A political pilgrim's progress charted with clarity and affection

A former Labour leader s life story is fondly told by an old friend By Marc Mullen MICHAEL Foot will be 94 this year and the definitive content over style man has had his remarkable life chronicled by Professor Kenneth Morgan. Morgan, one of Britain s lea

A former Labour leader's life story is fondly told by an old friend

By Marc Mullen

MICHAEL Foot will be 94 this year and the definitive content over style man has had his remarkable life chronicled by Professor Kenneth Morgan.

Morgan, one of Britain's leading historians and Labour peer, spent four years working on the life story of his old friend, who was Labour leader during the party's troubled times between 1980 and 1983.

Mr Foot was already 67

when he took over the helm of a Labour Party being torn apart by in-fighting with the Militant Tendency, and smarting from a heavy defeat by the Tories led by an impossibly driven and comparatively youthful Margaret Thatcher.

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If there is one recurring theme in Morgan's assessment of Foot's life it is his unflinching loyalty.

Morgan says: "Michael was never really thought of as ministerial material. Many colleagues didn't think he had the temperament nor the ability to be leader, but he was elected to keep the party together, which he did because he was incredibly loyal to the party.

"He had to withstand great attacks. Clearly he found it very difficult to be leader, but he did hold the party together."

Foot, who remains active but now needs a magnifying glass to read, was already short of sight in 1980, and two days after becoming leader of the party he fell down some stairs in the House of Commons, breaking a bone in his ankle.

His first appearance on the Labour front bench as leader was in a wheelchair and, in the days before image was such a big deal, his image had been decided and the press went to town.

The venom of the attacks on a mild-mannered and thoughtful literary man was unprecedented and in many ways symbolised the mood of the eighties.

At the start of the 1983 election campaign, comedian Kenny Everett urged young Tories to "kick Michael Foot's stick away".

He wore the infamous so-called 'donkey jacket' to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, November 1981, and the most sympathetic description was in The Guardian, which said he turned up "looking as if he had just completed his Sunday constitutional on Hampstead Heath".

Morgan explains Foot's attitude: "He was a literary man, a historically-minded man who absolutely worshipped books. He didn't care about his appearance and a lot of those attacks got extremely personal. People were sending him Marks & Spencer vouchers. Now politicians are much more media-minded and even dress down, like David Cameron's ridiculous habit of never wearing a tie.

"People may well now warm to someone like Michael - someone who is more themselves and did not care about their appearance or their image, someone from a different age. He is a naturally honest and principled man."

Foot was famous before he entered parliament. In 1940, with the country at war and at the age of 27, he wrote Guilty Men - a damning indictment of the pre-war British government's appeasement of Nazi Germany.

In 1945, Foot was elected MP for Devonport, but lost his seat in 1955. In 1960 he was returned to Parliament by the electorate of Ebbw Vale, Wales.

In October 1949, Foot married the actress and feminist Jill Craigie in Hampstead register office.

The couple moved to Worsley Road in Hampstead in 1964. Incredibly in 1970 they persuaded Camden Council to change its name to Pilgrim's Lane - a reference to Foot's place of birth, Plymouth and his beloved football team, Plymouth Argyle.

Morgan says: "He and Jill battled for that. I think there was a Pilgrim's Road before, but they extended it to where they lived. I have absolutely no idea how you would go about that.

"Michael was very attached to three places. His links to Plymouth were very strong - he has given private papers to Plymouth. He is also attached to Ebbw Vale, because he became very attached to the people of Wales. And he is deeply wedded to Hampstead, where he has lived for 43 years."

The couple were a regular sight on Hampstead Heath and led a thriving social life as Hampstead's very own left-wing intellectual couple. He wrote book reviews for the Ham&High.

On December 13, 1999 Craigie died, leaving Foot heartbroken.

Morgan's biography has already caused something of a stir in the national press with the revelation that at the age of 58, Foot embarked on a short-lived affair with a 24-year-old black woman.

But the author is appalled that such a man's life can be distilled down to one point of interest to the press. Morgan was door-stepped by Daily Mail journalists.

He says: "As many men have, he had a brief dalliance. It caused a lot of heartache and a great deal of personal fall out, but in the end his marriage with Jill emerged stronger than ever. He was a deeply loyal husband."

Some may be surprised at Foot's infidelity, but what is not a surprise is the anecdotes candidly offered to Morgan in the making of this book, by a man with little ego or concern about image.

So what does a 94-year-old Foot make of today's politicians?

Morgan sheds some light: "He made a great point of being loyal and refused to criticise his successors. He thinks each subsequent leader of the party is a leader in his own way. He thinks the party is to the right of what he believes. He is very critical of Iraq and of Trident, but is very much in favour of Gordon Brown becoming leader."

Morgan is seemingly the Labour Party's unofficial official biographer. He has written highly regarded biographies of James Callaghan, Keir Hardie and Lloyd George and has chronicled the achievements of the remarkable post-war Labour government led by Clement Attlee between 1945 and 1950. Indeed Foot, who has already had his life story written by Mervyn Jones in 1994, asked Morgan to do him, having read his biography of Callaghan.

Foot, a literary man and an accomplished writer in his own right, never produced diaries for publication - the first thing today's politicians do after leaving office. Tony Blair is supposedly negotiating a deal for his diaries, which will be published when or if he ever leaves office

Morgan says: "He didn't approve of the diaries of Tony Benn or Barbara Castle. I think he feels people are out to protect themselves in some way through their diaries. He felt that pursuing objectives, whilst keeping an eye as to how their actions would be seen in posterity, wasn't right."

Michael Foot: A Life by Kenneth O Morgan is published by Harper Press in £25 hardback.