Jack Straw has just told the House of Commons that the former Labour leader has died at the age of 96.
Foot, born in 1913, was leader of the party from 1980s to 1983. Under his authority Labour reached a nadir with public support dwindling as the party shifted to the left and endured vicious internal divisions. Its manifesto in 1983 was described as the “longest suicide note in history”.
Yet Foot was widely known as a great intellectual and a man of huge personal integrity as well as an “extraordinary distinguished parliamentarian,” as the Speaker just said.
Foot was first elected to Parliament in 1945 and was an MP for nearly a half-century. He served in the Callaghan and Wilson governments as employment minister and leader of the Commons.
Here’s an interview with the former Labour leader by Euan Ferguson in the Observer in 2001: It includes a reference which captures his total commitment to social justice.
“I have just come across Norman Mailer’s account of watching Foot in the 1983 election, when the American arch-conservative admitted being moved by the passion of these words of Foot’s: ‘We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer, To hell with them. The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.’
Here is a Steve Richards interview with Foot in the New Statesman, from 1999. This passage seems particularly adroit and timely – coming only a few years before the Iraq invasion.
So far, Foot has refrained from criticising the government, although in private he has a range of concerns. Mindful always of the awful time he had at the hands of internal critics when he was leader, he knows the value of loyalty. Nonetheless, in this interview, he was highly critical of the government’s defence policies in general and of its deference to the United States in particular. He opposes the bombing of Iraq, arguing that “it was not the best way to get rid of Saddam. Indeed it looks as if it could have had the opposite effect and made his position more secure”.