion of Suez in 1956, and the Labour leadership's defense policy, which conditionally tolerated British first use of nuclear weapons. These controversial stands helped cause his defeat in the elections of 1955 and 1959.
Foot was flabbergasted when in 1957 his political hero Aneurin Bevan abruptly announced that Britain must maintain its nuclear deterrent so as not to "appear naked in the conference chamber" in negotiations with the Soviet Union. However, friendly relations between the two men were re-established by 1959. On Bevan's death in 1960 Foot was selected as his successor for the South Wales coalmining constituency of Ebbw Vale. He won election by over 16,000 votes and still held the seat in 1985.
Foot welcomed the emergence of Harold Wilson as leader of the Labour Party in 1963 and gave critical support to the 1964-1970 Labour government from the back benches. As he saw it, the greatest need was to keep the Tories out, even though he viewed the government's record as a "bloody catastrophe." In 1969 he ran unsuccessfully against James Callaghan for the post of Labour Party treasurer.
Becomes Employment Secretary
In 1970 Foot substantially modified his political stance. Previously a back bench critic of the Labour leadership, he now sought and won election to the shadow cabinet. In 1972 Wilson promoted him to shadow leader of the House of Commons, and after Labour's victory in the 1974 general election he accepted the cabinet post of employment secretary.
Foot was a powerful figure in the 1974-1979 Labour government. As employment secretary he was responsible for the repeal of the Conservative Industrial Relations Act of 1972. As leader of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1979 he used his encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure to guide legislation through a House of Commons in which the government did not command a majority. His goal throughout was to keep Labour in office for as long as possible, and he accordingly advised Callaghan, to whom he had become increasingly close, not to hold a general election in the fall of 1978.
But not even Foot's parliamentary skills could save the government from losing a vote of confidence in March 1979, and in the ensuing election Labour suffered a stunning defeat. Following Callaghan's resignation as party leader, Foot won a bitterly-fought contest against Denis Healy in November 1980. Foot's election, along with sweeping constitutional changes in the party's method of electing the leader and reselecting members of Parliament, led the far right of the party to split from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (S.D.P.) early in 1981.
Defeat for Labour
Foot led a deeply divided and demoralized party into the general election of 1983. The result was an utter debacle for Labour, which only narrowly edged out the S.D.P. for second place with 27.6 percent of the votes. It was Labour's worst showing since the 1920s. On June 13, 1983, Foot resigned as party leader.
Ten years later, looking back over Foot's career on the occasion of his 80th birthday in July 1993, journalist Ian Aitken, writing in New Statesman & Society, lamented what he called a betrayal of Foot. "His leadership had been held—often by people who ought to know better—to be the cause of the disasters that engulfed the Labour Party in the early years of Thatcherism, culminating in the election loss of 1983. Yet this is nonsense, and cruel nonsense at that. What doomed Foot's leadership … was, quite simply, betrayal—and betrayal by the very people he could have expected to support him as the most left-wing, democratically minded leader they have ever had, or were ever likely to have."
Soviet Ties Alleged
Foot was attacked in an early 1995 Sunday Times article that claimed he had taken money from the Soviet secret police in the 1960s to subsidize a weekly newspaper he helped to found in 1937. The story also appeared in The News of the World. Both papers were owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The stories caused a turmoil on London's Fleet Street, and Foot sued Murdoch and the papers for libel. The News printed an apology, but the Times edited Foot's response to the story. Not surprisingly, Foot had strong feelings about Murdoch, which he revealed during an interview with Bill Jones, writing for New Statesman. "It is impossible to overrate the injurious effect he's (Murdoch) had, and it's sad the other papers are inclined to follow his lead rather than restore any decent standards in British journalism, though I exclude some from this—the Guardian and Observer and some sincere journalists on other papers."
In the same interview, Foot blamed England's Tory government for corruption he sees as pervasive in English government. "Most people outside the House (of Commons) now see it as a corrupt place and they're right—it is corrupt from top to bottom. I exonerate Labour from these charges. Yet the way money is distributed in the Commons, and the (House of) Lords too, let's not forget, is an absolute outrage."
As reported by the journalism of the day, Foot was viewed as largely ineffectual in his later years. Reviewer Steven Fielding, writing in the January 1996 issue of History Today on a biography of Foot by Mervyn Jones, noted the "very low-ebb" of Foot's reputation. "Few, even in the party he led during the early 1980s, would now publicly endorse any of his core beliefs. Foot is as Old Labor as you could possibly get."
Further Reading on Michael Foot
Simon Hoggart and David Leigh, Michael Foot: A Portrait (London, 1981), is accurate and on the whole sympathetic. A bruising account of his role in Labour's 1983 defeat is offered in David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1983 (London, 1984). The best approach, however, is through Foot's own writings. In addition to Guilty Men (London, 1940), the most important are The Pen and the Sword (London, 1957), Aneurin Bevan, 1897-1945 (London, 1962), Aneurin Bevan, 1945-1960 (London, 1973), and Debts of Honour (London, 1981). His side of the election of 1983 is presented in Another Heart and Other Pulses: the Alternative to the Thatcher Society (London, 1984).
Jones, Bill, "Interview: Michael Foot," New Statesman, January 10, 1997, v126, n4316, p. 30.
Aitken, Ian, "The Left's Betrayal of Michael Foot," New Statesman & Society, July 30, 1993, v6, n263, p. 9.