Michael Foot, British Labor leader and author, dies at 96

Thursday, March 4, 2010; B07

Michael Foot, 96, a bookish intellectual and anti-nuclear campaigner who led Britain's Labor Party to a disastrous defeat in 1983, died March 3 at his home in London. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labor Party, which Tony Blair successfully erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist New Labor. Yet Mr. Foot remained a respected, even revered, figure.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair's partner in creating New Labor, praised Mr. Foot as a "genuine British radical" and a "man of deep principle and passionate idealism." Mr. Foot, a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, led the Labor Party from 1980 to 1983, a time when it was divided and had lurched to the left.

Labor, running on a platform that advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, state takeover of banks, abolition of the House of Lords and leaving the European Economic Community, won less than 28 percent of the vote in 1983, barely holding on to second place, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives gained a second term in government.

Labor lawmaker Gerald Kaufman memorably described Labor's manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history."

"We had not the armor, the strength, the quickness in maneuver, yes, the leadership," Mr. Foot said of the defeat in his 1984 book, "Another Heart and Other Pulses: The Alternative to the Thatcher Society."

"The great thing about Michael was that he was a brilliant orator, but his judgment was not very good," said Denis Healy, who lost to Mr. Foot in the 1980 leadership race.

An Oxford University honors graduate in philosophy, politics and economics, Mr. Foot first made a mark as a writer as the anonymous co-author of "Guilty Men," published in 1940, which attacked the Conservative Party's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

In Parliament, he soon emerged as a leader of the party's left wing. He spoke against the rearmament of Germany, the British invasion of Suez and nuclear weapons. As employment secretary, he was a major figure in the Labor government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in 1976 to 1979.

Mr. Foot entered the 1983 campaign with more liabilities than the party manifesto. Thatcher was riding high after Britain defeated Argentina in the Falklands War, and Labor was weakened by the defection of several senior figures who had formed a new party.

In her memoirs, Thatcher described Mr. Foot as a gentleman, "a highly principled and cultivated man, invariably courteous in our dealings."

"In debate and on the [campaign] platform he has a kind of genius," Thatcher wrote, but added that his policies offered "an umbrella beneath which sinister revolutionaries, intent on destroying the institutions of the state and the values of society, were able to shelter." Thatcher declined to debate Mr. Foot before the election, having high regard for his debating skill.

Mr. Foot's father was a member of Parliament and a lay preacher, and the son's eloquence could sound almost religious in its passion.

"We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves," Mr. Foot said during the 1983 campaign.

"That is our only certain good and great purpose on Earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer, 'To hell with them.' The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do."

A shambling figure with thick glasses and an untamed white mane, Mr. Foot offended some in 1981 by attending the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in London in a casual coat described as a "donkey jacket." Although Mr. Foot said Queen Mother Elizabeth had complimented his choice of "a smart, sensible coat for a day like this," the incident attained legendary status.

His wife, Jill Craigie, said she had tried but failed to get him to smarten up for the occasion.

"Michael will look scruffy whatever he wears," said Craigie, who died in 1999. "He thinks pockets are not there for decorative purposes but to put things in."

Mr. Foot's literary output continued throughout his career, including biographies of his hero, Labor politician Aneurin Bevan, Wilson and H.G. Wells. He edited the "Thomas Paine Reader" in 1987 and a 1988 book on Lord Byron, "The Politics of Paradise."

-- Associated Press

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