Magazine article History Today

Michael Foot: A Hazlitt for Our Age: The Late Labour Leader, Who Died in March Aged 96, Was the Last Great Radical Voice of Parliament and Stands Comparison with the Celebrated 18th-Century Polemicist

Magazine article History Today

Michael Foot: A Hazlitt for Our Age: The Late Labour Leader, Who Died in March Aged 96, Was the Last Great Radical Voice of Parliament and Stands Comparison with the Celebrated 18th-Century Polemicist

Article excerpt

The Times journalist Peter Riddell once saved Michael Foot from being run over. Foot was about to step in front of traffic on Hampstead Hill when Peter pulled him back. 'Oh, thank you,' said Foot. 'I was thinking about Hazlitt.'

William Hazlitt was the greatest essayist of the era of transition from the politics and sensibilities of the 18th century to the new world of the 19th. In the attempt to make the case for Foot's own greatness, can we use Hazlitt as a measure? I think we can.

Hazlitt created the feature article when writing about boxing. He drew the finest pen portraits of the political figures of his age and in the process invented the parliamentary sketch. He inserted psychology into literary criticism before either practice was named. He took the polemic to new heights. He laid the foundations for our modern reading of Shakespeare. He took political hate into new dimensions of sustained invective.

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Did Michael Foot achieve as much? It is a bold claim and one Foot would have dismissed with a customary directness. However, before we allow his dismissal to convince us, let us examine the case.

First, Foot was the greatest radical orator of the post-Second World War era. In Hazlitt's age, people still knew how to listen and they paid for the privilege. Hazlitt's lectures in the Surrey Institution, for which he was paid, were long. They relied on his audience having sufficient common reference points to grasp the meaning of his many allusions. They usually triumphed despite his delivery and not because of it.

Foot was sharp, funny and best when bouncing off the feeling of his audience. He did not make the transition to television because, he once told me, there was no one to talk to. Hazlitt was not a natural speaker. Foot made himself one, so he triumphs in this department, but in a medium that no longer mattered much by the time he came to be Leader of the Opposition.

Foot compares favourably with Hazlitt when it comes to the written word. There are few finer collections of essays than Debts of Honour (Harper and Row, 1981). There is no finer volume of political portraits from our own age than Foot's Loyalists and Loners (Collins, 1986), conjuring up the equivalent for our time of Hazlitt's collection The Spirit of the Age (1825).

Next to Foot's essays sit his polemics. Above all else stands Guilty Men, co-authored in 1940 with the Liberal Frank Owen and the Conservative Peter Howard under the collective pseudonym 'Cato'. Within its pages, over a hundred years of technique in radical invective is mobilised to attack the cowardice of appeasement.

Many claim that the case in favour of appeasement has since been proven--buying time to re-arm, the strategic necessity of protecting the Empire and all the rest of the gymnastic apologetics that dominate the academic debate. …

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