Michael Foot, the veteran Socialist trounced in a general election by Mrs. Thatcher, has died at the venerable age of 96. Perhaps it is only right and proper that the obituaries contain nothing but compliments to his oratory, his energy, his wide reading, his idealism, and all the rest of it. About his truculent assumption of moral and intellectual superiority there is no hint. To me, he represented the very worst features of the 1930s in which period his character was formed and became stuck. He was happy to work for Lord Beaverbrook, an egomaniac press magnate who bought the souls of journalists, paying them to write what he wanted. A pacifist really, Foot made his reputation by attacking the Conservatives for not being prepared for the world war. Indeed they weren’t, but it was hypocrisy to exclude himself from the blame.
Few campaigned as assiduously as Foot for nuclear disarmament. That was his specialty. Every Easter, the Campaign organized a mass march to Aldermaston, the center of the British nuclear-weapons program. Foot made sure to be in the front line, preferably holding on to a baby in a push-chair for the benefit of photographers. For him, it was much better to be Red than Dead. I always used to imagine what role he would have played in the event of a Soviet invasion and take-over. Probably he would have refined the argument that we should all cooperate with the Soviets in order to mitigate what they would do if we opposed them. And perhaps they would have shot him because he’d given evidence of being ready for treason.
And then along came Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior KGB officer ever to defect. Among other startling evidence, he informed us that Foot had taken money from the Soviets to subsidize Tribune, the hard Left socialist publication. Confronted with this, Foot said he couldn’t remember. Beaverbrook and the KGB! The obituaries that I have seen are silent about this, but that was when dread of what the man stood for turned into contempt for him. Couldn’t remember a commitment like that?
Here’s a footnote (sorry about that). I met him at a dinner given by neighbors in Wales. He asked for a bottle of whisky, and by the time the meal was over he had drunk it. Although he was almost incapable, he insisted on driving to his home. He couldn’t steer through the gate but hit the heavy gate-post and tried to get past by revving, the tires screeching as he did so. Poor Mrs. Foot was wailing. That whole scene remains with me as a perfect metaphor for the man, and the dead-end into which his irresponsibility nearly landed us all.