CHRIS PHILP: Michael Foot was passionate and principled
When I knock on doors around here, people often say that national politics seem drab and bland. They say too many senior politicians lack passion and principle. What do they really believe in? people ask. This was never a question asked of Michael Foot.
When I knock on doors around here, people often say that national politics seem drab and bland. They say too many senior politicians lack passion and principle. "What do they really believe in?" people ask.
This was never a question asked of Michael Foot. His passing is a powerful reminder of a bygone era of passion and principle in politics. Not for him the evasive answer or the honeyed soundbite. No equivocation or hesitation passed his lips. Nor was any cause he believed in too unpopular to champion.
Although I disagree with most things he advocated, Michael Foot was admirable in many ways. For a start, he had a career before politics - which too few MPs do today. He edited the Evening Standard at age 28, and was a distinguished journalist and writer throughout his life. He understood the importance of those in power being thoughtful, writing: "People of power do not have time to read; yet people who do not read are unfit for power."
Michael Foot was also immune to offers of office, unlike most of today's careerists. In fact, he lost the Labour Party whip in 1961 due to his unbending views on unilateral nuclear disarmament. He resisted offers of office from Harold Wilson throughout Wilson's first term as PM - only accepting a frontbench position after Labour's election defeat of 1970. And on retiring from the Commons in 1992, after 47 years service, he declined a peerage saying: "I think the House of Lords ought to be abolished and I don't think the best way for me to abolish it is to go there myself."
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By contrast, contemporaries such as Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley overcame their scruples to don the ermine. Had Foot gone to the Lords, I am sure he would have been Lord Foot of Hampstead. Sadly, the peer with Hampstead in his title is in fact an ex-Trade Unionist caught last year with his hand in the expenses till.
Powerful oratory also formed an important part of the Foot repertoire. He addressed dozens of rallies with thousands of people present. He mesmerised a generation of socialists. Few if any of today's politicians could rouse the passion as he did. Some of his lines still raise a smile: he once said that Norman Tebbit gave a "famous imitation of a semi-house-trained polecat.''
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But most of all, Michael Foot had absolute conviction. No matter how unpopular a cause, he would nonetheless champion it unswervingly. He consistently argued for the UK to unilaterally relinquish its nuclear arsenal, despite the alarming presence of the Soviet Union's warheads aimed in our direction. He praised the trade unions, though their strikes led to power cuts and 4 day weeks. He argued for subsidies to loss-making nationalised industries, even as the UK went cap-in-hand to the IMF to avoid bankruptcy in 1976. Can you imagine any politician today having the guts to make these cases? At the first whiff of a hostile focus group or an adverse opinion poll, they would run for the hills. Not Michael Foot.
It would be fitting if the year of Michael Foot's passing was marked by this revitalisation of our politics. Let's hope that in 2010 passion and principle return to Westminster. If they do, I expect Mr Foot would have approved.
Cllr Chris Philp is the Conservative candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn