Michael Foot

Michael Foot
The Right Honourable
Michael Foot
Foot in 1982
Leader of the Opposition
In office
4 November 1980 – 2 October 1983
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by James Callaghan
Succeeded by Neil Kinnock
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
4 November 1980 – 2 October 1983
Deputy Denis Healey
Preceded by James Callaghan
Succeeded by Neil Kinnock
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
In office
5 April 1976 – 4 November 1980
Leader James Callaghan
Preceded by Edward Short
Succeeded by Denis Healey
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
8 April 1976 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister James Callaghan
Preceded by Edward Short
Succeeded by Norman St John-Stevas
Lord President of the Council
In office
8 April 1976 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister James Callaghan
Preceded by Edward Short
Succeeded by Christopher Soames
Secretary of State for Employment
In office
5 March 1974 – 8 April 1976
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Preceded by William Whitelaw
Succeeded by Albert Booth
Member of Parliament
for Blaenau Gwent
Ebbw Vale (1960-1992)
In office
17 November 1960 – 9 April 1992
Preceded by Aneurin Bevan
Succeeded by Llew Smith
Member of Parliament
for Plymouth Devonport
In office
5 July 1945 – 26 May 1955
Preceded by Leslie Hore-Belisha
Succeeded by Joan Vickers
Personal details
Born 23 July 1913(1913-07-23)
Plymouth, Devon
Died 3 March 2010(2010-03-03) (aged 96)
Hampstead, London
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Jill Craigie (1949–1999) (her death)
Relations Isaac Foot (father)
Alma mater Wadham College, Oxford
Religion None (Atheism)

Michael Mackintosh Foot, FRSL, PC (23 July 1913 – 3 March 2010) was a British Labour Party politician, journalist and author, who was a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1945 to 1955 and from 1960 until 1992. He was deputy leader of the Labour Party 1976 to 1980, and later became the Leader of the Opposition from 1980 to 1983.[1]

Associated with the Labour left for most of his career, he was a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and British withdrawal from the European Economic Community. He was first promoted to Cabinet as Employment secretary under Harold Wilson in 1974, and later served as Leader of the House of Commons under James Callaghan. A passionate orator, he was Labour leader at the 1983 general election when the party received its lowest share of the vote since 1918.[2]

His parallel career as a journalist included appointments as editor of Tribune, on several occasions, and the Evening Standard newspaper. Among the books he authored are Guilty Men (an attack on Neville Chamberlain and others for the policy of appeasement), a biography of Jonathan Swift (The Pen and the Sword, 1957) and a biography of Aneurin Bevan.



Foot's father, Isaac Foot (1880–1960), was a solicitor and founder of the Plymouth law firm Foot and Bowden (which merged with another firm to become Foot Anstey). Isaac Foot was an active member of the Liberal Party and was Liberal Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall 1922–1924 and 1929–1935 and a Lord Mayor of Plymouth.[3]

Michael Foot's elder brothers were Sir Dingle Foot MP (1905–1978), a Liberal and subsequently Labour MP; Hugh Foot, Baron Caradon (1907–1990), a Governor of Cyprus, a representative of the United Kingdom at the United Nations from 1964 to 1970, and father to campaigning journalist Paul Foot (1937–2004) and charity worker Oliver Foot (1946–2008); and Liberal politician John Foot, Baron Foot (1909–1999).

Foot had three other siblings: Margaret Elizabeth Foot (1911–1965), Jennifer Mackintosh Highet[4] (born 1916) and Christopher Isaac Foot (born 1917).[5]

Early life

Michael Foot was born in Lipson Terrace, Plymouth, Devon, the fifth of seven children of Isaac and Eva[6] (née Mackintosh, died 17 May 1946), a Scotswoman.[7] He was educated at Plymouth College Preparatory School and Leighton Park School in Reading. He then went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College, Oxford. Foot was the President of the Oxford Union. He also took part in the ESU USA Tour (the debating tour of the USA run by the English-Speaking Union). On graduating in 1934, he took a job as a shipping clerk in Birkenhead. Foot was profoundly influenced by the poverty and unemployment that he witnessed in Liverpool, which was on a different scale from anything he had seen in Plymouth. A Liberal up to this time, Foot was converted to socialism by Oxford University Labour Club president David Lewis and others: "... I knew him [at Oxford] when I was a Liberal [and Lewis] played a part in converting me to socialism."[8] Foot joined the Labour Party and first stood for parliament at the age of 22 in the 1935 general election, when he contested Monmouth. During this election Foot criticised the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, for seeking rearmament. In his election address Foot contended that "the armaments race in Europe must be stopped now".[9] Foot also supported unilateral disarmament, after multilateral disarmament talks at Geneva had broken down in 1933.[10]

He became a journalist, working briefly on the New Statesman, before joining the left-wing weekly Tribune when it was set up in early 1937 to support the Unity Campaign, an attempt to secure an anti-fascist United Front between Labour and the parties to its left. The campaign's members were Stafford Cripps's (Labour-affiliated) Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP). Foot resigned in 1938 after the paper's first editor, William Mellor, was fired for refusing to adopt a new CP policy of backing a Popular Front, including non-socialist parties, against fascism and appeasement. In a 1955 interview, Foot ideologically identified as a libertarian socialist.[11]


On the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan, Foot was soon hired by Lord Beaverbrook to work as a writer on his Evening Standard. (Bevan is supposed to have told Beaverbrook on the phone: "I've got a young bloody knight-errant here. They sacked his boss, so he resigned. Have a look at him.") At the outbreak of the Second World War, Foot volunteered for military service, but was rejected because of his chronic asthma. In 1940, under the pen-name "Cato" he and two other Beaverbrook journalists (Frank Owen, editor of the Standard, and Peter Howard of the Daily Express) published Guilty Men, a Left Book Club book attacking the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government that became a run-away best-seller. Beaverbrook made Foot editor of the Evening Standard in 1942 at the age of 28. During the war Foot made a speech that was later featured during The World at War documentary TV series broadcast in February 1974.[12] Foot was speaking in defence of the Daily Mirror, which had criticised the conduct of the war by the Churchill Government. He mocked the notion that the Government would make no more territorial demands of other newspapers if they allowed the Mirror to be censored. Foot left the Standard in 1945 to join the Daily Herald as a columnist. The Daily Herald was jointly owned by the TUC and Odhams Press, and was effectively an official Labour Party paper. He rejoined Tribune as editor from 1948 to 1952, and was again the paper's editor from 1955 to 1960. Throughout his political career he railed against the increasing corporate domination of the press, entertaining a special loathing for Rupert Murdoch.

Member of Parliament

Foot fought the Plymouth Devonport constituency in the 1945 general election. His election agent was Labour activist and life-long friend Ron Lemin. He won the seat for Labour for the first time, holding it until his surprise defeat by Dame Joan Vickers at the 1955 general election. Until 1957, he was the most prominent ally of Aneurin Bevan, who had taken Cripps's place as leader of the Labour left, though Foot and Bevan fell out after Bevan renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference.

Before the cold war began in the late 1940s, Foot favoured a 'third way' foreign policy for Europe (he was joint author with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo of the pamphlet Keep Left in 1947), but in the wake of the communist seizure of power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia he and Tribune took a strongly anti-communist position, eventually embracing NATO.

Foot was however a critic of the west's handling of the Korean War, an opponent of West German rearmament in the early 1950s and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Under his editorship, Tribune opposed both the British government's Suez adventure and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. In this period he made regular television appearances on the current affairs programmes In The News (BBC) and subsequently Free Speech (ITV). "There was certainly nothing wrong with his television technique in those days", reflected Anthony Howard shortly after Foot's death.[13]

Foot returned to parliament in 1960 at a by-election in Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, left vacant by Bevan's death. He had the Labour whip withdrawn in March 1961 after rebelling against the Labour leadership over air force estimates. He only returned to the Parliamentary Labour Group in 1963 when Harold Wilson became Labour leader after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell.

Harold Wilson – the subject of an enthusiastic campaign biography by Foot published by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press in 1964 – offered Foot a place in his first government, but Foot turned it down. Instead he became the leader of Labour's left opposition from the back benches, dazzling the Commons with his command of rhetoric. He opposed the government's moves to restrict immigration, join the Common Market and reform the trade unions, was against the Vietnam War and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, and denounced the Soviet suppression of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also famously allied with the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to scupper the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and create a House of Lords comprising only life peers – a "seraglio of eunuchs" as Foot put it.

In 1967, Foot challenged James Callaghan but failed to win the post of Treasurer of the Labour Party.

In government

After 1970, Labour moved to the left and Wilson came to an accommodation with Foot. In April 1972, he stood for the Deputy Leadership of the party, along with Edward Short and Anthony Crosland. Short defeated Foot in the second ballot after Crosland had been eliminated in the first.

When, in 1974, Labour returned to office under Harold Wilson, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment. According to Ben Pimlott, his appointment was intended to please the left of the party and the Trade Unions. In this role, he played the major part in the government's efforts to maintain the trade unions' support. He was also responsible for the Health and Safety at Work Act. Foot was one of the mainstays of the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community. When Wilson retired in 1976, Foot contested the party leadership and led in the first ballot, but was ultimately defeated by James Callaghan. Later that year, Foot was elected Deputy Leader and served as Leader of the House of Commons, which gave him the unenviable task of trying to maintain the survival of the Callaghan government as its majority evaporated.

In 1975, Foot, along with Jennie Lee and others, courted controversy when they supported Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, after she prompted the declaration of a state of emergency. In December 1975, The Times ran an editorial titled 'Is Mr Foot a Fascist?' – their answer was that he was[14] – after Norman Tebbit accused him of 'undiluted fascism' once Foot said that the Ferrybridge Six deserved dismissal for defying a closed shop.[15]

Labour leadership

Following Labour's 1979 general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan remained party leader for the next 18 months before he resigned and Foot was elected Labour leader on 4 November 1980, beating Denis Healey in the second round of the leadership election (the last leadership contest to involve only Labour MPs). Foot presented himself as a compromise candidate capable, unlike Healey, of uniting the party, which at the time was riven by the grassroots left-wing insurgency centred around Tony Benn.

The Bennites demanded revenge for the betrayals, as they saw them, of the Callaghan government, and pushed the case for replacement of MPs who had acquiesced to them by left-wingers who would support the causes of unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and widespread nationalisation. (Benn did not stand for the leadership: apart from Foot and Healey, the other candidates – both eliminated in the first round – were John Silkin, a Tribunite like Foot, and Peter Shore, an anti-European right-winger.)

When he became leader, Foot was already 67 and frail. The Tory government was dividing the country and proving highly controversial as its monetarist economic policies to reduce inflation were contributing to a significant rise in unemployment which had helped plunge Britain's economy into recession earlier in 1980. As a result, Labour had moved ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, and in the aftermath of Foot's election as leader opinion polls showed a double-digit lead for Labour, boosting his hopes of becoming prime minister by the time of the next general election, which had to be held by May 1984.

Almost immediately after his election as leader he was faced with a serious crisis: the creation in early 1981 of a breakaway party by four senior Labour right-wingers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers (the so-called "Gang of Four"), the Social Democratic Party. This was largely seen as the consequence of the Labour Party's swing to the left, polarising divisions in an already divided party.[16]

The SDP won the support of large sections of the media, and for most of 1981 and early 1982 its opinion poll ratings suggested that it could at least overtake Labour and possibly win a general election, as the Tories were proving unpopular because of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, which had seen unemployment reach a postwar high.

With the Labour left still strong – in 1981 Benn decided to challenge Healey for the deputy leadership of the party, a contest Healey won narrowly – Foot struggled to make an impact and was widely criticised for it, though his performances in the Commons, most notably on the Falklands war of 1982, won him widespread respect from other parliamentarians, though he was criticised by some on the left who felt that he should not have supported the Thatcher government's immediate resort to military action. The right-wing newspapers nevertheless lambasted him consistently for what they saw as his bohemian eccentricity, attacking him for wearing what they described as a "donkey jacket" (actually he wore a type of duffel coat)[17] at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in November 1981, for which he was likened to an "out-of-work navvy" by one of Labour's own MPs.[18] Foot did not make it generally known that HM the Queen Mother had complimented him on it; he later donated the garment to the People's History Museum in Manchester.[19]

The formation of the SDP - who formed an alliance with the Liberal Party in June 1981 - contributed to a fall in Labour support. The double-digit lead which had still been intact in opinion polls at the start of 1981 was swiftly wiped out, and by the end of October the opinion polls were showing the Alliance ahead of Labour. Labour briefly regained their lead of most opinion polls in early 1982, but when the Falklands conflict ended on 14 June 1982 with a British victory over Argentina, opinion polls showed the Tories firmly in the lead. Their position at the top of the polls was strengthened by the return to economic growth later in the year. It was looking certain that the Tories would be re-elected, and the only key issue that the media were still speculating by the end of 1982 was whether it would be Labour or the Alliance who formed the next opposition.[20]

Through late 1982 and early 1983, there was constant speculation that Labour MPs would replace Foot with Healey as leader. Such speculation increased after Labour lost the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, in which Peter Tatchell was its candidate, standing against a Tory, a Liberal (eventual winner Simon Hughes) and the right wing John O'Grady, who had declared himself the "real" Labour candidate and fought an openly homophobic campaign against Tatchell. Critically, Labour held on in a subsequent by-election in Darlington and Foot remained leader for the 1983 general election.


The 1983 Labour manifesto, strongly socialist in tone, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and a return to a more interventionist industrial policy. The manifesto also pledged that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords, nationalise banks and leave the then European Economic Community. Foot's Labour Party lost to the Conservatives in a landslide – a result which had been widely predicted by the opinion polls since the previous summer. The only consolation for Foot and Labour was that they did not lose their place in opposition to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, who came close to them in terms of votes but were still a long way behind in terms of seats.[21] Despite this, Foot was very critical of the Alliance, accusing them of "siphoning" Labour support and enabling the Tories to win more seats.[22]

The Daily Mirror was the only major newspaper to back Foot and Labour at the 1983 general election, urging its readers to vote Labour and "Stop the waste of our nation, for your job your children and your future" in response to the mass unemployment that had resulted from Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher's monetarist economic policies to reduce inflation. Most other newspapers had urged their readers to vote Tory.[23]

Foot resigned days after the election and was succeeded as leader on 2 October by Neil Kinnock, who had been tipped from the outset to be Labour's choice of new leader.

Gerald Kaufman, once Harold Wilson's press officer and during the 1980s prominent on the Labour right, described the 1983 Labour manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". As a statement on internal democracy, Foot passed the edict that the manifesto would consist of all resolutions arrived at conference. The party also failed to master the medium of television, while Foot addressed public meetings around the country, and made some radio broadcasts, in the same manner as Clement Attlee in 1945. Members joked that they had not expected Foot to allow the slogan "Think positive, Act positive, Vote Labour" on grammatical grounds.[citation needed]

In 1986, Foot was the subject of one of the best-known newspaper headlines of all time. The Times ran an article about Foot, who had been put in charge of a nuclear disarmament committee. The headline stated "Foot Heads Arms Body." Although originally written as a joke by editor Martyn Cornell, the paper ran it.[24]

Backbenches and retirement

Foot took a back seat in Labour politics after 1983 and retired from the House of Commons at the 1992 general election, when Labour lost to the Tories (now led by John Major) for the fourth election in succession, but remained politically active. From 1987 to 1992, he was the oldest sitting British MP (preceding former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath). He defended Salman Rushdie, the novelist who was subject to a fatwā requiring Rushdie's execution by Ayatollah Khomeini, and took a strongly pro-interventionist position against Serbia during its conflict with Croatia and Bosnia, supporting NATO forces whilst citing defence of civilian populations in the latter countries. In addition he was among the Patrons of the British-Croatian Society.[25] The Guardian's political editor Michael White criticised Foot's "overgenerous" support for Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman.[26]

Foot remained a high-profile member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He wrote several books, including highly regarded biographies of Aneurin Bevan and H. G. Wells. Indeed, he was a distinguished Vice-president of the H. G. Wells Society. Many of his friends have said publicly that they regret that he ever gave up literature for politics.

Foot was an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.[citation needed] He was elected in 1988 a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.[citation needed]

In a poll of Labour party activists he was voted the worst post-war Labour party leader.[27] Though Foot is considered by many a failure as Labour leader, his biographer Mervyn Jones strongly makes the case that no one else could have held Labour together at the time, particularly in the face of the strength of Militant tendency.[citation needed] Foot is remembered with affection in Westminster as a great parliamentarian. He was widely liked, and admired for his integrity and generosity of spirit, by both his colleagues and opponents.[citation needed]

A portrait of Foot by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz now permanently hangs in Portcullis House, Westminster.

Gordievsky allegations

Oleg Gordievsky, a high-ranking KGB officer who defected from the Soviet Union to Britain in 1985, made allegations against Foot in his 1995 memoirs.[28] The Sunday Times, which serialised Gordievsky's book under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", claimed in an article of 19 February that the Soviet intelligence services regarded Foot as an "agent of influence", codenamed "Agent BOOT", and in the pay of the KGB for many years. Crucially, the newspaper used material from the original manuscript of the book which had not been included in the published version.[29] At the time a leading article in The Independent newspaper asserted: "It seems extraordinary that such an unreliable figure should now be allowed, given the lack of supporting evidence, to damage the reputation of figures such as Mr Foot."[30] In a February 1992 interview, Gordievsky had claimed that he had no further Labour Party revelations to make.[30] Foot successfully sued the Sunday Times, winning "substantial" damages.[29]

However, in the Daily Telegraph in 2010 Charles Moore gave a "full account", which he claimed had been provided to him by Gordievsky shortly after Foot's death, of the extent of Foot's alleged KGB involvement. Moore also wrote that, although the claims are difficult to corroborate without MI6 and KGB files, Gordievsky's past record in revealing KGB contacts in Britain had been shown to be reliable.[31]

Plymouth Argyle

Foot was a passionate supporter of Plymouth Argyle Football Club from his childhood and once remarked that he wasn't going to die until he had seen them play in the Premier League.[32] He served for several years as a director of the club, seeing two promotions under his tenure.[33]

For his 90th birthday, Foot was registered with the Football League as an honorary player and given the shirt number 90. This made him officially the oldest registered professional player in the history of football.[33][34]

Personal life

Foot had no children.[35] He was married to the film-maker, author and feminist historian Jill Craigie (1911–1999) from 1949 until her death.

In February 2007, it was revealed that Foot engaged in an extramarital affair with a black woman around 35 years his junior in the early 1970s. The affair, which lasted nearly a year, put a considerable strain on his marriage. The affair is detailed in Foot's official biography, published in March 2007.[36]

On 23 July 2006, his 93rd birthday, Michael Foot became the longest-lived leader of a major British political party, passing Lord Callaghan's record of 92 years, 364 days.

A staunch republican (though actually well liked by the Royal Family on a personal level),[36] Foot rejected honours from the Queen and the government, including a knighthood and a peerage, on more than one occasion.


Foot suffered from asthma until 1963 (which disqualified him from service in World War II) and eczema until middle age.[37]

In October 1963 he was involved in a car crash, suffering pierced lungs, broken ribs, and a broken left leg. He subsequently used a walking stick for the rest of his life.[38] According to former MP Tam Dalyell, Foot had up to the accident been a chain-smoker, but gave up the habit thereafter.[39]

In 1976, Foot became blind in one eye following an attack of shingles.[40]


Foot died at his Hampstead, North London home in the morning of 3 March 2010. The House of Commons was informed of the news later that day by Justice Secretary Jack Straw,[41] who told the House: "I am sure that this news will be received with great sadness not only in my own party but across the country as a whole."[42] Foot's funeral was a non-religious service, held on 15 March 2010 at Golders Green Crematorium in North West London.[43]

Fictional depiction

Foot was portrayed by Patrick Godfrey in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis' long unproduced The Falklands Play.


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  42. ^ "Michael Foot dies". New Statesman. 3 March 2010. http://www.newstatesman.com/2010/03/foot-dies-aged-leader-labour. Retrieved 15 August 2010. 
  43. ^ Siddique, Haroon (15 March 2010). "Gordon Brown leads mourners at funeral of Michael Foot". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/15/gordon-brown-funeral-michael-foot. Retrieved 15 August 2010. 


  • Cato (pen name) Guilty Men, Left Book Club (1940)
  • Cassius (pen name) Brendan and Beverley, Victor Gollancz (1940)
  • The Pen and the Sword, MacGibbon and Kee (1957) ISBN 0-261-61989-6
  • Aneurin Bevan, MacGibbon and Kee (volume 1:1962) (volume 2:1973) ISBN 0-261-61508-4
  • Debts of Honour, Harper and Row (1981) ISBN 0-06-039001-8
  • Another Heart and Other Pulses, Collins (1984) ISBN 978-0002172561.
  • H. G.: The History of Mr Wells, Doubleday (1985) ISBN 978-1887178044
  • Loyalists and Loners, Collins (1986) ISBN 978-0002175838
  • Politics of Paradise, HarperCollins (1989) ISBN 0-06-039091-3
  • "Introduction" in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Penguin (1967)
  • '"Bevan's Message to the World"' in Geoffrey Goodman's (editor) The State of the Nation: The Political Legacy of Aneurin Bevan, Gollancz (1997)
  • "Introduction" in Bertrand Russell's Autobiography, Routledge (1998)
  • Dr Strangelove, I Presume, Gollancz (1999)
  • & Brian Brivati (editor), The Uncollected Michael Foot, Politicos Publishing (2003) ISBN 978-1842750964
  • 'Foreword' in Greg Rosen's Old Labour to New, Methuen Publishing (2005) ISBN 978-1842750452
  • Isaac Foot: A West Country Boy - Apostle of England, Politicos Publishing (2006) ISBN 978-1842751817


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