John Osmond offers some reflections on the life of one of Labour’s most loved leaders
During Michael Foot’s extraordinary life, which spanned most of the 20th Century, he engaged with the full range of global concerns and personalities that afflicted his war-torn period. Yet the reason he is remembered with such warmth and affection by so many people of such widely different persuasions is because of his innate decency, modesty, and wisdom – rare qualities in the political firmament.
As a journalist and writer himself he had a strong affection for others in the trade and it is purely within that context that I ran into him from time to time during the 1970s and 1980s. My most abiding memory is accosting him as he was striding along the promenade at Llandudno, waving his stick, during a lunchtime break at a Welsh Labour conference in the Spring of 1978. He was rehearsing a speech he was about to make that afternoon on devolution, a policy that was rendering the party asunder. “What are you going to say?” I asked. “Hmmm …” he paused, stopped and stared at me. “I don’t think we fully understand the significance of what we’re trying to achieve. Devolution? Home Rule I’d say!”
The term was a throw-back to the Lloyd George era nearly a century before, and not one calculated to appeal to Labour’s devolution refuseniks – Neil Kinnock, Leo Abse and the rest. But later that day Michael utilised it to some effect, and mobilised a rare moment of genuine enthusiasm for the devolution amongst Labour’s rank and file.
Later that year I found myself sitting alongside him at Labour’s conference in Blackpool. His mood was pessimistic. “I see us being in the wilderness for a very long time,” he said.
In October 1981 I snatched an hour with him at his constituency home in Tredegar for a profile I was putting together for the short-lived magazine Arcade-Wales Fortnightly. We spent much of the time discussing his hero and mentor Aneurin Bevan and the fateful Labour conference of 1957 when Bevan had destroyed the Bevanites and their hopes of nailing unilateral nuclear disarmament to the party’s manifesto.
I suggested that Bevan had deserted the Left at that point, something Michael would not do as the party’s leader he had become the previous November. I was vehemently contradicted. “Certainly, Nye was carried away by his oratory and that did us much damage,” Michael retorted, striding about the room. “But how could he not be? Those phrases .. emotional spasm, naked in the conference chamber and so on. Yes, of course they hurt. But no, he never deserted us.”
Later Foot recalled two quotations that underlined what he meant. The first was what Bevan said to Jennie Lee when she was contemplating joining the ILP breakaway from Labour in 1929. She would, Bevan said, become “pure but impotent”.
The same message was delivered 30 years later to Foot himself when Bevan was in hospital waiting for the operation on the cancer that killed him. Nothing, said, Bevan, could be achieved outside the party: “never underestimate the passion for unity and don’t forget it’s the decent instinct of people who want to do something.” Foot used that quotation himself in his speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party after he was elected as leader.
The profile I wrote was headlined ‘Purity versus potency’. But on the cover of the magazine we had a photograph of Michael outside his Tredegar terraced house in a typical worried pose, with his hand straying across his lips. The strap line, in red on the black and white photo, was ‘Foot Fudges Forward’.
I sent a copy of the magazine to Michael, with a note apologising for this heading. Typically, he wrote back in a short scrawl across Commons-headed paper: “Thanks for the article. Headline OK. Michael”.