Michael Foot: 1913-2010

Michael Foot: 1913-2010

Michael Foot, who died on March 3, 2010, at the age of ninety-six, was the soul of the democratic Left in England. His political engagements started in the late 1930s, with editorials against the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, and lasted well into the second campaign for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. He was in his prime in the decades between the Suez Crisis of 1956, which brought down the Conservative government of Anthony Eden, and the Falklands War of 1982, which sealed the popularity of Margaret Thatcher. The fine obituary by Mervyn Jones in the Guardian was headed, “Principled leader who held Labour together in the early 1980s, and a writer devoted to the cause of freedom.” There is not a word of exaggeration there. He was a great spirit and a great voice, in every sense that both of those words will bear.

Sometimes friendships have a pre-history. I saw Michael Foot on television, in December 1965, in a satellite debate with Henry Kissinger. The subject was the Vietnam War—two Oxford students along with Foot spoke against the war, two Harvard students with Kissinger defended it. Listening to Foot, I was conscious of a quality new to me. He had fluent command of the facts, and he showed how the conduct of the war failed to match the principles invoked in its support. But his entire bearing, also, seemed the reverse of Kissinger’s expertise, which took for granted the clichés of anticommunism and applied them to the case at hand. Looking into a biography of Kissinger, I see that the students who backed him on the pro-war team were the young Robert Shrum and Lawrence Tribe—self-conscious liberals then, no doubt, just as they are today. The names are a reminder of the completeness of the war consensus of 1965.

Yet Foot’s Labour Party, under the leadership of Harold Wilson, also supported the Vietnam War. Foot in that debate was speaking for himself. Some time later, I saw him on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line and was amazed again by his presence of mind and (a weapon more evident in the familiar setting) his sense of humor. “You don’t need to tell me all this, you know,” said Buckley as Foot guided him through a precedent established in the American Civil War. “I’m an American!” (a smile here and a languid tone to silence pedantry). “I’m sorry, Mr. Buckley,” replied Foot, “but these history lessons seem to be necessary.” And the demonstration went on undeterred.

He taught the traditions of liberty on both sides of the Atlantic. “He performed the vital service,” said the Guardian obituary, “of holding his party together when it was dangerously polarised” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But one might go further than that: no other figure seems so steady a link between the idealism of the Labour government of 1945 and the revival of the party’s fortunes in the 1990s. The long-term effect of Foot’s wresting control of Labour f...