Michael Foot by Mervyn Jones - review by Francis Wheen

Francis Wheen

Too Soft on Worzel

Michael Foot


Victor Gollancz 600pp £20

Everyone who has met him agrees that Michael Foot is quite the nicest chap in the world. Even Margaret Thatcher thinks so. ‘Michael Foot is a highly principled and cultivated man, invariably courteous in our dealings,’ she writes in The Downing Street Years. ‘If I did not think it would offend him, I would say he was a gentleman.’

One could argue, however, that this thoroughly decent fellow was responsible for the destruction of the British Labour Party. Look at the smooth young men and women on the Labour front bench today, those grinning, sharp-suited middle managers who speak only in bland inanities and recoil in horror at the word ‘socialism’. Surely, you might think, they cannot be the legacy of a scruffy, passionate, romantic idealist such as Michael Foot? Oh, but they can. His own brief spell as party leader, which culminated in the disastrous General Election of 1983, is now a distant and easily forgotten interlude, rather like the Ford presidency in America. But it is less easy to forget that, thanks largely to Foot’s patronage, the man often described as ‘the son Michael never had’ – Neil Kinnock – took charge of the Labour Party and turned it into the wretched creature we know today, a spavined old nag that comes last in every race it enters.

How did this happen? It’s an appetising question for a biographer to chew on, but, alas, Mervyn Jones hasn’t the teeth for the job. Foot’s own style as a biographer – he has written lives of Byron and Aneurin Bevan- is uncritical, not to say adulatory, and in this at least Jones is true to his subject: Foot is always given the benefit of every doubt. Although Jones is the son of Sigmund Freud’s chum Ernest Jones, the famous British psychoanalyst – whom, incidentally, he quotes in this book without divulging any kinship – he seems oddly uninterested in the contradictions of Michael Foot’s character.

There is no shortage of contradictions waiting to be explored. The Michael Foot who spoke so fervently against the Gulf War a few years ago was the same man who made the most tub-thumpingly belligerent speech in favour of sending a task force to the Falklands in 1982. The latter, according to Foot, was on a straightforward point of principle. He told the House of Commons that Argentine’s invasion was:

…an act of naked, unqualified aggression … There is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in the world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet.

Doesn’t the same argument apply to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990? Apparently not. Foot argued that Saddam Hussein’s act of naked aggression should be met not by force but by economic sanctions – ‘a much more civilised and intelligent way of settling the dispute’. Although Jones records all this, he seems not to notice any discrepancy. He also mentions, without pondering its significance, that Foot omitted from his huge, two-volume life of Nye Bevan certain details which might have reflected badly on his hero’s wife, Jennie Lee – such as her secret attempt to get the Tribune closed down after it had criticised Bevan’s volteface on unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1957. ‘Michael chose not to reveal this in his biography of Nye’, Jones notes. How does this tally with Foot’s reputation as a man of scrupulous honesty, a sea-green incorruptible? Again, Jones prefers not to ask.

There are many other incongruities which a more curious biographer might have enjoyed discussing. Foot is usually thought of as someone who is indifferent to creature comforts, but he hasn’t exactly stinted himself over the years: in 1943, as a journalist on the Evening Standard, he was paid the creature we know today, a astounding salary of £4000, and long after leaving Beaverbrook’s employ he continued to accept lavish gifts from the old man – large cheques, free holidays and even a country house. In the 1950s and 1960s Michael Foot campaigned against the Labour leadership’s enthusiasm for expulsions and proscriptions; yet when he became leader himself, he began the process of chucking Militant supporters out of the party. He is a champion of parliamentary democracy – hence his creditable refusal to accept a peerage – but he was also an apologist for Mrs Gandhi’s brutal suspension of Indian democracy during her ‘state of emergency’.

The explanation for many of Foot’s inconsistencies, I’d say, can be found in the titles of two of his books of essays: Debts of Honour and Loyalists and Loners. He is a man who feels an eternal debt of loyalty to his friends, including Lord Beaverbrook and Indira Gandhi, however badly they behave and however often he may disagree with them. ‘You cunt!’ Nye Bevan shouted at Foot during one particularly lively exchange of views; moments later he grabbed one of Foot’s Sheraton chairs and smashed it beyond repair. This did not prevent Foot from writing an unmitigated hagiography of the man.

Such steadfast loyalty is an appealing trait, but one can’t help regretting that Jones, an old hand from the Tribune and the New Statesman, seems to have been infected by it without also acquiring Foot’s love of a good argument. (‘I hope you are feeling thoroughly uncomfortable in your present position,’ Michael once wrote to his father, the Liberal MP Isaac Foot. ‘I hope the responsibility for a niggardly disarmament policy and blustering dealing with Ireland rests heavily on your shoulders. I hope that you squirm in your seat…’ One might not automatically guess from this that Michael Foot and his dad adored each other.) If only Jones were willing to make Foot squirm in his seat occasionally, or even smash the odd chair, he might have provided us with a more fitting monument to this puzzling, noble, erratic, hugely lovable man.

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