BOOK REVIEWS: Decline and Fall of the Last Left-Wing Contender; Michael Foot, A Life by Kenneth O. Morgan. HarperPress. Pounds 25. Reviewed by Paul Dale
Byline: Reviewed by Paul Dale
It is a delicious coincidence that Kenneth Morgan's sympathetic biography of Michael Foot is published while the Labour Party is undergoing one of its periodic bouts of navel-gazing over Britain's nuclear deterrent.
Foot, who when Labour leader in 1983 campaigned to scrap nuclear weapons in this country, played a major role in making his party unelectable.
Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as leader, abandoned Labour's commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament and took the first steps to making Labour fit to govern again, but is now championing MPs who want to delay a decision on renewing the Trident missile system.
Anyone with a wish to gain a better understanding of how Tony Blair, a relatively inexperienced MP with no obvious allegiance to the Labour tribe, became party leader rather than the more experienced and certainly more socialist Gordon Brown should read this entertaining and well-researched account of Foot, the last great left-wing contender.
Foot's time as an MP, which began in 1945, matched Labour's post-war glory years and its long, slow decline through the 1970s and 1980s into an unelectable rabble until the Blair project extinguished the party's socialist roots and began to build instead a soft-left Christian Democrat consensus.
Foot's election as Labour leader in 1980, following Jim Callaghan's decision to stand down after being defeated by Mrs Thatcher at the 1979 General Election, was a surprise to many commentators at the time.
His victory in many ways represented the last triumph of the intellectual left who attempted, but ultimately failed, to build the new Jerusalem after the war.
Not so many years later, Tony Benn's attempt to become deputy leader to Neil Kinnock ended with the narrowest of defeats and the Labour Party was on its way to moderation, reform and, eventually, Government.
Foot, born into comfortable wealth, was the son of Isaac Foot, a successful West Country lawyer and Liberal MP.
He was brought up on a diet of non-conformist Liberal politics and admiration for his father's hero, Oliver Cromwell, as well as a liking for the works of radical authors Hazlitt and Swift.
After public school and Oxford, he embarked on a career in journalism forming an unlikely relationship with Tory press magnate Lord Beaverbrook.
Foot's increasingly left-wing views did not stop him becoming editor of the Tory-leaning Evening Standard. Nor did his political conscience prevent him and his wife, Jill Cragie, accepting a grace and favour cottage on Beaverbrook's Surrey estate.
Foot fought the 1983 election on a promise of full-blooded socialism. Cruelly dubbed the longest suicide note in history, Labour's manifesto did not appeal to voters who duly awarded the Conservatives another landslide victory. It was Labour's worst electoral defeat since 1918.
As a callow political reporter, I accompanied Foot on a walkabout through Banbury market during the 1983 campaign. …