What can Jeremy Corbyn learn from the fortunes of Michael Foot?
In his new book, biographer Carl Rollyson looks at former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. He tells Alex Bellotti about the book and why parallels are being drawn with Jeremy Corbyn.
With Jeremy Corbyn now in improbable control of the Labour Party, his hard left policies are drawing inevitable comparisons to the late Michael Foot.
The kindness in such parallels varies: to the new wave of young Labour liberals, they appear as two ‘genuine’ politicians amongst a crowd of out-of-touch careerists. To New Labour devotees, they represent the unelectable face of the party’s longest years in the wilderness.
As he looks towards 2020, Corbyn will no doubt be checking his rear view mirror. In 1980, after building his reputation as a fiery socialist backbencher, campaigning for nuclear disarmament and against immigration restrictions, Foot succeeded Jim Callaghan as Labour Party leader.
Struggling to cope with the compromises of leadership, a party fractured by the break-off Social Democratic Party and an electorate increasingly buying in to Margaret Thatcher’s vision of Britain, he resigned in 1983 after presiding over a notorious landslide defeat to the Tories. Labour’s manifesto at the time was labelled “the longest suicide note in history”, and while some of those policies have since been vindicated (several reforms were suggested to rein in the banking system), there is no doubt that the legacy of Foot the leader is very different to Foot the backbencher.
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“I think that’s the test now for Corbyn,” says American biographer Carl Rollyson. “As leader, he’s going to have to modify some positions and he’s going to have to stick to some positions. When he does this, how well he emerges will in a sense seal the deal and tell us how much of the public is willing to go along with it.”
Rollyson is certainly well placed to consider such a shift in fortunes. Following on from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer and Sylvia Plath, the 67-year-old’s new book, A Private Life of Michael Foot, is the result of months spent living on and off with the politician in his Hampstead home between 2000 and 2003.
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At the time, Rollyson was at the Pilgrim’s Lane property to write a biography of Foot’s wife, the filmmaker and author Jill Craigie, who died in 1999. (He met the couple, as it happens, during the research of yet another volume about writer Rebecca West in the mid ‘90s.)
What he realised after Foot’s death at the age of 96 in 2010, however, was that despite the existence of two histories of Foot’s tumultuous political career, less was known about the man personally.
“People, when they criticised him politically, would say he had certain blind spots – how he didn’t see the implications of unilateral disarmament, for example, beyond taking it as a moral position. And I could see that in his own life. He had certain convictions and beliefs that were very partisan, and very difficult to back him off from.”
Inevitably, many of these beliefs concerned Foot’s marriage. At their most harmless, Rollyson calls them “cherished delusions”, such as when Foot refused to believe the biographer’s discovery that Craigie was not a year younger, but in fact two years older, than her husband – despite considerable passport evidence to the contrary.
Elsewhere, however, the pair’s 50 year union was often as testing as it was loving. Despite his moral crusading in politics, Foot admitted to several extra-marital affairs – one of which upset his wife so much she left home to stay in Venice for a short time. In his biography of Foot, Rollyson recounts how he even once made a pass at his stepdaughter, Julie Hamilton.
Strangely, the politician had little issue with Rollyson revealing such facts. What truly upset him was an insinuation in Cragie’s biography that he was sometimes guilty of relying on his wife to dote on him too much at home, and that this could have been a reason why her unfinished book, Daughters of Dissent, fell by the wayside.
“One of the things we had a falling out about ultimately was the marriage,” says Rollyson. “He had a certain romantic view of the marriage – and they were in love and a wonderful couple – but there were certain disappointments Jill had about him as a husband that, when he read about them in my biography of her, upset him.
“He prided himself in being, in a sense, a feminist, and giving women opportunities, and I think he did; he was genuine about it. Nevertheless there was a sense that he did rely on women to do these things for him. And Jill loved him, and wanted to do these things for him, so I don’t want to say I blame him for her not finishing the book, but I was just saying there might have been a way in which he could have created the conditions for her to do so.”
This, and the fact that Craigie’s biography was serialised in the Daily Mail – commonly referred to by Foot as “the forger’s gazette” – eventually led to a cooling in the relationship between the two men, and they didn’t speak again after 2003.
For his part, the biographer holds no ill-feeling towards Foot, but rather feels publicising such flaws reveals “a much richer, deeper, more complex and sometimes contradictory human being” – the sort fans can not just admire, but relate to.
The question on a contemporary level, of course, is whether admiration and empathy is enough. With Labour hurtling Leftwards towards death or glory once again, can the polarising Corbyn really succeed where Foot failed?
“There’s no doubt about it in some of the policies that are being advocated,” Rollyson says of their similarities, “but also in this sense that the response to Corbyn has been about being a ‘genuine’ person. That’s why people responded to Michael – he was not just another politician, there was some real integrity. I think that goes a lot way.
“In the United States, Ronald Reagan was a very successful politician, first as governor and then President. Many, many times they would do surveys going through the list of issues about what the public agreed with Reagan on, and the public often had profound disagreements with him, but in the end they supported them because there was that certain kind of trust.”
If Corbyn is to use such values as the foundations of his leadership, you feel he will have to climb on the shoulders of Foot along the way.
A Private Life of Michael Foot by Carl Rollyson is published by University of Plymouth Press and available on Amazon.