Michael Foot, orator extraordinaire, Parliamentarian, journalist and bibliophile. Michael Foot, radical, internationalist and Socialist, has passed away at the very grand old age of 96, and rarely can it be said with such certainty that we shall not see his like again. He died, peacefully in his own home in Hampstead, London, surrounded by his still extensive library, and by pictures of his beloved wife, filmmaker and feminist Jill Craigie.
Most of us are mere bystanders as the great events of State, of peace and war, pass us by. Michael, throughout much of the last century was an active participant, helping to shape those events, or better still challenging them, whether it be militating against the British Establishment’s appeasement of Nazi Germany or Western disinterest in the plight of Bosnia. I first met him on the outskirts of Norwich in 1983, when as leader of the Labour Party,he led a footsore band of marchers protesting against Margaret Thatcher’s policy of mass unemployment, but I really came to know him when he shared our Tribune offices in the Grays Inn Rd, and still keep the picture of Michael, standing with Rodney Bickerstaffe, handing over a cheque which he had just received courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, after the Sunday Times had ludicrously libelled him ‘Agent Boot’, friend of the Soviets. This was not long after Michael had had a fall getting off the bus, blaming his black eye on “Lurking Chetniks at Kings Cross”. We had another near mishap when Michael came to Buckingham to support me as Labour candidate in the General Election. On that occasion, the back door of the old Jag swung open on a roundabout, and he almost fell out – but ever the old trouper he rallied, gave a vintage performance at the church hall, and was delighted when an elderly lady came up and planted a kiss on him, saying “We all fell in love with Michael back when he used to march with us and CND to Aldermaston”.
Michael Foot when once asked what he would remember the most said “the demonstrations!” He was absolutely determined to speak at the great, two million strong Hyde Park demonstration against the Iraq War despite his advanced years and failing mobility. He was still looking forward to a return this summer to the Durham Miners Gala. He had what most contemporary politicians lack; an empathy that encouraged affection and reciprocation, a hinterland that was informed by his love of Swift, Hazlitt and Thomas Paine. Michael really was a Tribune of the People.
Here was man who walked amongst the greats, a man who came to embody the Tribunite left of the Labour Party, and the paper of the same name which he would be delighted to know outlives him and is in better shape now than it has been for a long time. Michael wasn’t much enamoured of New Labour, but was willing his Labour Party on to win. He was, I think, quite touched that Gordon Brown kept in touch and would call on the phone from time to time.
I had been on my way to see Michael on Wednesday afternoon, when I heard the sad, although not entirely unexpected news. To the end he kept his impish wit, and shared the wisdom and knowledge drawn from a remarkable life spent with remarkable people. I suspect he would be quite amused at the outpouring of national affection, especially from contemporary Parliamentarians who if faced by a younger Michael trying to get into the place, would have done their devil-most to keep him out.