Thursday, 4 March 2010

Our Tribute to Michael Foot

by Kathryn Hadley

Michael Foot died at his home in Hampstead yesterday, March 3rd, aged 96. Born in Plymouth on July 23rd, 1913, he was then educated at Leighton Park School in Reading. He went on to study Classics at Wadham College, Oxford, and in 1933 was elected president of the Oxford union.

Foot first contested a seat for the Labour Party in 1935. He lost, however, and moved to London where he worked as a journalist for the New Statesman, Tribune and the London Evening Standard for the following ten years. He edited the Tribune from 1948 to 1952, and again from 1955 to 1960. As a journalist, he led the denunciation of Nazi appeasement and in 1940 wrote Guilty Men with Peter Howard and Frank Owen, attacking fifteen public figures for their policy towards Nazi Germany. The book was reviewed in History Today by John Charmley in 1999.

Foot was first elected to parliament in 1945 as an MP for the Plymouth Devonport constituency. He remained in parliament until 1992. In the 1950s he was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a cause for which he fought for over 40 years. In March 1974, following Labour’s return to power, he became employment secretary under Harold Wilson and was then deputy prime minister to Jim Callaghan from 1976 to 1979. The following year, he was elected Labour leader. He resigned, however, following the Tory victory in the 1983 elections and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock.

Michael Foot was also a prolific writer and notably the author of a two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan entitled The Pen and the Sword (1962 and 1973), The Politics of Paradise (1988), a book on Byron, and The History of Mr Wells (1995). His last book was The Uncollected Michael Foot (2003).

Obituaries, tributes and photographs of the ex-Labour leader are all over the newspapers. Michael Foot wrote an article for History Today entitled Thomas Carlyle and the London Library in April 1991 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the London Library. Our picture editor, Sheila Corr, had the privilege of working with Michael Foot on his biography of H.G. Wells. Here is her tribute to Michael Foot:

‘Back in 1995 I was lucky enough to work with Michael Foot on his biography HG: The History of Mr Wells. I explained that I would seek out
photographs which showed Wells, his friends and colleagues at the time he knew
them (as anything else would feel anachronistic) and that I’d also research
cartoons, books and drawings to give the picture sections variety and interest.
He liked this approach - intellectually he was fascinated by how other people
work, and he was enthusiastic and appreciative about the material I found. For
example, as an editor himself, he was highly amused that the editors Wells
worked for were all photographed in identical quizzical poses with their heads
resting lightly on a hand.

Two pictures I found brought an unexpected
response. The KGB around this time claimed he had acted as their agent, and The Sunday Times printed the story. When I showed him a photograph of
Wells with Ivan Maisky, the popular and sociable Soviet Ambassador to London, he
said incredulously ‘this is the man I’m supposed to have passed secrets to’.
Michael Foot’s patriotism was apparent, and his personality seemed disinclined
to any deviousness – he was proud to have been friendly with Maisky and
successfully sued the newspaper.

When HG Wells died in 1946, Vicky drew
a cartoon which shows him as superman going skywards in a T shirt inscribed
‘Mind at the end of its tether’. I didn’t know until he told me then, that Vicky
was a great friend who had committed suicide in 1966, and I was afraid that I’d
inadvertently opened old wounds for him, but he was completely delighted to
include the cartoon as the final picture in the book and a fitting tribute to
his friend.’

Foot's obituary is notably published in The Guardian.
There is a slideshow of images of Foot on the website of The Times as well as a picture gallery charting his career on The Guardian website.

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